To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus. And there simply is no middle ground. It is not possible, and it does not work, to be a part-time Christian. You can’t parcel yourself out to be a disciple and follow Jesus some of the time, and to be your own man or your own woman the rest of the time. If you are to be a Christian, you belong to the Lord Jesus entirely.
To be such a Christian, to be a disciple of Jesus, costs you everything. There’s no holding back. You are to learn from Him how to live, and how to die, in the fear, love, and trust of God alone. Above all things. Before all that is precious in your life. Indeed, above and beyond your life itself.
He demands it all. Don’t try to sneak out from under His Word to you this morning. He does not pull any punches in what He says. And He’s not just speaking rhetorically, either. You must take up the Cross and follow Jesus. To suffer and die with Him. To give up your family, your home, your possessions, and your very life, for the sake of Christ Jesus.
And it’s not because He’s petty and selfish. When God says, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” He doesn’t mean the sort of jealousy that burns within your heart and mind and flesh. He demands that you have no other gods because He desires to give you life. He would have you receive everything from Him. He forbids you to worship other gods because there are no other gods who forgive your sins and save your life. He alone is your Life and your Salvation.
What He commands, He commands for your good, not His own. He needs nothing from you. You need everything from Him. And to have anything from Him, you may not rely on anything else.
Your home and family, all of your possessions, your very life, your job, your strength, your skills — none of it can save you. Whatever kingdom you establish for yourself on earth will fail and fall and turn to dust. And all of the world’s enticements and pleasures will fail you, as well. They hold out great promises, but they are nothing. They are idols. They are false gods. And they, too, will be destroyed by the one true God, the Maker and the only Judge of all the heavens and the earth.
To be a disciple of Jesus, then, is to put yourself at odds with the world around you. It is to suffer hostility, persecution of whatever sort may come. It is certainly to forsake any kind of popularity.
Jesus seems determined at times, as in this Holy Gospel, to alienate the crowds. To prevent Himself from becoming popular. Just when there’s all these people following Him, wanting to hear what He has to say, to see what He can do, He turns around and says something like this!
Now, do not say to yourself, “Oh, well, yes. Actually, I do hate a number of my family members. Can’t stand them, in fact. They’ve really been mean to me, and they totally get on my nerves. So this Word of Jesus is quite comfortable and agreeable.”
You condemn yourself with your own words, with your own thinking and the attitude of your selfish, sinful heart. The Lord Himself commands you to honor your father and mother, to love and cherish your spouse, to care for your children. But, what, then, of His Word today? It is to say that even these, who are to be your nearest and dearest, dare not be given precedence over Him, nor even come close to competing with Him for your time, attention, energies, and priorities. No, in deference to the Lord Jesus Christ, even those who belong to your highest vocations in life and to your first and foremost duties on earth, are to be set aside. Not family but Christ is all in all.
He thus uses your family as the point of comparison at which He drives so forcefully to the heart of the matter. Not because it’s okay for you to dislike or disregard your family, or to treat your neighbor badly, but because even those who are to be most precious to you in this body and life dare not become idols in your heart and mind, in your affections, attitudes, and activities. You’re not permitted to have any such false gods. Not family. Not ballet or boy scouts. Not movies or music. Not sports or hobbies. Not entertainment, work, or socializing, or whatever else your passion in life may be. Nothing is permitted to call the shots for you but the Word of the Lord.
You are to hate even yourself. Which is not to speak of depression, despair, or suicidal ideas, nor of a poor self-image, dissatisfaction with your skills and place in life, or any other discontent. It is rather to acknowledge that you are not your own but the Lord’s. Your body and life belong to Him by right, along with your heart and mind, your thoughts and feelings, and all your words and actions. All of this, and all of you, must be submitted to the Lord your God and sacrificed to Him.
So, can you pay that cost? Or, have you ever done so?
The short and simple answer is, No. You can’t. You don’t. You never have.
All of your good intentions and resolutions notwithstanding, you cannot do this of yourself.
You cannot sacrifice yourself. You cannot let go your love for the things of this world. When you are faced with it, when it comes down to it, you can’t let go. Because you do fear, love, and trust in other gods. You depend upon your money, your income and savings. You rely upon your family and friends. You take comfort in yourself and your stuff. You think that you are smarter than God, or at least much wiser when it comes to your own situation. You think you are special.
And yet, Jesus says that all of this must go. That you and all of these false gods of yours must die. That whatever is not Him must be hated by comparison to your love for Him.
But you can’t do it. You can’t even start. You certainly can’t finish the job. You can’t afford it. You cannot win. You’re not inclined to try. You can’t handle this call and cost of discipleship.
You would claim to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. But examine yourself. Examine your heart. Examine your life. Examine the way you think, the way you speak, the way you act.
What is your driving care and concern as you go about your days and stay up too late at night? What do you live for? And what are you willing to give up your life and die for?
You are called to be the salt of the earth. But you do not season the world around you, because you would rather be the toast of the town, and so you take on the taste and flavor of the world. And the world, when it looks at you, is hardly able to tell if you are a disciple of Jesus or not.
Repent. And listen. Hear and heed the Word of Jesus.
You cannot make of yourself a disciple. You cannot do it. Yet, if you want to live, you must take up the Cross and follow Jesus, in order to learn from Him, to die and rise and live with Him.
You cannot build your own tower. Whatever you might manage to construct would be your own tower of Babel, which would have to be destroyed.
You cannot win the battle or the war with which you are faced. And yet, you don’t have the option of avoiding it, either. You will not get out of it alive. Nor will you escape the righteous judgment of the Lord, the true and only God. You must face the enemy, but you cannot win that fight.
It isn’t a matter of coming up with a budget, or pinching pennies, or tightening your belt, or cutting corners. There’s no budget with percentages for this, and portions for that, and some amount set aside for the Lord. Your time, treasures, and talents belong in their entirety to Him. What you set aside for the support of His Church and Ministry on earth should be the first fruits of your life, your stewardship of His stuff to the glory of His Name and for the good of His people. Your alms for the benefit of your neighbor are likewise a priority in the fear and faith of God, and should not be viewed as an afterthought when you happen to have some leftovers at the end of the month.
But, really, whatever you do with all of your finances, all of your days, and all of your abilities, is to be an offering, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and a stewardship of the Lord’s own property. In this case, it really is all or nothing. You are a disciple of Jesus — or you are not. And if you are not a disciple of Jesus, then you have no real life at all, no matter what you may do with yourself.
Ironically, it’s die now or die later. You must be put to death to live, or live now and die forever.
That paradox is found in the Cross of Christ Himself. For having confronted you with this hard Word of His, this impossible demand of the Law, this requirement of single-minded devotion and allegiance to Him — He then goes on to do for you what you could never have done for yourself.
He has gone to face your enemy in battle, and He has won the victory on your behalf. He has defeated all of your foes. He has rescued you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. And He has done it by sacrificing Himself, liquidating everything, giving up His own Body and Life, and suffering the righteous wrath of His Father against the sins of the whole world.
All of this He has done for your benefit, although you were His sworn and bitter, mortal enemy. And having done this, He sends His delegation to you, to speak Peace, to speak reconciliation. He comes to you with gentle mercy, and He gathers you into His Church with forgiveness of sins.
It is by His death that He has established the foundation of His Church. And He builds it, and He completes it — in Himself, in His own Body of flesh and blood, crucified and risen — for you.
He builds and preserves His Church by the Gospel, and by His grace He brings you into His Church to live with Him in His Kingdom. To live with Him in His Resurrection and Ascension, in the Father’s gracious and glorious presence. To receive every good thing forever from His hand.
He calls you and brings you into His Church by the way and means of His Cross, by the Word of His Cross and the Fruits of His Cross. Which is why your life in this world is shaped by the Cross. Not for destruction, but for divine life with God in Christ Jesus.
He does it by the Word of His Apostles, who were themselves a bunch of martyrs, by and large, who went to their deaths preaching the Gospel of Christ. But even in death they were not defeated. Their word, though spurned and rejected, was and is the Word of Christ, and it accomplishes the purposes for which He speaks it. Which is ultimately to give you life in His Resurrection.
To this end, He speaks to you His Word of the Cross. It exposes your sin, condemns your unbelief, and puts you to death. It crucifies you, and it buries you with Christ, but all for the purpose of raising you up with Him through the forgiveness of all your sins.
So has He done for you in Holy Baptism, wherein He made you His Christian, His disciple. And He keeps you in those waters, He keeps you in the faith, by the preaching of His Word. Day after day after day, He keeps on preaching. His Law condemns you, but His Gospel forgives you.
It is an irony and a paradox that you must be killed by this Word of the Cross in order to live. But so it is, and here is where and how it happens. Here is how it is done. Not by your resolving to do it for yourself. Not by trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Not by heroic service or deeds of valor on your part. But allowing the Lord to have His way with you, with His Word.
He crucifies you to the world and to yourself. But by His Cross He also gives you life with Him.
And here is the greatest and best irony of all: In this glorious freedom of forgiveness, this liberty of the Gospel, He has set you free to receive and use the very things that His Word has first of all required you to give up. When He has set your heart free from idolatry, then you are able to receive, embrace, enjoy, and give thanks to God for all of His good gifts in this body and life, for His good creation, for your family and friends, for your home and your possessions, and for all that He entrusts to your stewardship. You can receive these creatures of the Lord with thanksgiving, and sanctify them to yourself by His Word and prayer, and make use of them in the wondrous liberty of faith — precisely because your life does not depend on any of these things. Your life depends on Christ, and He will never leave you nor forsake you. The One who calls you by His Word to follow Him through death into life is faithful, and He will surely do as He has promised.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.