Holidays are almost over for those with school-aged children. School starts next week and those of more senior years are now beginning to make their escape, this time of year always sees a lot of coming and going in the congregation. But for one last time a reference to our holiday in France – more especially to the Tour de France. Cycling doesn’t do it for me…but it’s a big thing in France. Any number of ‘lycra-clad’ folk out in the blazing heat pedalling up and down ludicrously steep hills seemingly immune to the possibility of heat stroke. We’ve only crossed paths with the Tour once – a few years back – driving towards a particular village (I forget where) we hit a ‘dèviation’ that took us miles out of our way. We could see the roads ahead of us were lined with spectators, police vehicles to the fore, barriers up, the names of the riders marked out in paint on the road. This year, travelling up the motorway we came across a whole convoy of support vehicles heading to Paris: huge cartoon figures advertising ‘product’ sticking out of the roofs of cars that swept past us on the progression North to the Champs Elysée.
The thing about the Tour is that for a brief moment it is there…and then it’s gone. The anticipation of its arrival is great – a big moment if it comes through your village – everyone turns out to see it, and then, once it has past, everyone mingles around talking about it! (Don’t forget, we have a cycle race coming through Barney this week complete with road closures and parking restrictions down Galgate, through town and out the other side.)
Well, at the time of Jesus there were no bicycles but, in my minds’ eye, the atmosphere of the central chapters of Luke’s Gospel is akin to ‘the Tour’. Back in chapter 9 Jesus ’set his face towards Jerusalem’ and all our Gospel readings since have been of stories told or experiences remembered from that journey. He’s moving. People are following. Some are with Him for the duration of the journey. Others have left their homes for just a ‘day out’, travelling ahead of him to where they know he is to arrive, waiting expectantly for his arrival, hoping to see Him, hoping to be able to hear some of his teaching but then returning home – back to their work, back to their families, back to their ordinary lives.
There’s a crowd, a large crowd (that’s what we’re told in verse 25) – they are excited, this is some movement they have formed. But they all have decisions to make. They perhaps don’t know it yet, but they need to start thinking about making some hard choices. Can they go the distance? Travelling with Jesus in and around Galilee is OK – on the outskirts of Judea all may be well, but Jesus is heading towards a showdown in Jerusalem both with the religious authorities and with the country’s Roman occupiers. The ‘day trippers’ need a wake-up call.
‘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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…. none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’
You just wish he hadn’t said it don’t you? The marketing guys for this new brand of religion would prefer this sort of stuff to be tucked away in the small print of the deal. The moment the words are out of his mouth the ‘spin doctors’ have to get to work. ‘He didn’t mean it that way. Of course, he’s not overturning the great commandment to honour your father and mother. No, he’s not undermining the institution of marriage by suggesting you should hate your partner. No, children are precious to him – have you not seen the way he welcomes them? Life itself? Have you not noticed that one of his favourite books from the Old Testament is Deuteronomy which tells us always to ‘choose Life?’
But he said the words! This stuff about hating our loved ones, giving up our possessions, life itself? As I’ve tried to suggest, context really does shape how we hear these words. Those who were travelling with Jesus needed to know what they were letting themselves in for. He pays them the respect of laying it all out for them: ‘this journey is hard, you might not return from it so think carefully about signing up for it’. Jesus has mentioned ‘taking up the cross’ before, just as the journey began, but I guess people have come and gone – some have dropped away, others have joined the crowd. This ‘taking up of the cross’ may well have been heard ‘metaphorically’ by those around Him (just as we perhaps hear it now) but as the journey progresses, he will tell his disciples that he expects to be tortured and killed. And so, His disciples need to be ready for this too and he gives them an opportunity to make a choice. Here, we’re in the territory of Jesus enabling his followers to make serious, ‘grown up’ decisions for themselves. (A modern contrast, perhaps, would be President Putin telling his troops that they would be welcomed with open arms in Ukraine, hiding from them the purpose of their incursion into Ukraine). No. Jesus is clear. There is a cost to being my disciple: the cost is your life, you have other commitments…you must choose.
This is leadership, isn’t it? No lies. No obfuscation. Telling it the way it is. Jesus certainly doesn’t say what people want to hear (which, in my mind makes him all the more impressive). But we still have his words and, whilst the context has now changed, we still have the question of how to interpret them. What do they mean now, on the other side of the conflict in Jerusalem, on the other side of His death and resurrection?
Firstly, I think we just need to remind ourselves that we don’t become Christian disciples by accident. There were, it seems, a lot of people travelling with Jesus on this preaching tour but Jesus takes care to give them a choice, to help them assess what sticking with him might mean and to make a positive choice either to be a disciple or not. Churches are the same. People come and go through the doors of this parish church, they touch something of its life, they enjoy its festivals and celebrations. Like the crowd in the Gospel passage they listen in to Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps they like what they hear, perhaps it all sounds rather odd? That’s fine but it’s not what Jesus calls ‘being my disciple’. Being a disciple means making a decision. Being a disciple involves an active choice for Jesus above all else. Most people here will have made that decision either at their baptism or (in our church practice) confirmed their baptism vows as an adult before the Bishop. We choose to follow, we’re not accidental Christians.
And, secondly, that choice is for Jesus to be Lord of our lives – first in everything, above our families, above the things and places we value in our lives, above life itself. How does that work? I’ve mentioned before the great rose window in Durham Cathedral. At its heart sits Christ in glory. Around its edges are the apostles. With Christ at the centre of everything, all their relationships, all our relationships with people and possessions (with our own life) are mediated ‘through Him’. It’s not that these things don’t matter: rather, that he transforms how we live and sets our life in a right relationship with God and with the gifts He has given us.
Our Methodist friends have a way of expressing this commitment to God through Jesus each New Year at what they call their ‘Covenant’ service: Hear it now…and perhaps make it your own.
The minister says
Lord God, holy Father,
since you have called us through Christ
… we take upon ourselves with joy the yoke of obedience
and, for love of you,
engage ourselves to seek and do your perfect will.
And the people say
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessèd God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
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St. Mary’s is open for private prayer each weekday from 10.00am – 4.00pm