The gospel passage today if taken literally reads like this;
You must hate your family, be prepared to fight the authorities even if you are executed in the process , oh yes, and just for good measure give away all your possessions as well, if you want to be a true disciple of Jesus.
If ever there was a candidate passage needed as evidence that we cannot use the Bible in isolation, uninterpreted, then this one would rank highly. All those Christians who say that they follow the plain meaning of the text – well let’s just say that not many are usually poor in my experience.
On a philiosophical, historical and theological point, the church did not originally form around the Bible, the New Testament did not exist for 300 years after Jesus died, the church coalesced around an experience of the Spirit of a person that led them to live their lives in a certain way. In short, the church wrote the New Testament, not the other way around.
And all things however benign and helpful can be misused. The Bible, like Bishops and the creeds were devices eventually used by the Roman state to forcibly impose order on a nationalised church.
There are also cultural differences. Jesus was a Jew and that Semitic forms of speech are much harsher than we would use and we have a problem as to how to translate these hard sayings into an understandable and realistic form for today.
The very heart of this text, given all that I’ve just said is that following Jesus is not a soft option. It demands dedication and not a little bloody mindedness, strength and courage – in fact traits that have always been thought of as more masculine traits (traits obviously not limited to men of course) Traits that many would say that have been eclipsed in mainstream Christianity as the church has become feminised over the centuries to the point where it is a real turn off to many ordinary men. As in everything there has to be a balance.
I often relay the story that when I announced that I had become a Christian in the warehouse where I worked at the time, some friends did inquire privately if I’d turned gay. They weren’t being nasty – it is just that this is how they perceived the church. That is another issue for another day.
The point today is that following the Jesus way is hard, and the costs may be great. And Jesus advises us to count the cost with a sober realism. He is being sensible and pragmatic. There may in our comfortable surrounding be much less of a cost that in Jesus’ time, but don’t assume so.
The costs today are very different to the costs in first century Palestine. In Britain we don’t run the risk of being crucified for being enemies of the state. Our cross is more likely to be things loss of profit because we refuse to exploit people, loss of friends because we refuse to exclude people, a certain ridicule in the media or more hurtful from our friends. The cost may be being thought gay by your workmates, an uncool goody two shoes by your peers at school when you refuse to be railroaded into shoplifting, drink or drugs or promiscuity.
Peer pressure is one of the strongest pressures there is, and young people in particular are desperate to fit in (and more to the point - not to be excluded and bullied) leads young people especially, to try and dress the same, speak the same, act the same. For any of them to break ranks and say something as currently uncool as “I am a Christian”, or more simply “I go to church” can be a harrowing experience that takes enormous courage and there can be costs.
Jesus says, be aware of those costs. Can you bear them? If not, I suggest you think twice. As we mature and grow, we become less vulnerable to these pressures and more confident, but even adults can feel very self-conscious and a little embarrassed about saying where they stand – that they are a Christian, and they go to church.
I return then to the qualities of mental strength and courage. A certain Assertiveness and confidence is nowadays needed in the face of a strident atheism. We need to be more determined not to be seen or used as a doormat – a determination to fight back when criticised or challenged. A chance to man-up and show some backbone.
I am going to end with a verse of a poem written by the envangelical humourist Adrian Plass. In it a man is giving all sorts of excuses for not choosing to commit to the faith and in the last verse he says what he has probably been scared of all along – that it is not a manly thing to do. I have always thought these lines were quite magnificent.
I’m very sorry Lord, I said, I’d like to follow you,
But I don’t think religion is a very manly thing to do,
He said forget religion then, and think about my son,
And tell me if you’re man enough to do what he has done.
Are you man enough to see the need and man enough to go,
Man enough to care for those who no one wants to know,
Man enough to say the things that people hate to hear, to battle through Gethsemene in loneliness and fear.
And listen! Are you man enough to stand it at the end, the moment of betrayal by the kisses of a friend,
Are you man enough to hold your tongue, and man enough to cry, when nails break your body – are you man enough to die?
Man enough to take the pain and wear it like a crown, man enough to love the world and turn it upside down.
Are you man enough to follow me, I ask you once again, I said. Oh Lord I’m frightened, but I also said Amen.