Seriously, we know that Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point: even family should not get in the way of following Christ. I once heard about a teenager who defied her parents every Sunday morning to go to the youth Sunday School and worship services with a friend, rather than do her family’s usual Sunday morning activities (which did not include church). Her parents grounded the teen every week for defying them, and every Sunday morning she would choose to defy them again by getting up, leaving the house, and going to church to be with the Lord. She sacrificed her social life throughout the week so that she could have a life in the Lord. For her, following Christ was the number one priority in life, and everything else fell in to place under that. But, those are dangerous ideas for today’s world, are they not? Exactly, how often do people choose Christ over and above anything else? Just how often do we sacrifice for the sake of Christ? Do we even know what sacrifice is?
Contrary to popular belief among those who would fault the young, sacrifice is not something that is foreign to our world today. How many families sacrifice time together or a family vacation for the time schedule and demands of a sport? How many grandparents sacrifice their own desires to engage in hobbies or live in a certain location for the sake of their grandchildren? How many mothers sacrifice their entire social lives for the sake of their children? How many men sacrifice their bonds with friends and family to fulfill the requirements of their jobs? How many people sacrifice at work throughout the week so that they can buy a new dress or eat at a nice restaurant on the weekend? We are not a society devoid of sacrifice, quite the opposite. We know what sacrifice means.
Now, I am not going to criticize those who sacrifice for their children’s sports, or sacrifice for the wellbeing of their families through their jobs. We all set our priorities in life. Bringing Jesus’words into today’s language, theologian David Lose tells it this way, “What parent wouldn’t count the cost before signing up for the traveling soccer team and what new employee wouldn’t consider whether she is willing to work every weekend her first year of employment?”
We all know how to consider the cost of sacrifice. Jesus is simply asking us to do the same for him. Jesus says, "follow me," and when we do we sacrifice all else for God and God’s kingdom. When we follow Jesus, we sacrifice all else for the sake of the lowly and the sinner. “Take up the cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “because those who do not take up the cross cannot be my disciples.”
Now, before the “grace police” come and haul me away, I would just like to point out that I am not talking about earning your salvation here. Salvation, like the healing Jesus provides to those who reach out to him in need throughout gospels, is given as a gift. Grace is not earned through sacrifice. God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Lots of people are loved by Jesus and are saved through his name. There is one thing I would like to point out though: Jesus dies on the cross alone. How many of those who were saved took up their crosses and followed him to the end? No followers hung on the cross with him. All I am saying is that being saved by Jesus is not the same as following him. I am not talking about salvation, I am talking about discipleship.
That leads me back to my question, “am I a hearer of Jesus, or am I a follower?” One of the most common responses I get for a lack of participation in the faith life is, “I believe is Jesus and God. I've heard that I’m saved. I really don’t have to hear it over and over again every week. I can be a Christian on the golf course just as well as I can in church.” That is all well and good, but as a seminary professor of mine once responded, “Sure, you can stop and worship Jesus, reading the scripture together with your buddies, and be inspired into action just as easily on the golf course as you can in church on Sunday morning, but you won’t.”
It seems to me that Jesus has called us to do something a little more than simply hear the words of salvation. Yes, they are important. Yes, they are powerful. Yes, you may have them memorized, but being a follower is more than hearing; it is a way of being; it is a way of doing; it is a way of living in Christ. As the number one priority in life, it affects what we sacrifice our money on: a $3 morning coffee for ourselves or a loaf of bread for the poor? As the number one priority in life, it affects what we sacrifice our time for: a vacation at a day spa or helping our neighbor. But, it is even more than just choosing one thing over another. Being a follower of Christ puts into perspective how we spend our time no matter where we are. Christ influences us, no matter where we find ourselves.
I was blown away by two men at a volleyball game a few years ago as I (not quite so accidentally) overheard their entire conversation. One of the men was talking about his struggles as he and his wife went through a messy divorce. The friend listened carefully as volleyballs went whizzing by, and a child spilled popcorn in the bleachers.
Just then, in the middle of the game, in the middle of the crowd, in the middle of the community, the friend stopped the red eyed man by grabbing his hand, and saying, "We need to pray." Quietly, yet confidentially he prayed for his friend and his struggles. I watched that evening as a sporting event turned into church, and the social politeness that puts faith in the closet became second priority as Jesus came down into that place through that prayer.
On that day, the cross was not lonely. Christ is still able to lead his followers to take up the cross and put discipleship first.
All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.