"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.‚ÄĚ Jesus says this to the always-growing crowd traveling with him to the City of Jerusalem. And Saint Luke reports that long before he arrives in the city, Jesus is carrying a cross, or at least talking about it, talking about living the way of the cross on the road called discipleship.
Discipleship is one of those loaded words. An √ľber-religious word. Some would say cultish word. Deceptive word. Plenty of people have become disciples of leaders and risked everything, given everything for the leader‚Äôs gain or no gain at all. In the best sense, discipleship is marked by openness, freedom of choice, mutuality, affirmation of life. The word suggests a student ‚Äď teacher relationship founded on Learning. Patterning. Practicing. Embodying a set of principles passed on from one generation to another. Jesus, the great Rabbi, makes a marvelous teacher. He needs nothing and has gives everything. His disciples make for mostly attentive students. Whether they know it or not, they gain everything, gain life.
Those early disciples, and the ones who followed them a generation later. heard in Jesus‚Äô teaching on that road to Jerusalem something you and I ‚ÄĒ dutiful disciples generations later ‚ÄĒ do not hear naturally. Our religious ancestors would have immediately grasped Jesus‚Äô words to be descriptive of their life-experience, and not proscriptive of what something must come to be. They would not hear the judgmental, constrictive directive that rings in our ears when we hear Jesus‚Äô teaching. But would hear the voice of a wise teacher empathizing with deep divisions among family members and the many and sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges of life itself. Because amidst the volatility of first century Palestine, its economic tilt toward power and wealth of the few to the impoverishment of the many, its breeding ground for religious conflict and fanaticism, amidst Roman rule and in the aftermath of the brutal pillage of Jerusalem, our religious ancestors became disciples of Jesus. And adopted the way of the cross as the way of life: Took as their own Jesus‚Äô way of living. Of reaching out to those cast out. Took as their own the ways of giving and forgiving.
Holding kindness, love and selfless-ness in highest esteem. Followed the one who would lay down his life. So that others might have life. Without charge.
But not without cost. For the cost of discipleship is often times high and deeply personal. Estrangement from a parent who rejects the teaching. Separation from a spouse or a child who refuses to stand by. Death at the hand of persecutors, or as a result of disinheritance, or from having been shunned by community. Our religious ancestors do not hear proscription to hate family, friends and life itself in Jesus‚Äô teaching, but description of their own life experience. Description of the cost of the cross as the way of life. The cost not simply of being true to Jesus, but being true to themselves. For though they could choose some other way, they would not, do not.
Many years later in response to the pressure to recant in the legal proceedings brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Martin Luther would put the cost to himself this way ‚ÄúHere I stand. I can do no other.‚ÄĚ Excommunication followed.
And a bounty placed on his head. Luther stood in good company. Stood with Jesus‚Äô early disciples. Stood with Moses who characterizes such a choice as ‚Äúlife.‚ÄĚ Stood with Saint Paul and Timothy writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. ‚ÄúYes,‚ÄĚ Jesus says of courage such as this, of resolve, of fortitude. ‚ÄúYes,‚ÄĚ Jesus says of you and me.
Our stories of discipleship are as varied as they are in number. But they all share some cost. Many are marked by ongoing disagreement or disenfranchisement with a family member or a friend. Some involve persecution. Others, shared or personal sacrifice. Long silences, dark closets and unsettled agreements to disagree. We know the pain of separation. Loss of all different kinds. Jesus says ‚Äúyes‚ÄĚ not only to affirm and encourage us. To empathize with us. But also for the sake of healing.
Wherever the way of the cross brings division, the way of the cross also establishes an unbreakable bond to those from whom we are estranged. Tension is experienced only with someone tugging on the other end. And this unbreakable bond becomes in the shadow of the cross the hope of healing.
Healing that may come from the slow pace of conversation shaped by deep listening. The hope of healing that may come when we accept we might not be able to change someone, but can love them all the more. Healing that may come through reconciliation in our own time or in the time yet to come. For taking on the ways of discipleship championed by Jesus, is to take on a steadfastness, a commitment to relationship akin to the long view of building a great structure, a tall tower. Or the solemn responsibility of sending soldiers off to war. No such thing is done with ease, but with enduring commitment.
The way of the cross is fundamentally about commitment. A commitment God makes to us. And commitment we make to others. Even to others with whom we are in conflict. For standing in conflict does not give us permission to walk away from others, but to constantly seek reconciliation and peace. This is the fullness of discipleship. The fullness of the way of the cross. Never comfortable, but always admirable. I‚Äôm convinced this sort of discipleship can change the world.
It is the sort of discipleship that stands up to power. It is the sort of discipleship that eschews and subverts the moral reductionism afoot among growing numbers of religious people in general, and Christians in particular. It is the sort of discipleship that sees in people different from us a common humanity. It is the sort of discipleship that inspires others to similar courage. It is a sort of discipleship that endures from generation to generation. Even if in a generation there is strain and discord.
And it begins in the breaking of the bread. For at table, with body broken and blood poured out from the life-giving cross, Christ feeds families, friends, neighbors and enemies alike. All receive the same nourishment. All are woven into this diverse body of Christ. And God holds us all together as one. Break this bread. Share this bread. You will not only have life, but you will be life for the world.