Beyond Membership: Follow
I have this bad habit, and some of you might share this too. It’s one I’ve had since childhood, that often drove my mother crazy, as she would look on, exasperated, trying to convince me to do it a different way. If I have eight bags of groceries to carry into the house, rather than taking two trips with four bags on each trip, I will do anything I can to arrange the bags just so and carry them all at once. “Why don’t you just put something down and go back?” my mom would ask, which of course, would be very sensible. And my experience over the years tells me that carrying eight bags at once is usually not any faster than carrying four bags at a time in two trips. Carrying eight bags usually means you go a lot slower, you end up in pain, having cut off the circulation in your arms, where you’ve tried to carry the extra bags, and sometimes, you end up dropping or tearing bags, and having to go back anyway.
Maybe it is a family trait, because we have a favorite family story about my brother Todd that we all like to share. When Todd was maybe four years old, we were having our traditional Easter morning egg hunt with the family. Todd was pretty anxious to get more eggs than anybody else. So, rather than taking the few seconds to rush back to the living room and drop off a couple eggs at a time, he was kind of holding the eggs under his arms, so he could keep his hands free for the search. Well, as it turns out, a couple of the eggs were not quite hard-boiled all the way through, and Todd ended up with egg yolk running down his arms, crying, saying with repentance in his voice, “I was selfish!” Naturally, we repeat that story as often as possible.
One more story that leads us even closer into our text. I came across a blog post from a woman who, every January, does 31 days of nothing – buying nothing, that is. Of course, she buys gas and groceries. But she tries to cut back on the miles she drives, to cut back on buying “optional” groceries – sticking to the basics, and to buy nothing that falls into other categories. No going to the movies, no eating out, no buying clothes. Could you do it? I’ve been reading this particular blog for a couple years, and I’ve seen her challenge before, and always admired the challenge, but nothing more. This year, I just can’t seem to get the idea out of my head. In fact, I am planning to make this my Lenten discipline this year. I’ve been a little unhappy with my own spending habits lately, and I feel like God is calling me to seriously examine what I’m buying, what I’m spending, and why. But I’ve found that as I’ve been making my plans, I keep coming up with mental excuses for why I can’t complete this challenge. Or “exceptions” to my rule. For example, I normally eat out with some pastor friends on Fridays. And in my head, I kept trying to argue that these meals should be an “exception” to my rule. As if I can’t just tell them what I’m trying to do, and have them support my efforts. I finally told them of my plans, and they promised we could eat meals at our homes together for a month, no problem. I also figure by telling you about my plans in a sermon, I will now actually have to follow through and do it!
Our human behavior is to try to add more and add more into our lives, without ever being willing to set something down to make room for the more we desire. And eventually, we find that it is simply not sustainable. I read somewhere that in order to sustain the average American lifestyle, we would need 5.3 earths. It just doesn’t work. You can’t add more and more and more without making room, without giving something else up, without there being a cost. And when we try to force more, we end up losing control of what the cost will be. So instead of picking our favorite Easter eggs, whichever ones we tucked under our arms will be the ones we lose, with yolks running down our sleeves. We have a saying: the best things in life are free. What we mean by this, of course, is that the things we truly value, like love, friendships, and family, are things that money can’t buy. But these things still have non-monetary costs. They require time, and commitment, faithfulness, caring. Maybe we’re more willing to spend in that way, but they cost.
Our text today asks us to consider what the cost of discipleship might be, and whether we are willing to pay it. What do we need to put down, in order to take up following Jesus? At the beginning of our text, we find Jesus asking about how people see him. Who are they saying he is? The disciples tell him: some are saying he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, or another of the prophets. And who, asks Jesus, do you say that I am? Peter answers boldly, rightly: You are the Messiah. But then Jesus begins to talk about what that means, his being the Messiah. He tells them about the suffering he’s about to go through, his death, and his ultimate resurrection. Somehow, though, Peter, who just called him Messiah, didn’t understand what that title would mean. He didn’t understand the cost associated with it. He rebukes Jesus, and in turn, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Then Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” If we want to be disciples of Jesus, he calls us to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow.
We’ve been talking about what it means to move Beyond Membership. Last week Pastor Aaron talked about finding God, and the blessing that God is always finding us. But what do we do when we’re found? Membership is a good thing, but it isn’t usually something that’s very costly. Of course, depending on what you are a member of, your fee may be steep or a bargain. But membership usually focuses on the benefits that you, the member, receive, rather than on things that are expected of you, the member. For example, I have a Regal Club Card for the local movie theatres. The cost to me was nothing – I just had to sign up. I probably am paying through mailing lists I didn’t mean to be on, and by allowing what movies I see to be tracked for marketing purposes. But I expect the focus to be on what I get: discounts on concessions and occasional movie tickets. I wouldn’t pay for this benefit. I pretty much want it to be free, and I want the benefits from my membership.
We’re members of a congregation, a denomination, of the Body of Christ. But sometimes I think our language of “member” gets us confused, and we start thinking of Christianity as sort of an add-on, a member benefit we signed up for. We want to pretty much live and act and behave in the same way we would if we weren’t followers of Jesus. We might add on: a Bible study here, Sunday School there, serving on a commission. But essentially, our lives don’t necessarily look very different from the lives of those who haven’t claimed the title disciple. Do we want them to? Do we want our lives to look different? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The Bible is full of stories of people whose lives look radically different before and after encountering God. Their lives don’t change by addition, by just adding a little extra God-stuff on to their existing daily patterns. Their lives change so drastically that they have to change their name, or leave the country, or they end up in prison, or they’re chased of town, or they come face to face with a lion, or they leave their nets by the sea and ditch the only career they’ve ever had, or they end up on a sea voyage . . . or they give up their very lives. Those touched by God in the scriptures don’t lead the same lives anymore. They’re completely transformed. That sounds so frightening, doesn’t it? Overwhelming? Costly?
Jesus says that disciple means examining our lives and seeing what we must put down, let go of, leave behind, so that we have room in our hands, in our hearts, in our lives, to take up the life-quest of being imitators of Jesus. Costly, yes. But Jesus suggests that the alternative is costly in more troubling ways: not following Jesus might give us the whole material world, but we have to give up our souls to get it. Following Jesus requires us to hand over our lives to God’s direction, but our lives are saved in the process. Real life, from discipleship that is worth the price.
What’s in those bags that you’re trying to carry eight at a time? What’s in those Easter eggs that you’re trying to stuff under your arms? Put them down, so you can put on Christ. Your whole life will change. And it will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.