Sunday, June 22, 2014

Following Jesus: tough, dangerous, and difficult!

A Sermon preached on Sunday June 22 (Pentecost II) at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39, Psalm 69:8-20

It has become quite trendy for priests and pastors to want their flocks to become disciples, rather than members and to be critical about the concept of membership. A member is seen primarily as someone who joins an organization for his or her own benefit, often a group of people who have the same interests, stamp collecting or breeding rabbits perhaps, and who too often are very alike in their background: ethnic, cultural, or social. Or a member is someone who pays dues to an organization for a particular service, an association like the AA, the AAA or the ADAC. And that is not what being a Christian is about.

I agree, it isn’t, but being a member is also a biblical concept. Just think of Paul and of the idea he introduces in several letters of how individual Christian are different, diverse, but mutually supportive members of the Body of Christ: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ.” (Romans 12:4-5) Now that’s not a bad definition of membership at all and I have no problem with you considering yourselves members in that sense! And as you know this church is also organized as an association, a Verein, of which we are all members. Many of you attended yesterday’s Special General Meeting of the Verein as voting members. As long as we remember that we were a church long before we organized ourselves as an association and that the latter is just a legal vehicle that serves our ministry and mission as Christ’s Church, then I have no problem with that form of membership either.  

Nevertheless as Christians we must also be disciples. What does that mean? This morning, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard Jesus explaining some of what it means to his disciples.

A disciple is first and foremost a pupil. I studied Latin at school – a long time ago – and when our teacher came into the classroom at the beginning of the lesson we all stood up (it was as I said a long time ago) and had to greet him with the words “salve magister,” greetings teacher, to which he would reply “salvete discipuli,” greetings pupils. Our Sunday school children, who we will recognize later in the service, are therefore already disciples. They are willing and excited to learn about God and about God’s saving acts. That is what God expects of all of us too, that we are always willing to learn more and to grow in the knowledge of God’s love.

A Christian disciple is also totally committed to his or her teacher or master, that’s not me or any other priest or leader by the way, the only person we can ever be totally committed to is Jesus. In a classical Jewish disciple/teacher (rabbi) relationship, the pupil would move on to another master when they felt that they had learned enough. But not here, the pupil is never above the teacher because Jesus is not only our teacher, but also our abiding Lord. For the prophet Jeremiah the commitment to God and to God’s mission was so strong that he felt overpowered by it. The message was as compelling and irresistible as a burning fire within him.

But what do we do with this knowledge and total commitment? We pass it on. We tell it in the light and we proclaim it from the housetops where everyone can see and hear us. Disciples are called to a mission of fearless, public, and powerful proclamation. And sometimes we will need to be fearless when we speak the truth. Poor Jeremiah had to proclaim violence and destruction and suffered rejection even from his closest friends who, so the prophet tells us, were just waiting for him to stumble. Our message is not a message of doom, but a message of joy and hope. It is the Good News of a God of love and life. And yet when we preach peace when others call for war, when we hold up sharing and serving rather than just personal success and achievement, and when we speak out for compassion rather than competition we will also know derision and rejection. 

Jesus does not hold back with the costs and risks of discipleship. If others call him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, what will they call his followers? I believe some American TV and radio commentators have called Pope Francis a socialist, which is I suppose at least as bad as the prince of demons! Jeremiah was in his own words “a laughingstock,” mocked by everyone.
Another side effect of following Jesus was, and still can be, division, even within families. When Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but sword, he is not calling for violence or for the use of real weapons. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says and means in the Sermon on the Mount. But tension and division can be the unintended and yet unavoidable result of the uncompromising proclamation of God’s kingdom and of our absolute and unconditional allegiance to God and to God’s Son. In Jesus’ day family, tribal, and clan allegiance was often a value above all other values. But not for Christians. The only values above all other values are God’s values and the only family to which we owe unconditional allegiance is the family of Christians, which knows only one condition for membership: to acknowledge Christ before others.  

In Jesus’ day someone who took up the cross was already as good as dead, as he was on his way to the place of execution. And while Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him is metaphorical, in the sense of dying to the world and to the self, for many of his followers the consequences were anything but metaphorical. Unfortunately I can give you a long list of people for whom since then the cross they took up when they followed Jesus and proclaimed his message in the light and from the housetops was also the cause of their death.

So discipleship is tough, dangerous, and difficult. Would you choose Jesus over father, mother, brother, or sister?  Many good people have refused to do. Many people also fear the consequences, and some of the original disciples must have done, or Jesus would not have seen the need to tell them not to be fearful. The positive effect of being a disciple, and fully committed to God’s kingdom, is freedom from fear. In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that in Baptism, that moment when we become members of the Church and followers of Christ, we are “buried with Christ by baptism into death.” But, he goes on to say, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We trust in the promise of a God who is in control of the smallest things, like a sparrow. Jeremiah’s despair and depression turn into confidence when he feels God’s presence like a warrior protecting him from his persecutors. And we have the promise of life and love. Total allegiance and commitment to Christ also mean total identification with Christ and that is what gives us the desire and the ability to try and live a life like Christ’s with all that entails and promises. Those who lose or let go of their previous lives, or lifestyles, for Christ’s sake, find a new, better, and eternal life in Christ.

You see, I need neither disciples, nor members. It’s neither my choice, nor my doing when someone becomes one both despite and because of all that being a disciple means. Jesus wants disciples and calls you to become one and it is Jesus will support you, sustain you, and protect you on that path. It’s all in the hymn we just sang before and after the Gospel,[1] just take another look at those simple, yet profound words:   

I have decided to follow Jesus,
Though no one join me, still I will follow,
The world behind me, the cross before me,
No turning back, no turning back!

[1] “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” LEVAS No. 136

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