When the poet, Robert Frost, wrote about the two roads diverging in a yellow wood, he said he opted for “the one less traveled by.” “And that,” he concluded, “has made all the difference.”
When it comes to discipleship, that venerable Christian path, the path has been very well trodden. Oh, but it was scandalous in the beginning. Our Gospel Reading presents us with something of a Robert-Frost-two-roads-diverging scenario. St. Luke tells us that “great crowds” are accompanying Jesus. His path is immensely popular! Look how many people are going Jesus’ way. But are they…really? Jesus’ words would suggest otherwise!
All four Gospels record how popular Jesus was in the beginning. His following was incredible. It was big, headline news stuff…well…as long as people liked the things Jesus said and did. But there came a point, like this one in Luke 14, where Jesus’ words shattered that popularity, and the crowds begin to turn away from Him. Oh they liked the path which they presumed to be the one He was taking. But in truth, Jesus’ path was not at all what they thought it to be!
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Wow! Who would want to be a disciple under those conditions?! Sounds like a recruitment for al Qaede.
Now I suspect that there were plenty of folks among Jesus’ listeners—His own 12 among them—who almost instinctively began to spin these words into something more…positive, something less…harsh. “Well, Jesus can’t really mean hate, can He?”
We tend to do the same thing. The so-called “hard words of Jesus” written in the Gospels (and there are a number of such passages) always leave us a bit uncomfortable. Many books have been written trying to make Jesus’ hard words less hard. But we do Him no favor by softening His words.
What Jesus says in this text, as sharp and as hard as His words are, is exactly what Jesus intends to say. And what He says is impossible for us! So a better question is, “Who could possibly be Jesus’ disciple?!” And that is a very helpful question.
In a delightful, little book called, Death By Suburb, subtitled, How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul, the author writes about the self-absorbed world that Christianity often becomes in a suburban church setting—a setting much like ours in formerly-rural, but now rather suburban Arlington. The writer is not some cantankerous critic, railing against a popular phenomenon of which he does not get to be a part. He is, in fact, among a small but growing number of voices who have been in the forefront of many of the popular trends in the Church over the last several years, who now realizes that running with the lemmings has not been a good idea! His book is humorous and bracing!
At one point he writes, “For those of suburban Christian faith…the kingdom of God belongs to the busy…to the spiritual entrepreneurs. The highest compliment to pay a young woman from the rural culture in which I was raised is: ‘She’s a hard worker (and a good cook).’ My suburban neighbors are a bit more sophisticated: ‘Mary is on the traveling soccer team and has the lead in the school play, and she has three hours of homework every night! Oh my God, can you believe it?”
“Add to that the suburban environment of security, efficiency, and opportunities—and the over-indulged self, which desperately needs all three—and spirituality morphs into activities: Bible studies, small group meetings, reading yet another best-selling book on the key to victorious Christian living, even serving at the local homeless shelter. It’s the reverse, though, of what should happen. Such activities should open our eyes to the larger world. Instead, they obscure it.”
Talk about diverging paths! God has given us a life to live in this world! Ooh, but life can be hard. So trendy Christians create life groups; little, safe enclaves of artificial Christian existence.
With true discipleship Jesus leads us in a world of experience, the school of hard knocks. Ooh, but that might hurt. So Christian entrepreneurs create discipleship groups; again little, safe enclaves of artificial discipleship.
The Holy Spirit endows us with gifts and talents and abilities with which to serve our neighbor in the world. Ooh, but loving our neighbor is so ordinary. We want to be significant!
So the happenin’ Christian crowd creates…you guessed it…a safe, little enclave of artificial significance, where we can exercise ourselves in something Christian parenting, Christian athletics, Christian investing, Christian music, Christian this and Christian that…often just a shallow imitation of the real thing.
Taking a divergent path, discipleship in our day has become a program…a program of self-realization, a plan for the victorious self. Meanwhile Jesus (ugh, listen to Him!) Jesus wants to crucify us! “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Two paths of discipleship diverge in our Gospel Reading. But the one that makes all the difference is not chosen…except by the Man who speaks these hard words.
Jesus is His own disciple. Jesus takes up the cross which we cannot. On that cross He becomes sin, all sin, our sin. On the cross Jesus Himself becomes hatred of father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and life. Jesus, taking up His cross, becomes entire sinner, biggest sinner.
His cross is the tower which He alone has sufficient capital to build, and at the end declare: “It is finished.” His cross is the war in which He alone is the army of one, with more than sufficient strength to defeat a host of enemies, and by so doing to dictate the terms of everlasting peace. Jesus is the One who renounces all that is His, emptying Himself, taking the form of a servant, humbling Himself to a death on the cross. The ultimate discipleship: crucified, dead, buried and on the third day, raised.
That is the path we cannot choose because we are not Jesus! Yet…right here at this path we cannot choose, He chooses us, saying, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
That is where we find ourselves at the beginning of another year of Christian education. It is a day to hear once again the call from Jesus, echoing in our own ears. It is not the path of personal development, but the path of discipleship, crucified with Jesus and raised again. It is the call of the cross, to come and die with Christ, so that in Him we may live anew.
His call to follow Him, to take up the cross, is like that of Martin Luther’s call to leave behind the safe security of his monastic enclave with all of itself-imposed discipleship, and to go out into the real world with the Gospel. For us, it is the call to come out of every artificial enclave of a safe, suburban discipleship, to come out into the rough and tumble world of human sin, our sin; the world which God loved so much as to give His Son, the world for which Jesus took up His cross and poured out His blood to be trampled like a salt-less salt!
Two paths diverge in our Reading today. But the difference isn’t really the paths themselves, as popular as the one, and as impossible as the other. No, the difference in the paths is in the One who calls.
The call to popular Christian busy work, is really the call of self. The call of Jesus is come and die that we might live anew. And where do we hear His call to take up the cross and follow? The answer is the same today as it has been for two thousand years: “He who has ears, let him hear!”
“Listen!” Listen to the Word of God. For in the Word of God you hear the voice of Jesus Himself. With your own ears you hear Him call you to that path He walks before you.