XIV Pentecost, Year C
Jer 18:1-11 or * Dt 30:15-20
Ps 139:1-6,13-18 * Ps 1
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words." 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. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
* (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love–and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "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. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
A text like this stimulates many different facets of thought. First and foremost is the humbling that takes place when Jesus describes his ‘mathetes’, his learners or ‘apprentices’ (following T.W. Manson). He articulates the paradigm of what life with him is like, that paradigm we have called a ‘theology of the cross.’ It is a paradigm that is articulated textually in the Four Gospels and Paul. Jesus’ death at the hands of humans revealing….forgiveness!
Second, a text like this can clearly make one feel like a failure, especially those of us who ‘have not resisted to the shedding of blood’ as the author to the Hebrews puts it. But if we hear it right, this text challenges us forward, to move ahead no matter where we find ourselves, just move ahead, move forward, advance toward God. For each of us, the challenges and the journey will be different, but for all of us, it is a following in his steps.
When it comes to the cost of discipleship, has anyone really said it better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer? “When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.” If Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is in your library (and it really is a great one to read) then what we might say here would be a pale shadow of what Bonhoeffer says. Far better to read the first chapters of his book on the cost of following Jesus.
In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer immediately notes that the problem of Christianity could be summed up with the metaphor of grace sold in the marketplace, and people, as good consumers, preferred cheap grace, something that didn’t ask too much of them, didn’t cost too much. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer avers, is of another kind altogether. Well, it is almost 70 years since that was written (1936-37) and it rings as true today as it did then. We have been through some radical theological evolutions and revolutions this past century but, at the core of all of our theological sub-thinking, we have not changed.
When we insist on a Jesus who dispenses justice when we have been wronged, so that we don’t have to forgive, we choose cheap grace. When we love “in order that” we might be loved in return (do ut des), we choose cheap grace. When we insist on a life of reciprocity, we choose cheap grace. When we remember another’s sin, while asking God to forget our own, we choose cheap grace. When we choose cheap grace, we choose a cheap Jesus, one who validates us and our beliefs.
This cheap Jesus is not the one who invites us to count the cost. Look at Him. He is a healer, a herald of the biblical jubilee, a conqueror of Satan, a creative thinker who manifests a deep spirituality. To follow in his footsteps, to renounce all negative mimesis, to desire only the will of the abba, is to sacrifice my life. The language of sacrifice may be a little tricky here. Truly Christian sacrifice is ‘‘mimed’ for us in the cross of Jesus. He, like Stephen in Acts, dies with forgiveness on his lips. As his blood is being spilled it speaks a better word than that of Abel. Being invited to ‘take up a cross’ is an invitation to humiliation, to degradation, to affliction and suffering. But it is salvific because it reveals. It reveals our human condition as persecutors, sacrificers even as it reveals the depth and breadth of God’s love and forgiveness of us, and through us, of others. This is the Jesus who invites us to count the cost.
So, accepting an invitation to follow Him, may we do so knowing this: Not all crosses are literal, not everyone is a martyr. We may ask ourselves where in our lives we have carried a cross, where we have loved someone so much that we carried the burden of their sin and forgave them? Where it felt like we were dying, like life was over, all meaning had been washed out? Once we’ve done that, we might also think of where we have been the burden of sin to others, crucifying them?
Jeremias has somewhere pointed out that the use of ‘hate’ in this text is because Aramaic has no verb ‘to prefer.’ I am no Aramaist, but if so, then we can certainly eliminate the notion that Jesus calls us to actually despise our kin. How utterly mimetic and so misused by sectarian leaders!
Before we prepare to preach on this lesson, perhaps we’d do well to consider the cost. If we preach it well enough, our communities will either change so much that they may not need “professional” ministers any more, or else they’ll so thoroughly reject the message that they may desire to hear a different preacher in the pulpit! Are we preachers called to “hate” (that is, prefer other than) our jobs? Can we get into the pulpit before we’ve answered these questions for ourselves?
Michael suggested earlier that we view this following of Jesus as a “way” not a “state.” That is to say, we don’t need to castigate ourselves or our congregations for where we are. We do, instead, hear a call to join Jesus on the “way” of the Cross. We set a direction rather than lock onto a location.
Honestly, I don’t’ think we can preach this passage authentically until we’ve come to grips with our own fear as pastors of an ekklesia in which the members have such a sense of their own spiritual authority that they have no need of a “stipendiary” ministry. Not that there won’t be shepherds, just not professional ones. This is the first thing that most of us have to die to before we can preach this text with authority.