“Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
That’s William Barclay. And there’s no doubt that discipleship has a steep learning curve…
At the end of Luke 9, there is a sequence of three responses to the same question. The question-presumably-is “Come follow me.” One might be tempted to think, working from the early accounts of Jesus calling the disiples, that everyone who was summoned responded positively, and immediately.
Luke addresses that optimism with a chill reality.
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’
58 Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
59 He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’
But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
60 Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
61 Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let mesay goodbye to my family.’
62 Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ “
It seems that there is no need to invent excuses to avoid your call-up papers – if you haven’t got one to hand, then Jesus is ready to supply one for you.
No beds, no burials, no bye-byes and no backward glances.
There’s a sense of ruggedness, of pioneering into a new territory with none of the comforts (and distractions) of home and family. This call involves privation, poverty and homelessness. Hebrews 13:14 carries the same idea: “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”
The life of the disciple is marked by simplicity, mobility and urgency, and the needs of the messenger are second -a long way second!- to the importance of the message!
At the back of this list of excuses comes the pull of family. The concept of “family” offers the illusion of permanence, with the comfort of shelter where the young can be raised and nurtured (“Foxes have dens and birds have nests”), but with that comfort comes commitment (“ First let me go and bury my father”). Elsewhere Jesus is devastatingly explicit about the priority of the kingdom call. In Luke 12:53: “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful little book, Cost of Discipleship, picks up this point:
“The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only he will be blessed who remains loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.”
Bonhoeffer puts the call to discipleship where it belongs: within the framework of the “Last Days.” We are called to live in the awareness that “the End” is close at hand and that all of life must be reconsidered with that new sense of urgency. Even family comes second to that.
And Jesus puts it with a scary level of harshness: “It’s the choice between life and death. Those that are with me have chosen life. Those that are not with me have chosen death. So if there’s a family funeral to organise, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead.’ “
This is not comfortable to hear, is it? It is stark and uncompromising – like when Jesus said “If your eye offends you, pluck it out.” It’s almost too much to bear, except for one thing:
This is the call to make Jesus Lord.
Nothing more, nothing less. Jesus claims first place. That is the very essence of the gospel summons. To be a disciple is to follow a lord. You cannot negotiate or compromise, or offer helpful advice as to why you are a particular case (and really need the pink duvet). You either say yes or no.
Now if you say yes, then Jesus promises that his “yoke is easy and [his] burden is light.” Things have a way of working out that you don’t expect. He promises too, that “your heavenly Father knows your needs“and your needs will be supplied, so there is absolutely no call to fret or worry. And -specifically in the light of the present discussion- Luke 18: 28-30 provides a powerful assurance about family matters:
“Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
In this age! Things are not always what they seem. Ultimately, what seems now as a cutting off -an amputation- will one day be seen as simple pruning to produce greater fruit.
And, to mix metaphors, no one can look at an acorn and imagine the oak tree that it will one day become. But for that day to come, the seed must die. The outer husk of the acorn breaks down into the soil and provides the very nutriment that enables the seed to sprout.
And who knows what will happen when you take the step to make Jesus Lord, and when you put His claim upon you even before that of your own family.
“In this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”