If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children,
brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.
Do you have those times in your life when the same thoughts come to you over and over, as though some mystical paradigm were trying to transform your whole vision, and make sense of things in new ways that didn’t occur to you previously? I know that I must seem like a Johnny One-Note sometimes. I can’t shake this image-of-God thing, the peculiarly unoriginal idea that Christ reveals God, and that what we seem to have done is opt for something else revealing God. Charlemagne? Donald Trump? Darth Vader? Stephen Hawking? Oprah Winfrey? Bill Gates? I’m not sure.
One element of this whole thing seems clear to me: God must be inviting, rather than
coercive. Christ is always inviting. “Follow me.” “Come and see.” That kind of thing. You don’t see Jesus setting up a kingdom and a draft. Even in the Hebrew scriptures, you get the idea that people get a choice. One interesting aspect of this, to me, is that one way that God seems to get enthusiastic supporters is by choosing losers, second, third, fourth, and eighth-borns, for instance. People with speech impediments, cowards, bigots, courtesans, widows, children. I mean, Moses might be seen to some extent as “bullied” into service, but the guy was a murderer. Maybe it was like he owed back taxes or something. No, that can’t be it; not in this scenario. He might have been surprised by God’s instructions, reluctant to go back to the place of power in the light of his status as a wanted man, but he wasn’t forced.
In the Christian scriptures, of course, there’s Paul. His “conversion” looks suspiciously at first glance like the “conversions” the conquistadores, or possibly Saul himself, forced upon infidels and apostates, deprogramming followers of The Way at the point of the sword. But in reality, wasn't Paul as a thoughtful and pious Pharisee, whose encounter with Stephen and other Christians might already have been working on him, so that the famous blinding light that knocked him off of his horse came as much from within as from the skies? And after all is said and done, a question (“Saul, why do you persecute me?”) is not a coercion.
I feel fairly certain that, whatever it might mean in its fullness in this time and place, that the core of Jesus’s message continues to be, “Turn away from sin, and believe in the good news: the empire of God is near.” Furthermore, I think that the core of that proclamation is for the earth here and now, and not merely a promise that if we are good and suffer long enough, we’ll have it better in the next life. The “empire of God” is an alternative to the empire of Wall Street, bin Laden, Bechtel, and the rest of them. The choice is clear, but we’ve made peace with such counterfeits of the God of Jesus for the last eighteen centuries (millennia?) that we are, even in our churches, confused about whom it is that we worship. We worship a God who is “all powerful” and omnipotent, yet, rather than defining power as service by the example of Jesus, we define power as conquest and victory, we define power as messianism in the very way that Jesus rejected it, rebuking Peter to say, “Get behind me! Follow me, you satan!” Peter was looking down the road to an empire like that of the Pax Romana. Jesus was seeing the empire of God, the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah, where the lion and lamb browse together, where rivers flow in the desert, and there is a feast spread for all nations together.
What Jesus did, it appears to me, is just start living in God’s reign, and so was able to demonstrate some signs of its presence, healing, reconciling, casting out demons, feeding all kinds of people. He kept inviting even when criticized for his actions, as happens at the start of Luke 15 in next Sunday’s gospel. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus lives in the empire of God as the host of a meal, washing feet, bringing together enemies, like Levi the tax collector (a Roman collaborator) and Simon the Zealot (a Jewish armed radical), and possibly even Judas of the Iscarioth, a group of street assassins who murdered collaborators in public acts of terrorism. For Jesus, his meals surrounded by the lions and lambs of first century Palestine, feeding the multitudes, and the healings and exorcisms were all signs of the arrival of God’s empire, and that Jesus had begun to live there, inviting others into the new world to see for themselves.
But when the hammer fell, he couldn’t ask them to come with him. Why not? Because he was caught up in God’s agape, and that is a place and way of being that is a place of complete self-gift, and there’s a sense in which one can only choose to go there. Whereas it seems, from the gospel, that Jesus had clearly begun to see that his road was leading to the Pilate's version of the firing squad, and that, in fact, he had begun to plan for it with covert signals among his allies (like the tethered donkey for the Jerusalem procession, and the prepared “upper room” for the Passover), the disciples seemed to be oblivious to the mortal danger right up to the moment of his arrest. The solidarity of the little band is dissolved in the face of Caesar’s empire’s savage peacemaking, at least for the moment.
I feel like that sometimes. That I want the church to be in solidarity, like the community of disciples, that we could make a difference if we listened to each other, discerned the needs of our communities and world, and discerned our abilities to serve them. I feel that we could make a difference by sticking together, we could change things, cure poverty, homelessness, disease, hunger, all kinds of things. But there comes a time when you can’t say, “you have to do this, we have to stick together,” because there’s mortal danger involved. Sometimes you have to go it alone, in trust, and see what happens. You really can’t take anyone anywhere you won’t go yourself, and you can’t even ask them to go first, and lead you there. This is really where the crisis of faith happens. There’s a threshold we have to cross, together or alone, and it’s only on the other side of it that the line between life and death starts to blur.
Honestly, I think that there’s something about gift in that moment, like the voice at the Jordan, or the transfiguration moment, a moment of clarity and insight and vision. We can’t get to that moment at all - we can only be aware that someone is calling us “beloved” and that we have a destiny to live in an empire that is without violence or coercion. For anyone who gets that gift, it’s important to keep inviting, and not to use too many words like “must” and “should”, especially in the second person. The other side of those moments is the realm of parable and street theater - Good Samaritans, recalcitrant sons, and laughing over a pint of draught with the scum of the earth.
In some ways, I think I’ve been given some of that insight, and I’m afraid to admit that because I’m not ready to be that bold and certain. Maybe my faith is weak, or maybe I’m afraid of something else. I keep pushing for some sense of solidarity with people who see things similarly to me. There keeps arising this place to which I want to be led, but I don’t think I can lead anyone there right now. Maybe I don’t “hate my father, mother, sister and brother” and the rest of my family and friends yet, or rather, I don’t love Christ or have enough confidence and faith that I can cast the twin mountains of my self-doubt and the reign of Caesar into the sea. Or, maybe it’s all right for me to be calculating the outlay, as the gospel says. I’m fairly sure, though, that a homilist I recently heard was just crazy when he told the congregation that Jesus didn’t really mean “take up your cross” when he said it, because he himself hadn’t gone to the cross yet. What? Like people would just throw around a phrase like that about the most hated and feared form of capital punishment known to them! I think Jesus knew that only one of the empires vying for peoples’ hearts in the first century used the cross, and it wasn’t God’s. And that path is as surely for the disciple as it is for the master, though it has to be chosen freely when one opts for the empire of God and its justice.
Meanwhile, these timid thoughts continue to percolate in my head. Invite, invite, invite. Be together, form working groups and coalitions and conspiracies of grace. Form a strategy for resisting missile strikes and other violence, class oppression, and consumption. But let the heart of it be a God who lets the sun shine and the rain fall upon the good and the bad alike, so that we choose compassion on the journey, so that we, all of us, can choose to live together in the freedom of God’s children, in this world, but God's empire. Then, the guns, turrets, and walls of Caesar’s empire will not even crumble; they will just evaporate.