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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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A Troubling Challenge

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: discipleship, disciple, reconciliation, unity, assembly, cost, hate

September 4, 2022    The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Mission Church of Saint Columban, Karlsruhe

Text: Luke 14: 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.” 

Please forgive me if I begin by pointing to an uncomfortable alignment of things this morning. I know that some of you are here because this is your church, and so this is simply where you would usually be to worship on Sunday. I know that is true of the people of Saint Columban’s, and I know it is equally true of our hosts in the Old Catholic Church who have made it possible for our community to worship here.

But the rest of us, we are here for the simple reason that there is a rare gathering happening in Karlsruhe right now. We are here in the early days of the Eleventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, this incredible, occasional gathering of Christians from all over the world. The last time this happened in Europe was 1968, and it will not likely happen again here for most of our lifetimes. This is a wonderful, amazing, profound moment of hope for unity in God’s church. And we are gathered under the banner of an inspiring theme chosen for this Assembly: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

And with all of that, the first words of the Gospel reading appointed for today, words that will be heard in practically every church represented here this week, are these: “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.”

I am sure that a great many factors went into the choice of these days, and this Sunday, as the time for this great ecumenical gathering. But I would bet that the planners did not take a look at the lectionary before they chose these dates. 

How can we reconcile the claim that “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity” with these words of Jesus? Jesus here hardly seems to be about reconciliation, much less unity—at least not in this story. At least in Matthew’s version of this saying, Jesus speaks instead in terms of misdirected affections: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me...”

We can perhaps find some grace in those words. But hating even our family? Hating our own lives? 

Is that really the sort of discipleship that this broken, divided, warring world needs? Is that really the vision the Christian church has to offer God’s world today?

I think if we are going to make sense of these words we need to remember that they are not the whole story, not the whole message. These words from Jesus are at the very center, at the pivot of the story. They are meant to connect one end of the story with the other.

The beginning of the story is something we long for. “Large crowds were traveling with him.” Don’t we long for that? We say that we don’t care about the numbers, and we remind ourselves that when two or three are gathered together, that’s good enough for God; but not so secretly we wish we had large crowds following us, don’t we? 

The way we do that in the church today, when we lose our way, is to try to lift up our own celebrities, church celebrities, to compete in a culture of celebrity. Because of course what makes you a celebrity these days is not just that you are known; it’s that you have followers. Followers on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook. 

In some deep place in us, we wonder what we should be doing to make it so that large crowds are traveling with us. After all, that’s what Jesus did, right? And isn’t the size of the crowd following us a measure of how faithful we are to the message of Jesus?

Well... maybe. Here’s where need to link the beginning to the end of the story.

When Jesus teaches that crowd about building towers, or waging war, he’s not suggesting that what they need to do to be good disciples is to go out and build towers or wage war. No; what he’s trying to teach them is that being a disciple is not just about coming along for the ride.

Jesus turns and looks at that crowd of eager followers and he realizes that the vast majority of them have no idea what it really means to follow after God’s call, to join in God’s mission. All they know is that interesting things are happening around Jesus, Sometimes there’s free food. Sometimes people get healed. So they come along, thinking there might be something in it for them. Most of the people in that crowd are there because of something more like buying a lottery ticket than loving God. They’re hoping maybe they’ll win—that maybe something good will happen to them.

It’s those people Jesus is speaking so sharply to. Sisters and brothers, it’s us Jesus is speaking so sharply to. He is teaching us that being a disciple is not merely something we slide into; it’s not as simple as finding where your parent tucked away your baptismal certificate.

To do this right, to really take this on with purpose, means to sit down and really reflect on what discipleship actually costs. 

And let me say this plainly: There is no such thing as a disciple who does not sacrifice something—not just anything, something precious. If you have come this far along the road of your faith without having to give up something you would rather have kept, you have not heard this message. 

If we imagine otherwise, we fool ourselves; and if we don’t teach this to those who come to be baptized, then we fail them. 

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he tells that crowd about giving up possessions. That’s what he’s teaching us. You may think, you may just easily dismiss this, by thinking that he’s talking about the material things you possess—your worldly goods, your money, your stuff. But those are the things that are easy to give away. 

No, your most valuable possessions are things like your most fondly held convictions. The certainty you have in the judgments you have made of others—other people, other cultures, other communities, people who hold other views. Our most precious possessions are our preferences, our privileges, our preconceived notions about the shortcomings of others and the righteousness of our own ideas.

And in the end, when for most of the people in that crowd around Jesus that was just too much to ask, they were the ones standing in the forum before Pilate, calling for his blood.

What then shall we do?

As my friend Matthew Potts has wisely said, it is not enough to give your heart to Jesus—because Jesus has already given his heart to all the people we have been turning away, for years upon years.  

The theme of this Assembly is no mere slogan. It is not aspirational language. It is something much more challenging, and much more troubling than that: It is a fact. It is a basic claim of the church. “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” Yes, it does. 

Whenever reconciliation happens in this broken world, that is the work of Christ’s love. Whenever unity is rebuilt from the shattered pieces of society, it is Christ’s love that provides both the wood and the nails. Have no doubt about this: Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity. 

But there is no other way that happens, no other means for Christ’s love to do that work, than through those who respond in faith to Christ’s call. Not necessarily churchgoers—but disciples.

It is the task of disciples to be the bearers of that love in this world. 

That means—here is the outrageous part—that means it is our task. But we can only do that work, we can only be the equal of that challenge, if we get ourselves out of the way. Christ’s love can only work through us if first we set aside our own devices and desires and allow ourselves to be filled with, and transformed by, that love.

That is when we do things the rest of the world regards us as outrageous, or dangerous, or even blasphemous—which is, just remember, exactly what they thought of Jesus. 

William Temple, the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote this about us:

“Within the fellowship of Christians each of us to be linked to each by a love like that of Christ for each. That is the new commandment; and obedience to it is the evidence to the world of true discipleship.  If the Church really were like that, if every member had for every other a love like that of Christ for them, the power of our witness would be irresistible.”

So here, in this great assembly of Christians from across the earth, let us resolve that we will work in this moment and in this place to be true disciples. Let us resolve to find ways of naming, questioning, and shedding those prized preferences of ours that block the path toward greater unity in God’s church, and obscure Christ’s love in the world. 

Let us open our hearts to be transformed by the different ways in which Christ is made known to us in the new friends we make here. 

And then let us take up the invitation God has set before us, to join in Christ’s mission of reconciling this broken world, and restoring unity among those of us who are called by Christ’s name. Amen.