TEXTS: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33
So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. (Jeremiah 18:3-4)
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
Strong words from Jesus! Tough talk. Harsh demands: hate your parents, your spouse, your children, your siblings … even hate life itself. How are we supposed to react to statements like these? Can you imagine any pastor trying to grow a church saying, “Come this Sunday and we’ll tell you how hard it is to join our church?”
“First, you’ve got to hate your family. Then, you must carry a cross like a condemned criminal. Along with that, we expect you to give up everything you have worked so hard to acquire. Do these things, and then you can call yourself a member of our fellowship.”
Can you imagine it? Yet, that is the essence of what Jesus is saying. Christian discipleship demands everything we have. The first thing that Jesus says here is, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”
What does Jesus mean? Are we really supposed to “hate” the people closest to us?
Well, not exactly. We need to remember that the New Testament was not written in English. It was written in Greek. And to make things even more complicated, Jesus spoke Aramaic. So the words of Christ that are reported in the gospels have been translated at least twice by the time we get to read them in English. This creates some challenges for our understanding of the text.
Bearing that in mind, we discover that the Aramaic word for “hate” that Jesus uses here is a comparative verb. It actually means to “love much less than.” It means that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred. In short, if God and his kingdom are given the proper all-consuming love Christ expects, then the highest and best of all our other loves—even our love for our own lives—will seem to be in a far-distant second place.
Remember what Jesus said when someone asked him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:36-37)
It’s interesting to consider what we usually mean when we speak about love. We say we “love” all kinds of things: good food, fine wine, chocolate, white sand beaches, beautiful music. Some people even claim to love rhubarb!
And a lot of people around this part of the country say they love the mountains. I’m one of them. Especially, I love the view from the top of the mountains. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in Banff is to take the gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain.* Have you ever taken that ride? The view on the way up is quite spectacular, as the gondola ascends almost 700 metres to the upper terminal. That’s almost 2,300 feet, or three times higher than the Bow skyscraper in downtown Calgary!
I love that view from the mountain top. It’s absolutely incredible. But I wonder: what if that easy gondola ride wasn’t there? Would I have ever seen that magnificent view?
It is possible, I know, to walk—or, rather, hike—to the summit on the Sulphur Mountain Trail. That’s five-and-a-half kilometres—mostly straight-up—from the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. It takes about three hours, one-way. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never attempted it. As much as I claim to love the view from Sulphur Mountain, I’m not willing to expend the sweat and energy it takes to climb that high. If the gondola ever stops running, I don’t suppose I’ll ever see that summit again … not unless they put in an escalator!
I have to ask myself from time to time—and perhaps you do, too—is my love of God like my love of the view from the top of those mountains? My love of God is a real and genuine thing; but is it one in which I am willing to put in only so much effort? Is it but one love, as it were, among many? How serious is my discipleship, anyway?
Those kinds of questions might make us uncomfortable, but—if we allow ourselves to consider them, to grapple with them—they can serve a deep purpose in our lives. They are like the hands of the potter about which Jeremiah wrote, the hands that shape the clay into a pot.
When the potter sees that the clay is marred, he pounds it and molds it into a new and better form. He reshapes it until it is pleasing and useful to him. Now, this is not an easy or comfortable process for the clay. However, the results are worth it, because the potter is God—and God, as the bumper sticker says, does not make junk!
There’s a difference between loving God and doing what God requires. There’s a difference between loving Christ and being his disciple—being willing to take up your cross and follow him.
The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote his history of the Jewish people during the time that Rome ruled Israel—in the middle of the first century—talks about the cross and what it was like in those days to walk the main road that led into Jerusalem. He records how, along that road, there would sometimes be as many as 3,000 crosses lining the way. On some, fresh victims were nailed or tied, slowly dying in the desert sun. Other crosses held decaying and rotting corpses, baking in the heat and causing a great stench.
Crucifixion was the most terrible punishment that could be inflicted by the Roman state, and it was reserved for the worst kinds of criminals—thieves, murderers, traitors—and for those who would dare to oppose the Roman emperor. Can you imagine, then, the terror—and the horror—that must have filled the hearts and minds of Jesus’ listeners when he told them that to be truly his disciples they must “pick up their crosses” and follow him? It was the worst possible image that Jesus could have used if his whole intention was to get people to love him—and to love God—more than I love the view from Sulphur Mountain.
Discipleship is not like a gondola ride to the summit. If Jesus uses graphic images in our gospel today, it’s because he wants us to understand something: God wants more from us than our eagerness to receive bread without cost and wine without price.
When he talks about “hating” all those whom we should love, it’s because he wants to shock us. He tells us to “carry the cross” because he wants to horrify us. Why? Because he wants us to wake up to what’s at stake—to make us realize that Christian discipleship is about more than simply feeling thankful. There is more to loving God than simply waiting for him to pour a handful of goodies into our laps.
God wants us to be vessels which are able to receive his love—vessels which are able to hold his love, and then to pour it out upon others. Jesus is telling us that being half-hearted is about as much good as having no heart at all. Giving up some things—but not everything—to God, he tells us, can only earn us ridicule. “Count the cost,” he says in our reading today, “and pick up your cross and follow me.”
Oh, how much I want it all to be easy. How much I want every mountain to have a gondola ascending it. I don’t want to suffer or die. I want to live forever without having to pass through the grave. I want to have my cake, and eat it, too! I want to be a beautiful vessel for the heavenly potter, but I don’t want to be shaped or formed on the wheel. And isn’t that the truth about most people? I think that’s why Jesus talks to his followers in the way he does. I think that’s why he challenges us.
How easy I want it to be! And how awful the way of the cross appears to be! But, because the gospel has touched me, I can’t help thinking that perhaps all the suffering that I fear, all the self-sacrifice that I want to avoid, all the humility, the thinking about myself less and about others more … Perhaps it’s all more than worth it for the sake of the gospel.
You see, the cross that Jesus speaks of—the cross that he himself was raised upon—does not end the story. If it did, then the story would not be told anymore, and people would not still be offering their lives in service to God. The one who talked about the cost of discipleship not only showed us what true love is like when he died for us upon the cross—he also showed us what God’s love for us is like when he was raised from the dead on the third day.
God’s intention and purpose is to have us become beautiful pots that can hold his love and pour his love out upon others. God’s intention is to make us more like Christ in every way, to make us into people who can be a blessing to others—and who can ourselves know the blessing, the presence, the peace, that only he can give.
What do we need to give up? What do we have to give up?
I think the answers are different for everybody. Some of us are still called to literally risk our lives by going in Christ’s name to places where relief workers and medical personnel regularly face kidnapping and torture and death. But God doesn’t call many to that kind of service … or so it appears. In any case, few of us are willing to give up quite that much for the sake of the gospel.
But, you know, there are things we can give up to God right here, and right now. What kinds of things? Some time ago, someone gave me a list of “The Devil’s Beatitudes.” It identifies a whole bunch of things—things of the self that we should soberly consider. It’s a list of beatitudes for Christians who start, but do not finish … and they go like this:
- Blessed are those who are too tired, too busy, too distracted to spend an hour once a week with their fellow Christians; they are my best workers.
- Blessed are those Christians who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked; I can use them.
- Blessed are the touchy. With a bit of luck, they may stop going to church; they are my missionaries.
- Blessed are the troublemakers; they shall be called my children.
- Blessed are the complainers; I’m all ears to them, and I will spread their message.
- Blessed are the church members who expect to be invited to their own church; for they are a part of the problem instead of the solution.
- Blessed are they who gossip, for they shall cause strife and divisions; that pleases me.
- Blessed are they who are easily offended; for they will soon get angry and quit.
- Blessed are they who do not give their offering to carry on God’s work; for they are my helpers.
- Blessed are they who profess to love God but hate their brother or sister; for they shall be with me forever.
- Blessed are they who read or hear this and think it is about other people—I’ve got you!
Our gospel reading today ends with the words: “… none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)
Some things are well worth giving up to God because they cause us and others nothing but grief. Other things are well worth giving up to God because God can renew them and remake them—just as God can renew and remake us.
The treasures of this earth are not things we can keep, anyway. All flesh is mortal, and suffering will come to us whether we are devoted to God or devoted only to ourselves. But, if we are to suffer, how much better to suffer for the Lord, who is forgiving! If we are to die, how much better to die for the Lord, who gives life to those who call upon him.
God is the potter—we are the clay. Friends, let’s be ready to have him mould us and reshape us. May we follow Jesus, not counting the cost as people of this world count the cost, but rather counting the cost as Jesus counted it—knowing that our present troubles will prepare us for eternal glory, and knowing that in Christ we can do all things, for he loves us with a love that overcomes the world.