Filed under: Sermons | Tags: bonho, Cross, discipleship, Jesus, kingdom of God, martin l, thecla
There was once a beautiful young woman named Thecla. She was young, with all the hope of a bright future. She had a strong family. She was engaged to be married. She had people who would take care of her. She had all anyone could want, all anyone would need to be happy.
One day she was sitting outside and heard a new teacher speaking. He spoke of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had come to forgive people of their sins and make them children of God through his own sacrifice. His words made her heart burn within her. The Spirit stirred her to want to dedicate her life to this Jesus. Among other things, the teacher taught that people who were seriously dedicated to Jesus, which people ought to be, should remain virgins if possible, or choose celibacy if they were already in relationships.
It was the first century AD, as news about Jesus was just beginning to spread. Most people didn’t agree with this new religion. They saw it destroying their way of life: their family structure, their society, and their relationship to the government.
When Thecla heard Paul speaking, she heard God calling her to follow. She left her comfortable life, her family, and her fiance. She was dedicated only to spreading the gospel. Her family didn’t celebrate their daughter’s decision. They and her fiance saw her rejecting the obligations she had to fulfill her role as daughter and wife.
Thecla left her family and followed Paul, sharing the gospel. She left a comfortable life for a difficult and dangerous one. She was persecuted by the many people who found her actions and her faith dishonorable, outrageous, and blasphemous. Stories about her tell of her being miraculously saved. People tried to burn her at a stake, but a rain came and quenched the flames. Another time they set her before wild animals, but a lioness ran forward and protected her.
Thecla took seriously the call to follow Jesus, whatever the cost. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus speaking to the crows who followed him, seeking to choose him as their teacher, to be his disciples. Jesus warns them that it is not easy to be his disciple: in fact, it costs your whole life. He begins this speech saying that any who wish to be disciples must hate father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers, and even their own lives (14:26). Thecla’s story shows us what that means. To hate one’s family for Jesus’ sake isn’t about being mean or spiteful, it’s about your actions and choices. Thecla takes seriously her faith and her call to ministry. Her family isn’t convinced by the gospel and thinks she ought to perform her familial duties. To fully follow Jesus and his call to join in spreading the gospel, Thecla hates her family as she leaves them, abandons her engagement promise, and follows Paul out into the world to preach.
It’s hard in our culture today to hear Jesus saying we should hate our families! So often we talk about Christian family values, and these teachings go against what we hear is the foundation for our living out our faith in Jesus. Thecla’s story is helpful for us to get a picture of what this teaching means.
Following Jesus as a disciple is costly. Throughout his ministry, crowds have followed Jesus, hoping to see or receive a miracle, out of curiosity for this new teacher, or just to be a part of a group. The crowds come and go. But among them are people who want to be more than a fickle follower. They want to really be part of Jesus’ movement. They want to be disciples.
As much as Jesus opens up the kingdom of God to the outsiders and unholy, his community of disciples is so closed to any who aren’t fully committed. Jesus is teaching about and bringing in the kingdom of God through his own actions. The kingdom of God is about welcoming the outsiders, proclaiming good news to the afflicted, and forgiving the sinners. What Jesus does to bring this kingdom is teach, heal, and die. Jesus’ ministry leads to his death. Disciples follow the teacher, so Jesus, knowing the danger and sacrifice of his ministry, warns those who would follow him that they need to be likewise aware and ready to give up their lives.
Luke records Jesus talking to a specific crowd. We hear this gospel coming through the centuries to meet us today. How does it meet us? We are in a different place and world than those crowds following Jesus. We are not in the immediate time of being able to follow Jesus in his life and path towards death in Jerusalem. We live in a country where Christianity is the religion with power: the religion of presidents and popularity. As we see so often in news today, it can be more costly to not be a Christian!
What does it mean for any modern would-be disciples that Christianity has become the easy social option? What has changed so that it’s no longer the sacrificial and dangerous path Jesus warns about?
Part of the answer has to do with a trajectory that began in 313 when Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion and continued in 381 when Christianity became the only legal religion in the Roman Empire. The legitimating of Christianity by the government led to a very different relationship between civil power and Christianity, as Christianity became institutionalized, a very different reality than its beginnings in the first followers of Jesus. In more recent years, America was a place where some Christian groups came to flee persecution and to establish religious communities, built on their understandings of Christian order and values. By the founding of the United States, Christianity was widely practiced throughout the country. When Christianity is connected to and favored by government and mainstream society, then there is something we call “Christendom.” The assumption that people know about and practice Christianity is a sign of “Christendom.” Although many people say we are living at the end of Christendom in this country, signs of its hold in this community are seen in these examples: that junior high students typically don’t have sports practices on Wednesday nights because of Confirmation, the law that allows students to receive religious education during school, the coinciding of school vacations and Christian holidays, and the general expectation that events and sports shouldn’t be planned during “church times.” These realities of Christendom show the assumption that people should be Christians and that society should favor Christianity.
Christendom is a very different reality from that found in the Gospel of Luke. It’s the difference between Christianity as social expectation and as sacrificial living. Our reality today as part of Christendom makes Jesus’ command to hate family and leave possessions sound absurd. Why would we need to break connection to family or give up our lifestyle just to be a faithful Christian?
For many of us today, it’s comfortable to be a Christian. When we read a passage like today’s from Luke, and it doesn’t fit our reality of what it means for us to follow Jesus today, I see at least a few options for us.
In the first option, we take what Jesus says to that gathered crowd to be meant for those among them who wanted to be disciples. Any disciples that followed then would follow Jesus towards his death. We live on the other side of the resurrection. We believe in Jesus’ power over sin and death. We believe Jesus has already gained the victory. Perhaps we should have an easy life as a Christian.
In the second option, we spiritualize what Jesus said about hating family, life, and possessions. We remember to prioritize our life with Jesus on top and all these gifts: family, life, and wealth, as gifts of God. As long as we give thanks to God, we can enjoy all we have without feeling the need to do anything more. We have been blessed with much, so there is no need for drastic sacrifice, only to give thanks.
In the third, we take seriously what Jesus says about his disciples needing to follow him by sacrificing everything: family, possessions, and even life itself.
I believe we need to spend some more time thinking about that third option. Although the first two sound good: surely Jesus has won the victory, and indeed, all we have is a gift from God, the kingdom of God is still in process. The root of sin is in our own self-absorption, and so we are always challenged to look outside ourselves and the gifts given to us for the path towards Jesus. That discipleship path towards Jesus is not always easy. There are opportunities for us to live out this costly discipleship every day.
In your relationships with other people, you can sacrifice yourself for the kingdom of God, to follow Jesus. Have you ever been talking with a group of friends when conversation turns to gossip about a certain person? Or joking becomes closer to hate speech related to differences in appearance, income, gender, race, or sexual orientation? Or teasing becomes bullying? You have the opportunity to follow Jesus and speak up in defense of one so attacked. You can see Jesus with the outsider and put an end to hurtful speech and behavior. If you’ve ever tried, you may know that your attempt to follow Jesus can backfire and instead of stopping the hate, you simply encourage people to redirect it onto you. You get crucified.
In your relationship to work, wealth, and possessions, you can sacrifice yourself for the kingdom of God, to follow Jesus. Your work practices reflect your faith. Do you choose to provide decent wages for your employees? Do you consider the impact on the environment? Your check book and credit card bills attest to your path, towards God or towards yourself. How much has been spent for the good of those in need? How much has been given away or given back? Have you ever gone without something you wanted so that you could give more away?
Following Jesus today can be just as costly as Jesus first warned the would-be disciples in the crowd. It can be just as costly as it was for Thecla, saint of the early church. It can be costly in ways experienced by Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mother Theresa. It can be costly for you even if no one will recognize your sacrifice.
Whatever your sacrifice, or lack thereof, the Jesus you follow is the one who has already sacrificed everything for you. Jesus died for you. Jesus was faithful in his sacrifice to bring life and wholeness to you. Jesus didn’t wait to consider whether you or any in the crowd would be willing to follow him in sacrificial discipleship. He had already chosen his path. Jesus has already been faithful in creating a kingdom to which all people are welcomed fully and freely, whether or not they have been chosen sacrificial discipleship.
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