This morning’s sermon was from Luke 14, in which Jesus turns to the large crowds following him to Jerusalem and says “Whoever doesn’t hate…family…their own life…and give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple” (paraphrased). His use of hyperbole here is just pointing out that these are things that are important enough to us that they might compete with the truth and life that Jesus preached. Jesus knew that he was on his way to his own execution, and he was pretty sure that these eager followers weren’t quite aware of that fact. So he told them two stories about people who were committing to large undertakings (building a tower, or fighting a battle) who had to “count the cost” of their endeavour. Basically, Jesus was saying “are you sure you know what you’re getting into by following me?”
I think this is a great story, but I usually feel a little strange reading it in my own context. There is no persecution of Christians in Canada, and I won’t have my belongings seized if I’m seen going to church (which is something that happened to early Christians). But then, in Jesus’ own day there was relative religious freedom as well: as a Jew, Jesus had the freedom to worship in ways not permitted to other peoples conquered by Rome. And Jesus kept the feasts, attended synagogue, and upheld every other mainstream religious observance of the Jews. So did his disciples and apostles. The only things they did not do were the pious observances of the Pharisees, and lots of people didn’t do those things; surely that was not why Jesus was killed.
I come from a Christian family, so there’s no need to `hate` my family; I haven’t lost relationships due to my allegiance to Christ, and in fact I seem to have gained the respect of even my atheist friends because of the little bit that Christ shines through me. And while I’m willing to give up my worldly possessions, I don’t have many of those – and we all know that we should probably give more, but don’t anyway. So there don’t seem to be real connections in most of this section to my actual life.
This troubles me.
This troubles me because I know that the system that nailed Jesus to a cross still exists in many different ways.
I’ve heard a lot of preachers talk about how the gospel is supposed to be “offensive” and that if we aren’t being persecuted it’s because we aren’t actually preaching the gospel. Now, most of the time the people preaching this imply that the gospel will make us offensive to our neighbours because they will not appreciate our moral lifestyles. This strikes me as disingenuous: Ned Flanders is annoying, but people don’t persecute him and his family because they’re honest and kind, even when it’s seemingly to a fault. But this is the only sense we can make of the New Testament if our religious framework is entirely moral. It says that people will persecute Christians, so if Christianity is all about being moral, then people must hate us for our morality, right? But what if, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, Christianity is profoundly ethical but distinctly amoral? Or, barring that, what if morality simply wasn’t what Jesus died for?
While I feel strange reading this text in my own context because there’s nothing in my world that will persecute me just for being a Christian, it makes me look at Jesus’ context too. As I said earlier, he was actually free to worship the way he wanted, just because he was Jewish. He irritated people by his morality, but more often than not it was his seeming lack of morality that infuriated his enemies – because he ate with sinners and the unwashed poor. No, what got him killed was not his religious identity or his religious morality, it was his religiousethics. This passage about counting the cost doesn’t make sense outside of the ethical question.
So I’m left with the question: why am I not persecuted? I was told today that it’s quite possible for God to place me in a context in which I don’t need to be, and I’m thankful if that’s simply the case; but as I said earlier, the system that nailed Jesus to the cross still exists. Governments haven’t become perfectly just; economies are still extremely unbalanced, moreso now than they have been in quite a long while; and there are still theologies floating around that ensnare people in a web of legalism, or materialism, or other things that blot out the freedom of Christ. If Jesus were here and now instead of in ancient Palestine, I’m not sure his story would end all that much differently (though he probably would have been on terror watch lists and eventually imprisoned and held without charges, rather than arrested and immediately executed). But Jesus isn’t here in the same way he was there; I’m here in his place, but I’m not doing what he did. Jesus was teaching the people how to get out from under their oppressors, and when questioned, he openly denounced the systems that oppressed them. He didn’t join any particular movement or party, but he spoke out for what was right, no matter the cost.
My moralist theology doesn’t require that of me, and so I am not persecuted. The implication of this is that, if I’m not doing what Jesus did, then I may not even be a disciple – because when I count the cost, I get zeroes in every column. Being a Christian has cost me nothing, mostly because I don’t actually do anything. It’s not that I want to be persecuted – I sure don’t! – but that by Jesus’ standard I haven’t actually followed him through the parts of discipleship that are costly. I’m one of the people in the crowd who’s excited to go to Jerusalem, not knowing that it’s a death march because I haven’t actually been paying attention to what Jesus has been doing, and I haven’t actually committed to doing likewise.
I recognize, of course, that I don’t have the public profile that Jesus had – that because I don’t have his level of influence I should not expect the same level of backlash. Of course I recognize that. My circles are almost entirely Christian, so there isn’t much of a culture clash to deal with. I live in the middle of Mennonite territory, so when it comes to being counter-cultural in regard to worldly systems of economy and materialism I’m a rank amateur. I may live my entire life in relative obscurity, and the suggestion that I count the cost may always end with a low tally; if that’s what God has for me, so be it! But what troubles me perhaps more than my recognition that Jesus’ ethics are the costly part of discipleship and that I haven’t been living them is that the only backlash I get as a Christian is for suggesting this very thing, that we be willing to live with such radical ethics that they draw the attention and backlash of the system. I don’t feel persecuted by Christians, but sometimes people roll their eyes when I tell them I bought a book by Noam Chomsky or Elizabeth May, or kindly warn me against any sort of radical ethic and remind me of the goodness of God in that I’m not persecuted. We’ve become used to a theology that demands much of us personally and almost nothing publicly, and by suggesting otherwise I suppose I’m rocking the boat. I’m very far from persecuted, but my answer to Jesus’ ethic is too radical to be comfortable, so it provokes some opposition. I imagine that if I were to continue to insist upon a more radical ethic, the opposition would get stronger. I pray that this is not the case.
Jesus’ first opposition was from his own people too. I don’t find that particularly comforting.