A few months ago, a blog article titled “5 Ways to Be Unsatisfied with your Church” was circulating among my friends. I read it, shared it with others, and then it sat on my desk without much thought. As I was reading through the gospel lesson for today (Luke 14:25-33) and thinking about the whole of Luke 14, it dawned on me how relevant this blog article really is to our understanding of faithful discipleship.
When Jesus called the fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots, outsiders, women and others to follow him and participate in his ministry, it was a calling to leave life as they knew it behind. To be a disciple of Jesus was a truly life-altering choice. It meant casting aside the fishing nets, turning over tables, washing each other’s feet, and being scrutinized and challenged at almost every turn. To be a disciple in those early centuries wasn’t about going to church every Sunday, but it was about being criticized, ridiculed, ostracized, and sometimes tortured. But it was also about a communal life of prayer, hope, faith and love. And so when we read Jesus telling his friends, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, it just doesn’t have the same impact that it would have to those early Christians. We do not have to endure ridicule and shame to call ourselves Christians. We do not fear death on a cross because of our faith. And believe me, I don’t know if I could endure that kind of anxiety. But because we don’t have the same worries that an early Christian did, Jesus’ teachings about discipleship often lose their impact.
So how can we hear this teaching in a way that might be meaningful and that might challenge us about our ideas of discipleship?
I want to begin with the word “cost”. Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer have written about the cost of discipleship, which for those early Christians, often meant their lives. But for us in 2013, what does “cost” mean? Yes, there are financial implications when we hear the word “cost” and dollar signs and price tags might come to mind. But that’s not really what “cost” means. Theologian Emilie Townes defines cost as “what we give up to acquire, accomplish, maintain, or produce something… [it] requires effort and resources”. To be a disciple means we have to use our resources. To be a disciple requires our effort. To be a disciple means we have to give something up.
According to the blog “5 Ways to Be Unsatisfied with your Church” (www.shaneblackshear.com), which for my purposes I’m going to call “5 ways to not be a disciple”, the number one way is to not participate in the life of the church, but instead be a consumer. To be a disciple is to participate…participate in faith formation, small groups, outreach efforts and leadership. This is one cost of discipleship…that you have to participate. Consumers just show up on Sunday and expect to be entertained. There is no cost to being a consumer. But to be a participant means that you have to put forth effort, use your resources, and give of your time, talent, and treasure.
The second way to not be a disciple, or be unsatisfied with your church, is to criticize the leadership. Now this doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. Jesus’ disciples often questioned his teachings and leadership. Heck, Peter even denied being associated with Jesus. If you agreed with everything I or the vestry did all the time, I’d be a little worried that you had become a consumer. But if you are a participant, if you are being a disciple, then asking questions of clarification and expressing concern are important. The cost here is risk taking and vulnerability. The consumer model, the non-discipleship model, is to have parking lot conversations and engage in gossip.
The third way to be unsatisfied with your church, or not be a disciple, is to avoid contact with other church members (disciples). Again, this is about participation. This doesn’t mean you need to invite everyone in the church directory over for dinner, but if you hear that someone is sick, or you’ve noticed that they don’t get out as much, or they’re having trouble coping with an aging or dying parent, a phone call, a card, or a gentle word can be the healing balm they need in that moment. The cost to you is love, affection and a little bit of time.
According to the blog, the fourth way to be unsatisfied with your church, or to not be a disciple, is to believe that everything should be about you and for you all the time. As Christians, we often don’t like to take responsibility for our egos. We like to think we’re God’s humble servants all the time. But we’re human first and foremost, which means that from time to time, our ego gets in the way. And so, we get into a rut of not liking the hymns that are chosen or the snacks offered a coffee hour. We get annoyed that someone else was asked to take a leadership role, or that a new Eucharistic prayer is used. And in the process of being in this ego driven rut, we end up wearing blinders. We aren’t able to see that someone was offered a chance to connect with God in a new way through a particular hymn or prayer. We aren’t able to see that someone who hadn’t had a chance to have their voice heard is able to lead us in new and exciting directions in our common life together. The cost of letting go of our ego is participating in the strengthening of all of us being called to discipleship in different ways.
And finally, if you want to be unsatisfied with your church, if you want to not be a disciple, then be unhappy about the fact that everything isn’t perfect. To be a disciple means that we accept that life is messy…especially communal life. Each and every one of us come before God with our mess. We come with heartache, sadness, brokenness, and ego. We also come with our joy and gladness. As a result of each of us laying our mess before God, our church and our communal life together as disciples of Jesus is messy. When Jesus says that we can’t be his disciple if we do not give up all our possessions, he isn’t necessarily talking about our money, books, cars and houses. He’s talking about that which possesses us—our drive for success, our judgments, prejudices and hatred, our fears and insecurities, our addictions and our jealousy. We all have possessions…this is part of our mess. The cost is that we bring it before God and ask for the strength, courage and wisdom to participate in a community that is imperfect, but loving, discerning, and engaging.
Discipleship is not easy. It wasn’t easy for those early disciples and it isn’t easy for us. Discipleship is a spiritual journey and it takes time. If at any point anyone feels they have finished this journey, please let me know and we’ll hit the “restart” button. Emilie Townes said, “As disciples, we learn to face life’s challenges and joys with a spirit of love, hope, faith and peace that leads us to an ever deeper spirituality and life of prophetic witness”. I hope that you will continue to walk with me on this journey of being a disciple of Jesus. I hope that you will allow yourself to be transformed and loved by God. I hope that the cost is one you’re willing to pay.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.