The Cost of Discipleship
As a Baptist, I was baptized at the age of twelve. On the day of my baptism, I stepped down into the cold baptistery water next to my pastor Peter. He read the Galatians Scripture that says there is neither Greek nor Jew, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Then Peter asked me: Do you take Jesus as your Savior? I replied enthusiastically, “Yes!” With that, I crossed my arms and Peter dunked me under the water and I came up drenched, water dripping down my face.
I was baptized.
In order to be baptized, I had to attend a class, and I remember people telling me all the benefits of following Jesus, but I don’t remember anyone telling me the costs. I don’t remember anyone saying to me: Discipleship is costly, are you sure you want to be a disciple of Jesus? I was young so it’s possible I forgot but I wonder if anyone said to me, this is a hard path, this is your opportunity to turn back, are you sure you want to make God how is Love your number one priority? I never realized that sometimes, by taking something on, there are other things that we have to give up.
In the Scripture today, Jesus shares the message that: discipleship is hard, transformation is hard, following is hard. One after another, in today’s story, people come to Jesus saying things like, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus turns around and asks: Are you sure you are ready? Are you sure you are ready for a life that is not always safe and comfortable and easy?
Others who hear Jesus’ invitation to discipleship respond by saying they have to attend to funeral duties or say good-bye to family first. In these passages, Jesus replies: put the kin-dom of God first, implying that if you are going to follow Jesus, you have to be prepared to give up some things that are important to you. Jesus’ word catch people by surprise and they respond that, well, given the choice, maybe we would rather sit it out.
Jesus’ questions turn to us: Are we ready to follow Jesus? And wander outside our comfort zone? And experience transformation?
I’d like to answer with a resounding, “Yes! Let’s get to transforming!!” but in reality I’m not sure. In the Gospel of John, the writer tells us that Jesus shared hard teachings and many disciples turned away. It’s natural to gawk at the enormity of Jesus’ request and wonder if we ever really be ready for what he is asking of us.
Which is exactly what the Samaritans do in the text today.
In the beginning of the text, Jesus and his disciples are hiking through the region of Samaria on the way to Jerusalem. Dirty and exhausted, Jesus sends some people ahead to a town find some food and locate a place to sleep. However, the villagers do not welcome Jesus, turning Jesus and the disciples away.
James and John, who are already hungry and cranky, furiously ask Jesus: Do you want to command fire to come down and consume them?
Yet, I have compassion for the Samaritans because sometimes the answers to these questions Jesus asks of us are not straightforward or easy and sometimes it takes everything we’ve got to die to self so that we can fully welcome Jesus into our lives.
Tat’s why I am so grateful for Jesus’ response to the Samaritans. While James and John want to call down fire, Jesus rebukes them. Some ancient translations of Luke indicate that Jesus says: “The Child of Humanity has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”
Jesus comes not to destroy but to bring life. In places where we expect judgment, Jesus responds with compassion. Even in the places where we turn away from God, set our face against Jerusalem and don’t pay attention while we plow.
Even then, God comes and finds us. Over and over again.
I was reminded of that truth again this week as I listened to the story of Reagan Humber, the associate pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints, a church start in Denver, Colorado. Reagan tells the story of how, after becoming sober, he decided to enter seminary and begin the discernment process to become an Episcopal priest. Upon entering seminary, Reagan strove to be all things to all people – he wanted to be a good pastor and studied hard and signed up for lots of chaplain shifts at the hospital. He also wanted to be funny and outgoing and well-liked by his peers. So at one point, in order to appear out-going and well-liked, he relapsed and went out drinking with peers.
Unsure what to do next, Reagan calls his friend Sara to tell her happened and she asks him:
Honey, do you want to be made well?
At first, Reagan is not sure how to answer that question, because being made well might mean that he has to move to a sober house while he goes through seminary and priests don’t do that, do they? Desperate to hold onto a neat, tidy narrative of his life, Reagan is reluctant to answer yes because being made well requires Reagan to admit his imperfections. It requires him to let go of stereotypes that he had about priesthood, perfection, wellness and what life really looks. It would require him to make changes.
Reagan’s story challenges us to wonder: Do we actually want to be made well? Do we actually want to welcome Jesus into our lives?
Reagan’s experience reminds us that transformation comes at a price: it requires us to die to the narratives that we may create for our lives – whether it is that we have it together or that we have been found once and for all – so that we can live the life that God has created for us, a life that we would have never picked out for ourselves, but is infinitely more satisfying and meaningful.
This is what it means to follow Jesus. That is what we learn from Reagan Humber. And that is what we learn from Keisha Thomas, whose story I heard this week.
Twenty years ago, when Keshia Thomas was 18 years old, the KKK held a rally in her home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hundreds of protesters turned out to tell the white supremacist organization that they were not welcomed in the progressive college town. At one point a man with a tattoo of SS bolts, which are a reference to the Nazis in Germany, and a t-shirt emblazoned with a confederate flag ended up on the protester’s side of the fence and a small group began to chase him. He was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.
As people began to shout, “Kill the Nazi,” the high school student, fearing that mob mentality had taken over, decided to act. Keshia threw herself on top of one of the men she had come to protest, protected him from the blows and told the crowd: you “can’t beat goodness into a person.” In discussing her motivation for this courageous act after the even, she stated, “Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right’ … I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me … violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”
Keisha never heard from the man after that day but months later, a young man came up to her to say thanks, telling her that the man she had protected was his father. For Thomas, learning that he had a son brought even greater significance to her heroic act. As she observed, “For the most part, people who hurt … they come from hurt. It is a cycle. Let’s say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?”
In response to those who argued that the man deserved a beating or more, Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this short reflection in The Miami Herald:
“That some in Ann Arbor have been heard grumbling that she should have left the man to his fate, only speaks of how far they have drifted from their own humanity. And of the crying need to get it back.
Keshia’s choice was to affirm what they have lost.
Keshia’s choice was human.
Keshia’s choice was hope.”
Following Jesus requires all of us – even the parts of us that are harden, weathered and opinionated – Jesus invites us to open our whole self to God’s love.
And when we wonder if we have what it takes, Jesus’ compassion to the Samaritans, Reagan’s humility and Keshia’s courage call us forth to set our face again toward Jerusalem, to plow, to look forward, to pick ourselves up and try again.
For we are in this together and, when we question our readiness, we can remember this excerpt from the book The Road I Ride: Sometimes It Takes Losing Everything to Find Yourself by Juliana Buhring. In the excerpt, Juliana is planning to bike around the world, and in the moment before she takes off, a dear friend asks her: Are you ready? And she thinks to herself, how can you ever be ready for something like this? Sometimes you just have to start anyways.
Sometimes you just have to start anyways.
And with that she takes off.