When Bonds Are Severed

800px-Anton_Van_Dyck_-_Christ_carrying_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project[1]Luke 14:25-33

Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus.  “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “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.”  And a little later, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is a hard saying.

Now, much has been made in scholarship over the word hate.  Does Jesus mean hate in the way we say “I hate terrorism” or some other evil, humanity-opposed ideology; or does he mean it more like when a young child says, “Ugh!  I hate spinach”?

So, after all the scholarship is said and done, here’s what scholars tell us.  When Jesus says hate here in the Greek, in English it means—are you ready?—hate!  The Greek is just like the English: there are many different ways to define this word.

Which isn’t really all that helpful.

So, we look at the context.

After Jesus says this hard saying about hating mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister, and even life itself, he goes on to offer a couple illustrations about anticipating the cost of some kind of endeavor or another.  Who among you would build a tower without first sitting down and figuring out how much it will cost?  Or what kind of king would run pell-mell into battle without first strategizing?

From the context, then, we see the gist: discipleship comes with a cost.  Faithfully following Jesus isn’t easy!

The Old Testament passage, from Deuteronomy, highlights this idea.  “If you obey my commandments,” God tells the people of Israel through Moses, “life will go well for you.  But if you don’t—well, not so much.”  There is a cost to being a part of the family of God.

Same goes for Psalm 1 and the book of Philemon.

Oh, Philemon!  In this beautiful letter, St. Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave, a guy named Onesimus.  Under Roman law, Philemon has every right to execute Onesimus.  But Paul beseeches Philemon to overlook the law and instead to take Onesimus back into his household.  Moreover, Onesimus himself has converted to the Christian faith and will be faithful, for he has counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

That’s the gist.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must count that cost.

But what does this cost look like?

I once had a good friend; let’s call him Ron.  Ron was my principal; I was a second-grade teacher.  From the moment we met we got on like two peas in a pod.

To illustrate our friendship: one November morning I left for school on foot, as was my custom.  Now, this was in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was 25 degrees when I left the house for my two-mile walk to work: cold, but not cold enough for long johns, I figured.

But by the halfway point a stiff wind had come up and, with it, a sudden drop in temperature.  When I reached the school parking lot, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty and the front doors locked.

This was before the advent of cell phones or any other form of instant communication at our disposal today.  I would find out later that I’d left my house just moments before someone at the school had called me to say it was cancelled for the day.

Anyway, there I stood, locked out of the school building, shivering, already chilled deeply, regretting my choice not to wear long johns, when I remembered that Ron lived just around the corner.  So I walked to his house and knocked on his door.  The thermometer on the porch read 10 degrees.

A few seconds later Ron opened his door, with an expression of dismay on his face.  He was in his bathrobe.  “What are you doing out there?” he asked.  “Come in, before you catch your death!”

So I did.  Gladly!  And he proceeded to make a pot of coffee while I called my wife to explain I might not be home for a little while but I’m okay, just gonna warm up for a bit at Ron’s.

Then, of all things, on the old VHS together Ron and I watched The Muppet Movie while we sipped our coffees and allowed our conversation to meander like that great river in ancient Greece.

Such was our friendship!

Until some years later, when I called Ron on the phone to hash out some inner theological battle I was having over the sacraments.

“Ron,” I said finally, coming to my point, “so I’ve left the Baptist church and joined the Presbyterian.  Our girls will be baptized on Pentecost Sunday.  I’d love if you could be there.”

There was only silence on the other end.  Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“Ron,” I finally addressed, “what is it?”

And then he said the last thing I wanted to hear.  “Tim,” he said, “I don’t see how our friendship can ever be the same again.”

Turns out the vital bond holding our friendship together was our shared Baptist perspective.  Now that bond was severed.

Ron and I have exchanged some emails and Christmas cards since.  But that’s the last time I heard his voice.

A friend lost.  Over something as petty as a denominational difference.  Did I count the cost of this when I signed up to be a disciple?

Perhaps a better question to ask: Did I even have a choice?

This scenario brings up an interesting nuance in counting the cost of discipleship.  Ron and I no longer share the friendship we once did.  Our bond of friendship was severed over our ideological differences.  But it wasn’t my fault.  If it were solely up to me, Ron and I would still be bosom buddies today.  I was the passive party in the severing; Ron the active.

These things happen when we follow Jesus.  Our faith interferes with our friendships and family relationships.  Our faith interferes with the bonds we form with our things, our material possessions.  We need to understand that.  We need to count that cost.

But how active should we be in severing these bonds?

Let’s explore this nuance.

Jesus says that unless we hate family members, friends, and possessions we cannot be his disciple.  Does that mean, then, that I actively cut off ties with family members and friends because they don’t share the same perspectives as I do?

I’m an Episcopalian.  So, what if I have family members who are Roman Catholic?  If they visit me on a Sunday, they’re more than welcome to come to this Table and participate in Communion with me; but if it’s the other way around—if I go to visit them on a Sunday—I can’t take Communion, at least according to Catholic canon.  Thus, what does this mean for me?  Do I never attend church with them again?  Do I stop visiting them at religious holidays?  Do we agree never to talk about religion when we’re together?

So, change up the scenario a little bit.  I’m an Episcopalian.  What if the friends or family members go to one of those fundamentalist churches, one of those churches that says only born again Christians are going to heaven; and they drop continual hints that they really don’t think I’m born again?  What kinds of bonds and to what extent do I actively sever then?

Or what if a friend or family member wants to make politics a moral issue—that it is a moral imperative for me, he says, as a Christian to vote for one candidate or the other?  (The name doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard moral-imperative arguments for both sides!)

Now take it a step further.  What if my friends or family members are Mormon?  What if they’re Atheist?

It’s going to happen: I will experience differences and divisions because of my faith.  But should I be active in severing the ties that bind?

Ron thought he had to cut ties with me over a different Protestant perspective—two denominations within the same vein!

On a much larger scale, recall the ugly history of the Christian church.  In 16th– and 17th-century England, for instance, Roman Catholics burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake; and there was a lengthy civil war started and perpetuated by Protestant Puritans.

And what’s been happening in recent times?  One group doesn’t like another; so they actively break away and form their own, new denomination.

Is this what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples?  Is this what he means by hating father, mother, brother, sister, and so on?  Is this what it means to bear his cross and count the cost?

The Christian way, it seems, has been antithesis.  We see something we don’t like or that we don’t agree with and we say, well, Christ called us to hate sister and brother, so we should actively wipe the dust off our feet and move on.  We’ll start our own thing, a thing we like better, a thing more aligned with our perspective.  This has been the Christian way.

But is this Jesus Christ’s way?

Not too long ago we heard that Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him out into Samaritan villages.  Jesus knew ahead of time that his disciples would be opposed ideologically, that the mission would most likely fail.  If Jesus had wanted actively to sever bonds with these Samaritans, he most surely would not have sent his disciples on this mission.  But he did.

Christian history is replete with active division, discord, even hatred.  But Jesus Christ’s way is about reconciliation, forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and loving our enemies.

Jesus Christ’s way is active love.

This, then, strikes me as the cost of discipleship, the cross that we are called to bear:

Be passive in hate; active in love.

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