How many of you have known someone who seemed to be lost in his/her life, may even have done something seriously wrong, and then, one day, declared they have turned their life around, claiming that they have “found Jesus.” I’ve heard a number of people tell me that. My first reaction is to thank God! That is the very definition of “repent and believe!” And while some may be skeptical, it is remarkable to see how God can work in someone’s life. In fact, it’s good for us as Christians to pray for these encounters to be genuine, sincere, and fruitful, because we know of our dependence on God, and how he meets and transforms us in our weakness. In fact, these occasions are perfect opportunities to look not at others, but at our own selves, and determine whether we, too, have not only found Jesus, but are following him by turning our lives around where it is necessary to do so.
Throughout the Gospels, we encounter stories of thousands of people who came out to hear Jesus preach, see a miracle, and catch what all the buzz was about. But when he talked about what it meant to follow him, many left. The miracles might have been amazing, the preaching awe-inspiring, but following him – well, Jesus seemed to be asking just too much. We hear that most clearly in John’s gospel where we read many of his disciples walk away from Jesus, muttering, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Today’s Gospel would definitely be one of those times. Jesus starts off with that quote that sounds as jarring now as it must have been 2000 years ago: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” That sounds really harsh, doesn’t it? As we listen to this Gospel passage, we might ask ourselves, “Is that good news? Can Jesus really be serious? Is God not a God of love? And, aren’t we supposed to love our families and take care of our lives? So, why this talk of hate?”
In this passage hating, for Jesus, means simply detaching oneself from someone or something. What he is really saying is that the will of God – our heavenly Father – must come first. That is how Jesus lived himself. Even at the young age of twelve, Jesus put his love for his heavenly Father ahead of his love for Mary and Joseph by staying behind in Jerusalem when he joined them for the Passover festival. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house, about my Father’s business?” Jesus asked them when they questioned him about staying behind. Luke tells us “they did not understand what he said to them.” Jesus understood, though, because he had been attentive to God in prayer and was open to the working of the Spirit of God in his life.
Love for the Lord does not exclude love for others. But it puts them in the right order. Jesus asks everything of us simply because that’s the only way to eternal joy. It’s the narrow gate we heard about two weeks ago.
Jesus is using this strong language to grab our attention because he’s about to tell us something central to discipleship: To follow Jesus means he has to be the most important one in our lives. Nothing can distract us from our role as followers of Jesus. The rest of our lives flow from that primary relationship we have with him. Think of it as the lens through which we ought to see everything, and the filter through which we both receive, and interact with, the things of the world.
This isn’t easy! We are all struggling human beings – we make mistakes, we sin, we make choices that we later regret. But the Lord provides for us, through the Church and the sacraments, numerous ways to repent and believe. Here, as we gather around his Eucharistic Table, we are blessed with his word; here we are blessed with his real presence among us; here we receive the grace we need to seek him, to find him, and to follow him.
Let us make that choice to follow him, and give thanks for those whom the Lord continues to call to himself.
And, we need to consider this carefully. We hear Jesus go on to teach us in today’s Gospel: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower,” Jesus asks, “does not first sit down and calculate the cost?” It was the dream of every small farmer in Palestine in Jesus’ day to have a stone tower on his property, rather than merely a tent or a shed. During harvest time, he could sleep up in the tower, keeping watch for trespassers and predatory animals from a high, safe perch. Valuable as such a tower might be, Jesus’ hearers also knew that it was expensive and it would be foolish to start building one without first calculating whether or not one could complete the job. If he could not, the farmer would have nothing to show for his hard work but some useless foundations. And his friends would laugh at him for his imprudence.
Jesus offers a second teaching in today’s Gospel as well; this time, it’s about a king. This teaching was easy to understand, too, even though no one hearing Jesus’ words was a king with an army at his disposal. Common to both teachings is the mention of sitting down first and counting the cost.
The first step in any important undertaking, Jesus was saying, is not action, but reflection. Too often, we act first and reflect later – if we reflect at all. The crowds who followed Jesus with so much enthusiasm had not reflected. When, finally, they did reflect, some of them would shout: “Crucify him, crucify him.”
If you want to be my disciple, Jesus says, count the cost. First, prayerfully reflect. Then act. So let’s reflect on his teaching for a moment. If following Jesus Christ really means putting him first – ahead of money, possessions, success, those we love – who of us could say with confidence that we had the necessary self-denial and discipline? Does that mean we should not follow Jesus Christ? Of course not. It does mean, however, that we should never try to follow Jesus while depending on our own resources alone. That would mean certain failure. If today’s Gospel is good news, it is because of what it does not say – that we can find adequate resources for Christian discipleship on our own. What we could never achieve on our own, we can achieve if we depend on the strength that comes from God. And, as we hear in today’s first reading, God has given us the wisdom we need to know and do his will. So, like Jesus, like so many of the saints who have preceded us, we turn to prayer, reflection and the sacraments. That’s how we build our relationship with God. When it comes to following Jesus Christ, we dare not trust in our own resources. If we do, we are like the farmer building his tower without calculating the cost, or like the king setting out recklessly on a military campaign against impossible odds.
Jesus never asks us to fight against impossible odds – only seemingly impossible odds. Jesus does not want us to build with inadequate resources. That is why Jesus assures us that God will provide us with what we need to live as his faithful disciples. If we trust in the power which God alone can give us through his Spirit, we are safe. We can build with confidence. We can set out with full assurance, even against seemingly impossible odds, because we know that God is with us.
We are gathered here to be nourished by both word and sacrament to receive that power that can do for us what we can never do for ourselves. We are here to continue our life-long journey of conversion, of turning to God and following his son. And, this power is not something impersonal, a kind of spiritual electricity, as if we were here to get our batteries charged for another week. The power that is offered to us here is a person. His name is Jesus and he will walk with us, leading us back to the Father. Let us determine every day to make sure that nothing stands in our way of following him.