The Difference between Traveling and Following
A friend of mine tells the story about a time he parked his car in a big city no-parking zone because he was short of time and couldn’t find a space with a meter. He placed a note under the windshield wiper that read: “I have circled the block 10 times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment. Forgive us our trespasses.” When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note “I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket I’ll lose my job. “Lead us not into temptation.” This short, modern day parable underscores a reality of life. The decisions we make and the actions we take have real life consequences.
As we ponder this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, Jesus offers a word about a way of life filled with decisions and consequences. Following Jesus requires careful thought, demands a commitment of the heart, and introduces a candidate to a way of life that often contradicts the normal patterns of the world. The very mention of discipleship in the context of picking up our cross strongly suggests that living the Jesus Way comes with a cost.
As we consider the place of discipleship in our lives, the gospel lesson begins by telling us that Jesus had been moving around, drawing public attention and attracting large crowds of people. And there was a good reason why. Jesus had a way with words. His stories and sayings were usually short and to the point, but they always had power and authority. Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. He was provocative and radical in his understanding and implementation of the Torah which angered those who thought they were theologically astute and sound in doctrine.
The Bible gives several examples of just how radical Jesus could be. He frequently healed on the Sabbath, admonished Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness, and challenged Pharisees for their condescending approach to people. You cannot challenge the status quo and not expect some measure of resistance and push-back.
So, here we are with a large crowd traveling with Jesus. To travel with someone means simply to move from one place to another. Depending on your likes or dislikes, you can easily detour without serious consequences or repercussions. Maybe people traveled with Jesus because they were amused. Maybe they were infatuated with a person who was not afraid to stand against the established order of the day. Maybe they were curious and just wanted to see how long this itinerant preacher was going to last. And then just maybe, they saw in the person of Jesus a legitimate voice of reason and hope as it applied to life and faith.
In the midst of all this commotion, Jesus suddenly turns and throws down the gauntlet. You cannot love your family and your life, and be my disciple. If you do not carry your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not give up everything you have, you cannot be my disciple. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
This declaration of Jesus is so strong and impressive that we are faced with a clear and inescapable decision of faith: a decision to trust the message of Jesus, to commit ourselves to his cause, and to follow the Jesus way. Jesus calls us to a new basic orientation, a new approach to life, to live differently, more genuinely, more humanly. (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian)
Yet, many believe Christian discipleship means something else. Brennan Manning in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel reminds us that discipleship does not necessarily lead to a victorious life. Bloated rhetoric and grandiose testimonies create the impression that once Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, the Christian life of discipleship becomes a picnic on a green lawn – marriage blossoms into bliss, physical health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, shy people become gregarious, and the Atlanta Braves win the World Series. (page 81)
A Lutheran pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the ultimate cost of following Jesus. He grew up in a well-educated and socially privileged family, but declined many of the amenities associated with the wealthy and aristocratic families of his time. He invested his life in sharing and living the gospel with great courage in a dark and violent period of human history. Bonhoeffer worked against the rule of Adolf Hitler and was executed by order of the Third Reich on Easter morning 1945. Seminary students who sat at the feet of Bonhoeffer remember how he expressed faith and the cost of discipleship in such a convincing and meaningful way. They were spellbound. Bonhoeffer, you see, was a disciple of Jesus. He lived differently, more genuinely, more humanly.
I am no Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but this is my prayer for you this morning. I pray that you are challenged by the gospel in a new way, that you realize you face a real life crisis of decision every day. Do I travel with Jesus today or do I follow him? When we accept the call of Jesus to follow him we must come to terms with the reality that we are no longer in control of today or tomorrow. It is Jesus Christ who bids us to pick up our cross and die unto ourselves. The Christian life by way of following Jesus is not easy, but it is highly rewarding. Borrowing words from Elie Wiesel as he described a Museum in Tel Aviv, the Christian life of following Jesus is not about gimmicks, gadgets, tricks, special effects, and entertainment. (And The Sea Is Never Full) It is about living and suffering, dying and being raised with Jesus Christ to new life.
And Jesus said, Pick up your cross. Don’t travel with me. Follow me. I have a photograph in my study that I believe captures the spirit of our lesson this morning. Snapped at a nearby beach, the photograph shows my three year old grandson Keeler taking the hand of my two year old granddaughter Leila as he carefully leads her from the water’s edge. Keeler has a serious but gentle look on his face as he leads Leila with his right hand and points with his left. Leila is looking down, concentrating on the path before her, yielding to the guidance of her cousin.
I suppose there are different ways of looking at the photograph and interpreting the body language and the gestures, but what I see is the grace of trust. Leila trusts Keeler. She is not resisting his grasp or trying to walk in a different direction. Instead, Leila is simply following Keeler as he leads her to a waiting mother and father.
And Jesus said, Trust me. Follow me. As current events and everyday problems swirl around us, we are called to accept the authority of Jesus, yield to his leadership and guidance, conform to his way of living, and imitate his life and his suffering, his death and resurrection. And Jesus said, Pick up your cross and follow me. May the Lord be with you. Amen.