We are doing a series in our Chapel service that is helping us think about “Hard Questions.” Recently, I preached from Luke 14:25-35 addressing the hard question: How do you follow Jesus EVERY DAY? Not just on Wednesdays. Not just on Sundays. Not just on test days, or sick days, or sad days, or happy days. But EVERY SINGLE DAY. (Here is a portion of my sermon. You can listen to the whole sermon here.)
In this passage, Jesus talks about what it means for someone to be his disciple. “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.”
You see, I think that Jesus is mostly describing what is required for him in regards to the loved ones in his life. I don’t think that our understanding of the word “hate” today is exactly helpful in getting at what’s going on here. When we hear hate, it evokes a strong feeling of animosity—even violence—in us. But I don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said that we would need to hate everything else in our lives in order to follow him. I think that Jesus is saying that we can’t have anything—not even those most dear—above him. That’s idolatry, right? To have something ahead of God. So Jesus says—all those relationship, all those priorities, all those distractions…you must hate them in comparison to how you feel about me. If you want to be my disciple…that’s what you do. You do that because that’s what I’ve done.
Jesus further shows us that he is asking us to follow his example through his next words:
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
You probably know that Jesus carried his own cross, the instrument of his death, on his back until he got the Golgotha, the site of his crucifixion. It seems especially cruel to think that not only is Jesus killed on a cross, but he must carry it, too. And yet, he uses that idea of carrying a cross and following him to demonstrate what full commitment looks like. Twice even, in the gospel of Luke does he repeat this image of carrying a cross. In Luke 9:23, he says, “If anyone wants to become my followers, they must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” You see, Jesus is looking for disciples, not cheerleaders. He wants followers, not fans. And to be his disciple means to do as Jesus did, and that includes carrying our cross.
So…how do we do it? How do we become a daily disciple of Jesus? Well, fortunately, Jesus tells us how. He tells a story about a builder. He says that any builder that wants to build a tower would first sit down and count the cost. They would estimate how much it time, money, and other resources it will take. They will make sure that they have a crew that can build it before winter, or before the scorching heat, or during daylight hours. They will know what exactly it will require of them and either have it or a have a plan for it before they break ground. And Jesus says that his disciples will be like these Builders.
So if we want to follow Jesus, EVERY DAY, we must count the cost.
I have to be honest. When I first decided to follow Jesus, I didn’t count the cost. I was 7 years old and I knew that if I died then I wanted to know that I would go to heaven. Some may call that “Fire Insurance” (don’t want to burn in hell), but that was my primary motivation for following Jesus. I didn’t have trouble believing in Jesus and I knew that my life (and afterlife) would be better with him. And that’s actually probably fine for a 7 year old. But I grew up. And I came to a point where I had to decide again if I would follow Jesus as a high school student. And then again as a college student. And at that point, I began to realize what Jesus was talking about with this whole “carry their cross” thing. You know, it’s not always easy to be a Christian. It’s worth it, but it’s not always easy.
So, how do we count the cost to be a disciple of Jesus? And how does one begin the work of becoming a disciple?
Jesus talked about counting the cost as a Builder, but I want to talk about it through the example of distance running. Anyone who sets a goal to run one of these races knows a thing or two about counting the cost and being a disciple. I’m running the OKC Half-Marathon in April. I’m not running to break any records, I’m just running to break some bad habits. The habits of laziness, or listening to the desires of my flesh—doing the things that I want to do—instead of living a disciplined life, a life that honors Christ. Running becomes for me a spiritual discipline. The physical discipline is a time to allow God to work in my heart, making me a more faithful disciple. I have learned some things from running that I think make me a better disciple of Jesus, though.
The first thing is that I need a plan. If I were to just go out and run on the days that I felt like it, I would run 1 day out of 7. And then probably not at all. And then, on race day, I would be foolish to try to run 13.1 miles without training. But my schedule sets smaller goals. It tells me that in the first week of training, I should run 2 miles 4 times a week and do cross training once. It tells me to gradually add distance and increase the intensity of my running. And it gives me a standard to meet. More than likely I will miss a day at some point in my 12 weeks of training—I may be sick at some point, but I have a plan to help me meet my goal.
There’s a spiritual parallel. Do you have a plan for your spiritual life? Do you set aside time each day to pray, or read your bible, or connect with God? Do you cultivate an awareness of God’s presence each day, so that you might be able to go the distance in your relationship with God? Do you think it will just magically happen one day? Well, maybe. But more likely, you’ll be able to experience the payoff of a close relationship with God when you engage in spiritual practices on a regular basis. In order to grow as a DISCIPLE, you need a PLAN.
Another thing that I’ve learned from running that makes me a better disciple is that I need a community. When I ran my first half-marathon, I did my training entirely by myself. I was mostly motivated by my pride—I had told so many people that I was going to do it that I absolutely HAD to do it! But when the race was over and I successfully finished it, I completely stopped running. Last summer I started running with a group of friends here in town. We share our successes and our failures, our aches and pains, and even our running fashion, er, equipment. We share our secrets for running in the cold and how we stay hydrated. The community has already helped me stay encouraged and pushed me harder.
There are many similarities in my life as a Christian as well. It is hard, maybe even impossible, to be a solitary Christian. There is a certain focus that comes with being the only one doing something, but it is hard to sustain it for a long time. But when I share my struggles and my joys with others who are pursuing the same things that I’m pursuing as a follower of Jesus, we all experience a little more of heaven on earth. In order to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus. You need a community.
I’ve learned a third thing about running that has implications for my spiritual life. In order to accomplish my goal, I need to make sacrifices. I remember coaches telling me when I was young, “no pain, no gain.” I’m sure that they said that when we were running lines and digging deep to keep moving up and down the basketball court. And as much as it sounds trite, it is very true. Great things are not accomplished without great sacrifice. I can’t run the half-marathon without running shorter distances on days that I don’t feel like it. I must sacrifice the food or drink that I want in order to feel better on my runs. I must sacrifice sleep, and time, and a whole lot of effort.
The idea of sacrifice is integral with the Christian faith, right? So why are we so reluctant to talk about it? We talk about the pay-off of the Christian life—blessings, direction from God, maybe even eternal assurance—but we don’t like to talk about the fact that we can’t have anything—loves, hopes, dreams, people, jobs, anything—in front of God.
What does that kind of sacrifice look like to you? I’ll tell you what it looks like to me, it means that I trust Jesus with my life…not just the parts of life that are hard (like sickness, confusion, pain) that I don’t want, but the parts that I would actually prefer to be in charge of myself (like my path in life, my relationships, and my opportunities).
Learning to live a life of sacrifice also means that I continue to choose every day to make a sacrifice. In running, just because I ran once race “that one time” doesn’t mean that I’m still a runner unless I get out there every day. And as a Christian, I choose to follow Jesus once, but I keep choosing him every day after. To think like him, to love like him, to act like him, to honor the Father like he did. And to give my life for others as he did. And there’s no shortcut.
Jesus offered hard words to us if we wanted to be followers of his. And yet, even as I want to run that half-marathon in April, I want even more to follow the Savior of the World. When you’ve encountered the loving, redeeming, convincing, powerful, person of Jesus Christ, you can’t just walk away. When you want more for your life, more for your dreams, more for your future, you can’t not make the sacrifice.
To grow as a disciple…it requires a plan. It requires a community, and it requires a sacrifice. Jesus gave it all. What are you willing to give?