Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:25-33
Jesus knew that following him would cost his disciples their lives.
James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle to be martyred. Tradition tells us that James went all the way to Spain to share the gospel with Jewish colonists and slaves. But on a return trip to Jerusalem, he ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was beheaded in the year 44CE. They say that when the apostle was led out to die, a man who had brought false accusations against him walked with him. The man was so impressed by James’s courage and joy that he recanted his false testimony and became a Christian. Alas, James’s name wasn’t cleared. Instead, the man was condemned to die with James. Both were beheaded on the same day and with the same sword.
The Apostle Andrew was also martyred. Andrew took the gospel north, along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev. In the year 39CE, Andrew founded the church in Byzantium, which continues today as the center of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Andrew’s evangelizing came to a painful end in western Greece. Arrested for disturbing the peace in the city of Patras in the year 60CE, Andrew was crucified. Considering himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus, Andrew insisted that he be killed on an x-shaped cross. They say the cross is still kept in the Church of St. Andrew at Patras in a special shrine. Every November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew, the cross is revered in a special ceremony.
Andrew’s brother, the Apostle Peter, was martyred, too, more than thirty years after Jesus’s crucifixion. They say that Peter was arrested and condemned following the Great Fire of Rome. Although historians now know that the emperor Nero ignited the fire to clear away slums, the blaze burned out of control and destroyed much of the city. Looking for a scapegoat, Nero blamed the Christians, many of whom were arrested, tortured, and executed. Peter, at his own wish, was crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in the arena. When Michelangelo painted Peter’s martyrdom, he portrayed the upside-down, grey-bearded apostle looking very much in control, while soldiers managed the crowd and a cluster of four terror-stricken women cowered near the foot of the cross.
Jesus warned his friends that following him would cost them everything. In today’s reading, Jesus was nearing the end of his journey where death waited for him in the Holy City. Crowds, that were drawn by his teaching and healing, were on the road with the Lord. Luke’s gospel describes the people as amazed, rejoicing, filled with awe, and praising God, who was so clearly at work in Jesus. Who wouldn’t want to hear those wonderful sermons and watch those incredible miracles? But according to Jesus, discipleship wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. If anyone truly wanted to follow him, then they must be prepared to hate their families, take up their crosses, and give up their possessions.
Jesus was using a rhetorical style called hyperbole, a form of argument that embraces exaggeration to make a point. In the first century world, the Beth Ab, the House of the Father, was the most fundamental building block in society. Following Jesus could put disciples at odds with their families. When James and his brother John answered Jesus’ invitation to drop their fishermen’s nets and start catching people, their father Zebedee was left behind in the boat. Within a decade, traditional synagogues would expel those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, further dividing families into opposing camps of Jews and Christians. To truly follow Jesus would call for a singular commitment. The family of faith must supersede the Beth Ab, and there would be hardship and heartache for many.
As if losing family weren’t hardship enough, Jesus chased his hyperbolic warning about divided households with stories about the costly ventures of building a tower and waging war. Jesus could have ripped those comparisons from the headlines today. Many of us have had home improvement projects that have proven more costly and demanding than we ever imagined. And when it comes to the unanticipated, high costs of war, we should check in with Vladimir Putin. The Pentagon estimated in August that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.
Like a wet blanket on the fervent joy of the crowd, Jesus warned the people that discipleship would demand deep commitment and big risks. Those people in the crowd had counted the blessings found in following Jesus, but had they considered the costs? If they were truly intent on discipleship, then they would need singular commitment and deep allegiance in a world where following Jesus could cost you everything.
Beyond those first century martyrs, history holds stories of faithful people who practiced a costly discipleship. Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey stand ten statues of modern martyrs – twentieth century Christians who gave up their lives for their beliefs.
In 1937, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his most influential book, a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount called Nachfolge. The rise of the National Socialist regime was underway in Germany. As Hitler and his Nazi followers assumed power, Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, realized that his faith in Jesus demanded that he do the inconceivable: abandon his non-violent principles to become embroiled in a failed plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. Bonhoeffer’s discipleship cost him everything: his principles, his liberty, and eventually his life. He was executed, just days before his prison was liberated by allied forces. His book Nachfolge was one of the most significant works of 20th century Protestantism, translated into English with the title The Cost of Discipleship.
As a young minister at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was drawn into a demonstration against segregation on the city’s bus services. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was brilliantly successful, and King soon formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to press for racial justice. King and his family paid a steep price for his faithful work to win voting rights and opportunity for black Americans: death threats, bomb scares, police harassment, and prison. King ultimately lost his life, assassinated in Memphis while there to support sanitation workers seeking basic worker safety after 3 were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck.
Oscar Romero was serving as the archbishop of San Salvador when the killing of a fellow priest awakened him to the widespread abuse of political power by violent men who murdered with impunity. Wealthy citizens of El Salvador sanctioned the violence that maintained them, death squads executed those who voiced concerns in the cities, and soldiers killed as they wished in the countryside. Romero committed his cause to the poor and began to document the abuse of human rights, daring to speak the truth in a country governed by lies, where men and women simply disappeared without account. In March 1980, Romero was assassinated, shot dead while celebrating mass in the chapel of the hospital where he lived.
From first century martyrs to the prophetic efforts of twentieth century Christians to end tyranny, pursue justice, and advocate for the poor, disciples have been taking up their crosses to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years. It’s a daunting truth that may feel frightening and impossible for us to imagine for ourselves.
Yet, beyond those well-known names, are millions of everyday folks like you and me, who may not have died for Jesus’s sake, but they have shown singular commitment and deep allegiance by daring to follow the Lord in costly ways. They have shared their faith amid repressive regimes, where talking about religion is forbidden. They have spoken out against injustice in societies that label them dangerous radicals or misguided bleeding hearts. They have sacrificed from their bounty for the sake of a world in need, giving generously to support churches, alleviate hunger, and care for vulnerable neighbors. Beyond the martyrs and heroes of the faith, there is an invisible multitude, a great cloud of witnesses, who have paid the price of discipleship for the sake of Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to enjoy all the good things about being a follower of Jesus: love, forgiveness, grace, the life eternal. It’s easy to be like that amazed, joyful, praise-filled crowd that tagged along on the road to Jerusalem. But what happens when things get costly? Are we willing to share our faith, risk the rejection of neighbors, or live with fewer toys or a more modest retirement for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom?
Following Jesus will cost us our lives, my friends. This morning, the Lord challenges us to sit down, add it up, and dedicate ourselves to him anyway. Will we take up our crosses and follow?
Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 5, 2010. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.
Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.
David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:25-33” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 4, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-3/commentary-on-luke-1425-33-5.
Jeremy Diamond. “Russia facing ‘severe’ military personnel shortages, US officials say” in Russia-Ukraine news, August 31, 2022. Accessed online at https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/russia-ukraine-war-news-08-31-22/index.html.
–. “Martyrdom of St Peter, by Michelangelo” in Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Biography. Accessed online at https://www.michelangelo.org/martyrdom-of-st-peter.jsp.
–. “Modern Martyrs” in Westminster Abbey History. Accessed online at https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/modern-martyrs
25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“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. 28For 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? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or 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? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.