Untethered discipleship

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

            I was in my hometown of Sterling, Ohio last weekend and I took a little bit of time to go to the local general store for some necessities.  As I was walking up to the store I saw the front window just piled full of bars of soap.  And when I went inside I saw that all of the shelves were piled high with soap.  I asked the store keeper about this and he said, “That’s nothing” and he led me down to the basement where there was case after case of soap.  So I said to him, “You sure must know how to sell soap.”  He replied, “Nope, but my supplier sure does.”

            Our scripture for this morning is about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.  Sometimes I read through the New Testament and I think to myself, “This Jesus guy was a terrible salesman.  How did he ever find anyone that would become his disciple?”  There seems to be a lot of people today that “sell” “christianity” a lot better than Jesus did!  Some today will tell us that we will receive riches, cars, homes, and happiness if only we give our hearts to Jesus.  But what does Jesus say?  Verse 33 from our text says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Yeah, sign me up for that.  Like I said, Jesus was not the best salesman ever.

This isn’t the first time that we hear Jesus telling someone to sell all of their possessions and follow him.  He says the same thing to a rich guy that we often refer to as “The Rich Young Ruler”.  I have heard a number of times during discussions about the Rich Young Ruler that when Jesus required of that man to give up his possessions and follow Jesus, that this was a specific order for this particular man; that Jesus required him to sell all of his possessions in order to be Jesus’ disciple.  But we can’t say that about our text for this morning.  Jesus was being followed by multitudes of people and he said that none of them could become his disciple without giving up their possessions…all of their possessions.

            Now we often read these words of Jesus and say things like, “Well Jesus doesn’t require that we all give up everything to follow him.  He is more interested in us being ‘willing’ to give up everything.”  And I think that there is some truth to that.  But if that is really what Jesus is trying to say, then why not just say that people need to be willing to give up their possessions?  What is Jesus talking about?

            Well let’s look at the men that we know as and frequently refer to as Jesus’ disciples.  After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the book of John tells us that Peter and some of the other disciples were out in Peter’s boat fishing when Jesus called out to them “Cast your nets on the other side.”  Did Peter just go out and buy that boat?  No, I really doubt it.  Where would he have gotten the money?  It is much more likely that this was the same boat that Peter had used as a fisherman before he began to follow Jesus, before he began as Jesus’ disciple. 

            Was Peter a disciple?  Yes, he is probably one of the best-known disciples of all time.  Did Peter sell everything?  It doesn’t look that way?  And what about Paul?  Paul wasn’t an original disciple, but I think we would all agree that we can call Paul a disciple.  If any of us are disciples, then we can’t exclude Paul from the list of disciples.  So did Paul sell everything to follow Jesus?  No, he at least kept some tent making tools because that is how he supported himself during his missionary journeys.

            So I think there is some truth to it when people say that what Jesus was telling the Rich Young Ruler was that we need to be “willing” to sell all of our possessions to follow Jesus.  My fear is that we too often use this as justification for acquiring more and more stuff for ourselves.  No, Jesus might not mean that we need to literally sell everything in order to be his disciples.  But he sure is trying to make a point here.

            What I think that Jesus was doing when he told the multitudes that they need to sell everything to be his disciples is that he is speaking in hyperbole.  He is overstating his point to really hammer that point home.  And he does this frequently.  Just look at verse 26, “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.”  What?  To be a disciple of Jesus you need to hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters?  I guess then that I am not a disciple.  And didn’t Jesus say that we are to, I don’t know, love one another?

            No, again what Jesus is doing is making a point by overstating his point.  And there are other words that Jesus could have used to tell the disciples that they are not to love their parents, children, siblings, etc., more than they are to love him (see Matthew 10:37).  He is making a statement, and he is making it strongly.

            I believe that the entire point of what Jesus is trying to say here is that we are to put nothing before Jesus.  And we would all surely affirm that at some level.  But what Jesus is calling us to isn’t something that just comes along for free.  He is calling us to something costly.  He is calling us to something that may cost us our closest relationships.  He is calling us to something that may cost us all of our possessions.  He is calling us to something that might even cost us our lives.  He even uses the language of carrying our own cross.  He is calling us to follow him; to be like Jesus.

            Jesus lived a life untethered to the things of this world.  He did not have a mortgage to pay, so he could pick up and go from town to town preaching.  He did not have bills to pay so he did not have to continue making money.  We don’t have any sign in the Bible that tells us that Jesus continued to work as a carpenter after he began his ministry.  Jesus was not tied down by the things of this world and that is one reason why he was able to accomplish so much in only three years of ministry (that, and he was God).

            So yes, I think ideally, every Christian should be able to sell all of their possessions and follow Jesus.  But we also know that most of us have rent or a mortgage to pay, many of us have children to feed, and we can’t afford to be a homeless itinerant preacher like Jesus was.  So now the question becomes What can I give up to be a better disciple of Jesus?

            This would be a good place to contrast grace and discipleship.  I believe that grace is free.  Paul makes that abundantly clear.  Jesus came as an atonement for sin, to reconcile humanity to God.  We cannot earn God’s grace, we cannot work for it, all we can do is accept it as a free gift.

            But I think that we miss the point of Christianity when we talk about just getting saved from our sins.  I don’t believe that we can or should ever reduce Christianity to accepting some concept of God and thereby receiving God’s grace.  Christianity isn’t just about getting saved from something, it is about getting save for something.  And we are saved for discipleship, or what Paul calls works.

            I know that this is some confusing territory here because I don’t get it myself.  If you disagree with me today, wait another 24 hours and my interpretation might change again.  But this is the way that I understand things today.  I believe that you can be under the grace of God without changing anything else in your life.  If it wasn’t that way then grace is not by faith but by works.  So yes, I believe that you can be saved without making any changes in your life, but that is not taking full advantage of why Jesus came.  Jesus came not only to give us life, but to show us how to live it.

            In Deuteronomy chapter 30 we find a passage about God providing the Promised Land for the people of Israel.  In that passage God gives the Israelites two choices: follow me or don’t follow me.  And God says that if you follow him, you are choosing life.

            I believe that what is to be taken from this passage is that if you truly want to live, if you want to experience life as God had intended it to be lived, then you will follow and keep God’s commandments.  And God’s commandments are not intended to be some laundry list of do’s and do not’s that some mean old God gives to put us poor little humans through excruciating pain and suffering.  God isn’t trying to limit our fun or our daily level of excitement.  No, the commandments, the teachings, the laws of God are meant to give us life, true life, eternal and everlasting life.

            Many of you know Howard Miller.  Howard is the former overseer for our district and is currently pastor at Waynesboro Mennonite.  This summer Howard went to a family reunion in Kansas, where he grew up.  And somehow I heard before talking with Howard that during this trip he not only traveled west, but he got to take a trip in a different direction: up.  One of Howard’s relatives owns a hot-air balloon and Howard got to go on a ride.

            So knowing about this adventure, I asked Howard the first time that I saw him after his family reunion what the “high point” of his trip was.  He didn’t get my lead-in.  He started talking about how much he enjoyed seeing family members that he hadn’t seen in years and how much he enjoyed spending time catching up.

            So I asked Howard about his experience in the hot-air balloon and he agreed that this experience might have been the literal high point for him.  But he said that it was a rather tame hot-air balloon ride.  You see, the balloon was tethered.  It was tied to an anchor on the ground which prevented them from going too high and it kept them from going from side to side.  I think that their rope was only something like 100 feet.

            I have always enjoyed watching hot-air balloons.  I have enjoyed watching them every since I was a little boy and the balloons would float over our farm and occasionally land in our fresh-cut fields.  I always wondered what it would be like to float through the air, looking down at everything from above, enjoying an entirely different perspective on even the most familiar parts of life.  What does my house look like from above?  What about the cows, the corn, the barns?  What would these things look like from hundreds of feet above the earth?

            When Howard took his balloon ride this summer on his family vacation, I think he got a taste of that, but not fully.  Because he was in a hot-air balloon that only flew about 100 feet in the air, he was able to see the tops of houses and barns, but just barely.  He could take some of it in, but not all of it.  He could not move from one location to another, all he saw was a very small area from above.  Howard had a good time, but he knew that there was much, much more to be seen.

            Living life simply under the grace of God is good.  It is like Howard flying in that hot-air balloon about 100 feet above the ground.  Yes, you get a little glimpse of things from a different perspective, yes you may enjoy the ride and feel comfortable within the defined parameters.  But ohh, I’m not living the life that God had intended for me to live.  I can only fly so high, I can only go so far because I am tethered to my possessions, I am tethered to my job, I am tethered to my house, I am tethered to my family.  Again, it might not be a bad life, but is it the life that God had intended for you?  Maybe it is, but maybe something else was in God’s plan.

Now a life of discipleship…that is both scary and exhilarating at the same time.  When you cut that tether, then you are able to soar, then you are able to fly high.  Then you are able to be free from the things that hold you back and you can begin to see things from God’s perspective.

            Now obviously the untethered life of discipleship isn’t all fun and games.  Jesus is offering life in the fullest, but that life comes with a few sacrifices.

            Jesus uses two examples in our scripture for this morning to better help his listeners understand the decision that they are about to make, the decision of how much they wish to be untethered.  In the first example, Jesus asks the people if they were to build a tower (and who wouldn’t want to do that) wouldn’t they first sit down and estimate the expenses that would need to go into building the tower and make sure that they had enough money to finish the building project?  Otherwise, the builder would get the foundation set, maybe a few blocks laid, and then run out of money and have to leave the tower unfinished for however long it takes to raise the money to buy more materials.  Jesus says that people are going to walk by this incomplete tower and they are going to walk past the partial tower and they will ridicule the builder because of his lack of foresight.

            The second example seems a little out of place for a peace-loving Mennonite, but he talks about a king going to war.  He says that if you are a king and you are about to go to war, you would start counting your troops and their troops to see if victory is even a possibility.  And if it is not a possibility, then you would start the negotiation process rather than sacrificing hundreds or even thousands of lives for nothing.

            The point seems to be that following Jesus is costly and it takes some consideration.  It isn’t a decision to be rushed into.  Like I said, Jesus seems to be a pretty poor salesman.  In fact, I think of all of the would-be-followers of Jesus that turned back when Jesus gave a difficult teaching like this.  Jesus never ran after them and said, “Oh wait, I was just joking.  It really won’t be that hard.”  Jesus never compromises his teachings.  So why were so many people attracted to him?  Why did multitudes continue to follow him?  I think that they stuck with him because they knew that it was the right thing to do and it was the right way to live.

            Where are you flying right now?  Are you flying 100 feet above the ground, feeling pretty comfortable where you are, knowing that you are under the grace of God?  Good for you, I think that is great.  But maybe we can start to let out a little more rope, just a foot at a time.  Maybe we can fly higher than we have ever flied before.  Maybe we can experience life the way that God intended for it to be lived just a little bit more.  Maybe we can see that the rope, the security that tethered us to the ways of the world is not only providing safety for us, but it is holding us back.  And maybe, just maybe, we can cut that rope and fly.  Maybe we too can experience untethered discipleship.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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