The other day, during a screening of the final movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – the one where all of the final battles happen and the last-ditch attempts to overcome evil in the face of incredible odds are fought, and the sacrifice of a humble hobbit and the sacrificial love of that humble hobbit’s humbler best friend save the day – at the start of yet another massed battle scene, where the good troops are lined up to face their inevitable defeat and demise at the hands of the horrible orcs and their armies of monsters, the king gave a rousing speech to urge the people onto the field of carnage, and a child was heard to comment, “You know, these kings don’t give very good pep talks. They’re basically saying, ‘You’re all going to die, so get out there and get it over with.’ It’s not very encouraging,” he said.
I think that he might feel much the same way about this particular invitation to discipleship: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. …None of you can become my disciples [moreover] if you do not give up all your possessions.” It’s not a great sales pitch.
There are large crowds following Jesus, large and curious crowds, impressed by his healing powers, entranced by his teaching “as one with authority and not like the scribes.” They have seen his courage, they have witnessed his wit and wisdom, and they wonder what he will do next.
The trouble is, what Jesus will do next is go to Jerusalem and complete on the cross God’s intervention in this fallen world and the beginning of its re-creation as one on the path to salvation. And this will be hard and painful work. For Jesus personally, it will mean his death. For many of his disciples, it will mean persecution and death. For those struggling through the centuries to come, still waiting for the completion of the kingdom, it will mean difficult decisions about what it means to love God, what it means to love one another, how best to love our neighbours in Syria, to promote peace in a world still wracked by war. It may mean hard words between spouses, between generations, between friends, as we continue to strain out God’s purpose for us, to discern the difficult work of building the kingdom of God.
No one starts a building project, says Jesus, without first costing it out. Otherwise, they may get halfway through and have to abandon it, and everyone will laugh at them, and they will go bankrupt. Can you afford, he is asking the crowd, to be my disciple? Do you have what it will take? Do you even understand what you are getting yourself into?
No one starts a war, Jesus says, without first calculating the chances of winning. Otherwise, they may get drawn into open-ended, unending conflict, with no clear way out, sending life chasing after death as though they hate the lives of their own children, and that is no way, says Jesus, to wage war. Sometimes it is better to hate your own strength than to use it. Better to sit down and work out the cost of peace. Do you know what you are getting yourselves into?
It isn’t that Jesus hates his family. One of the last words that he croaks out from the cross is to make sure his mother is taken care of; at least one of his brothers continues as a devoted disciple and church leader in Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t hate children; he is vociferous in their defence. He doesn’t even hate his life; he prays that there might be a way to keep it, to pass the cup of suffering up; he enjoys meals with his friends, he drinks and laughs and loves people; he saves lives, he doesn’t hate life.
But he will not cling to it. When his mother and brothers come looking for him, worrying that he has gone mad, with all of this talk of healing miracles and the love of God, he will not be turned aside from his work even for love of them. When Pilate demands that he defend his life from the charges laid against it, he will not turn on his own people, he will not turn away from death even to save his own life. He has calculated the cost of building the kingdom of God, and he is good for the account. He has considered the options of waging war on sin, and he has made peace with the terms that victory will extract from him. He is good for that account.
We are, to be honest, a little spoiled in twenty-first century America, we Christian disciples. For most of us, there was little resistance to our becoming Christians. There was little we had to give up. Few of us were thrown out of our family homes for apostasy, or disinherited by reason of insanity. We are not, for the most part, the ones calculating the costs of war over the price of peace. Instead, we are like the large crowd following along, watching and wondering what Jesus will do next, curious and often a little detached.
But make no mistake, warns Jesus. Once you commit yourself to following me, you will not remain detached for much longer. Once you know, once you have experienced and known the love of God, the mercy of God, the God who loved us so much as to become one of us, to live with us and walk with us and die for us and live for us again; once you have gone there, there is no turning back. There is no unknowing. So be sure, before you start, that you know what you are getting yourself into. Be sure, before you start, that you have costed out what might be demanded of you: what prejudices will you have to give up, what shackles must you break, what evils you will be called upon to face and fight, which wars you may have to trade out for peace, what relationships will be transformed when you learn to love God and your neighbour, every neighbour, enemy or friend, as yourself. Do you know what you are getting yourself into?
Of course, we don’t. Did you hear or read the story of the school bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia, who saved the lives of who knows how many children and innocents, as well as the life of the one who would have taken theirs, a couple of weeks ago? She bore the burden of loving this dangerous and deranged neighbour like one who had heard and heeded Jesus’ words:
“I just started praying for him,” Antoinette Tuff tells Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action News. “I just started talking to him … and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK. And then [I] let him know that he could just give himself up. … I told him to put [the guns] on the table, empty his pockets. He had me actually get on the intercom and tell everybody he was sorry, too. But I told them, ‘He was sorry, but do not come out of their rooms.’ … I give it all to God, I’m not the hero. I was terrified.”
Hers is an extreme example, at least for our times, our place, but Antoinette Tuff reminds us that we don’t know the shape or weight of the cross that we will bear. We can’t see the future, we can’t know when we will be called upon to face down evil with love or to entertain angels. We do know that Jesus is worth it, worth it all, because he has given his all for us, he has given God’s all for us.
Jesus gave the large and curious crowd fair warning that following him closely would involve more than they could imagine. He already knew how much would be demanded of him, all of his love and all of his life, and he knew that, with God’s help, he was good for that account.
There’s a verse at the end of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” by Isaac Watts, which sums it up nicely:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”