28 February 1999
Counting the Cost
Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Luke 14:27-33
When I was - I suppose I must have been about twelve - they began to turn the A27 into a dual carriageway between Worthing and Arundel, where my parents live. They bought up the land, and started to make the road. But half-way through, they ran out of money. The road was left half-built for several years, until finally the budget permitted them to finish it.
Times, obviously, don't change very much. Jesus may or may not have had a specific tower in mind when he spoke of the one who starts to build making sure he has enough money to finish the job.... Perhaps he did, and the disciples all giggled as they thought of a locally infamous example. I shouldn't be a bit surprised. I rather suspect Jesus often made his hearers laugh, but we don't see it as we don't take the references.
But Jesus was making a serious point, and one we don't really like to think of very much. He was saying how necessary it is to count the cost of commitment to him.
Well, what does this mean? He says in verse 33 "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." Firstly, what does it mean to be Jesus' disciple? Secondly, what does it mean to give up all our possessions? And thirdly, why should we want to? Is it worth it?
2. What Does it Mean to be Jesus' Disciple?
Firstly, then, what does being Jesus' disciple mean? It's a very "gospel" word; apart from one or two references in Acts, it doesn't really happen elsewhere in the New Testament, where Christians are described in other terms. The word, of course, means a learner. In many ways, Jesus is like the other rabbis of the time, who gathered a small community round them who lived with their teacher and learnt from him. By watching, listening and living with Jesus the disciples learned the secrets of the Kingdom of God at a level much deeper than words. They saw Jesus praying, arguing, healing teaching. Some saw him transfigured or in agony. To be a disciple is to learn from Jesus by sharing every part of his life.
To be a disciple is to learn from Jesus by sharing every part of his life.
But this was not a closed community; the disciples gave up everything they had to follow Jesus - you might remember how Peter complains he's given up home and family and everything else to follow Him, and is promised a whole new family in return. But anybody could join. Jesus sometimes taught his disciples in secret, but that was to send them out to preach and teach and heal in their turn, rather like the old "Watch one, do one, teach one" way of learning that is still pretty effective today.
Mind you, the disciples often got it wrong! They don't understand what Jesus tries so very hard to get across to them; they try to stop women bringing their children for a blessing; Peter can't seem to open his mouth without putting his foot in it, and at the end, as you know, first of all he, James and John fall asleep instead of praying with Jesus in Gethsemane, and then Peter denies Jesus. Judas betrays him, and apart from John, the others all seem to have run away from the Cross. It all goes to illustrate Jesus' comment that without him, you can't do anything at all! "Apart from me," he said, "ye can do nothing!"
3. What Does it Mean to Give Up All our Possessions?
Jesus said "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." We have seen that a disciple is someone who learns from Jesus by sharing every part of his life, but what does it mean to give up all our possessions? We, after all, would call ourselves disciples, but we've all got hordes of possessions that we treasure!
Don't forget, firstly, that in Aramaic, which is the language Jesus would have spoken, there isn't any word for "prefer". If you wanted to say you preferred figs to dates, you would say you loved figs but hated dates - rather like when God says he loved Jacob but hated Esau, he didn't really hate Esau at all, just that Jacob was the favourite. Or when Jesus says that unless you "hate" your father and mother, husband or wife, etc, you can't be his disciple. So maybe "giving up all your possessions" is a construct like that.
On the other hand, people do, and have throughout history, given up everything they have for Jesus. Part of Sheila's job as Director of Ordinands is to help people find out whether they are really hearing Jesus correctly when he calls them to give up their jobs and their homes and their salaries to become a minister in the Church. Some of us might even feel we had a narrow escape! And we all know the stories of many of those called to the mission field, who gave up all thoughts of a good career or anything like that to go and spread the good news of Jesus in other countries - and I'm including those who've come to this country to do just that!
We may not be called to do anything quite so drastic, but we are all called to be Jesus' disciples right where we are. For Robert and me, it has involved living in Brixton and worshipping here, and that's no hardship! Other people have been called to live and worship in other communities, and that's usually no hardship for them, either. And often, those who have been called to serve God overseas have simply longed and longed and longed to go - doing what God wants isn't necessarily disagreeable!
But our possessions? I suppose if we are really and truly committed to being Jesus' people, we surrender control of them to Jesus. We don't, for instance, just put in the collection plate what is left over out of our week's budget; we give the whole lot to God, asking Him what we may keep to spend on keeping body and soul together. It was, I think, John Wesley but it might have been another famous Christian of that era who, when he earned twenty-one pounds in a year gave away a pound and kept twenty to spend on his needs. A few years later, however, he was earning about five hundred pounds a year - he still spent twenty on himself, but gave the rest away. I wonder how many of us could say the same, adjusting the figures to allow for inflation - I know for a fact that I couldn't! We - modern Christians - are very bad at acting as though our possessions actually belong to Jesus and are only ours on loan; I think previous generations may have found this easier.
But Jesus said "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." It is fairly obvious that not everybody was called to sell all they had and give the money to the poor, which is what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do; after all, Joseph of Arimathea was still rich. But you may remember that the first disciples did tend to hold all things in common; they weren't required to give God all the money they made if they sold a field, but many of them wished to. What didn't work was when they lied about how much they were giving, as Ananias and Sapphira did, with dire consequences.
Back in the 1970s, it used to be fashionable for Christians to be involved in the "simple life". It was, I suppose, the first stirring of what is now called the Green movement, and which isn't restricted to Christians. That movement does have a lot going for it, and has achieved a great deal: twenty years ago we wouldn't have dreamt of taking our papers, glass and cans down to Tesco's to recycle them; these days we wouldn't dream of just throwing them in the bin. In Switzerland, where Emily is, bin bags are terribly expensive to encourage people to recycle, and to separate organic waste from the other kind. Once you have done that, your bin doesn't fill up quite so quickly. Robert and I kept forgetting when we were staying with her last week, and had to fish bits of orange peel out of one bin and put it in the other!
But the point about our possessions is that we must hold them lightly. We must act as though they belong to God, not to us, and we only have them with his permission. Which, when you come to think of it, is perfectly true - supposing we'd been born in Angola or the Sudan?
4. Why Should We Want to?
Jesus said "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." And we have seen that a disciple is someone who learns from Jesus by sharing every part of his life, and that we should act as though our possessions belong to God, not to us. But why? Why should we want to? Is it worth it?
All too often we're scared. I hate saying the Covenant prayer at the start of each year, although I do say it; I don't know which would be worse: for God to use me, or for God not to! Some people, I know, find that prayer so scary that they avoid coming to Church on that day, and I'm not altogether sure I blame them!
But, of course, feeling like that about it is really not trusting God! If God loves us the way Scripture tells us he does, then whyever would he want anything bad for us? I said earlier that many, if not all, of those called to work for God abroad simply long and long and long to go when the time comes; it's been no hardship for me and Robert to have lived here for the past 20 years; and so on. You could all give examples of what a pleasure it's been to serve God in the way you've been specially asked to, I'm sure.
And yes, of course it's worth every penny of the cost of being a disciple. I know we all think so, or we'd not be here tonight. Whether we are as fully Jesus' people as we could be is another question; I expect most of us could be more committed if we put our mind to it. But whether that matters is another thing! God loves us and accepts us and welcomes us exactly the way we are. But Jesus said "I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly!" and that's what we get from being his disciple.
I used to find that was one of those things that had to be true because the Bible said it, but wasn't really true in my experience. Like when they said "It is for freedom Christ has set us free". I couldn't understand what St Paul meant by that; being a Christian seemed to me to be living a life hedged round with restrictions and totally unfree to do anything at all. But gradually I've been realising that the one who imposed the restrictions was me! I was looking at what I thought being a good little Christian was all about, not discovering what God's love is all about! Well, some of you were there, and supported me, and loved me through the times of struggle while I tried to find out, and I'll always be enormously grateful to you for that. And I'm thankful that maybe I do understand a little of what "abundant life" means for a Christian.
Jesus said "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." And it's sometimes a hard thing to realise, but really, if we are God's people, then that television and video belong to God, so does that computer, that car, and even that bank account! May we learn that if we yield them to God, they aren't necessarily going to be taken away from us, but God will help us use them in ways that we might never have thought of, and perhaps in ways that will give us more pleasure from them than we thought possible. Amen.
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