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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2019

It is popular to follow people on Twitter nowadays. It’s interesting to hear what your friends have to say about whatever things they can tweet in 280 characters. And perhaps it is even more popular to follow famous people. I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people who follow President Trump. The thing about Twitter is this: you can take it or leave it. You can choose to read a tweet or not. You can tweet back or retweet or not. Twitter asks nothing of you. The only thing you need to be a Twitter account holder is a user ID and password. Anyone can get those.

It is clear that Jesus is not looking for the kind of followers found on Twitter, who put in very little investment and choose to respond based only on self-interest. No, Jesus is looking for followers, not observers. Jesus is not looking for the many who just want to listen. That is not enough. He is looking for disciples who will do his work of bringing in the kingdom of God. They will help with the work of salvation, not just look on and wait for Jesus to bring it.

Jesus wants disciples, but he doesn’t want ignorant disciples. He wants men and women who are aware of the high price of discipleship and are still willing to take it on to get its benefits: the intimate friendship of Jesus, the overwhelming love of the community of those who do the word of God and the ultimate blessing of eternal life. Those blessings sound really good, and Jesus knows it. Hordes of people would jump at the chance to have those. But there is a cost. Receiving the blessings comes with hard work. Oops, now it is more complicated, you say. What exactly does being a disciple require?

First Jesus says, it involves hating your family and your own life. The word used in the Bible that is translated “hate” really means to detach. Jesus is stating a priority. He is not saying not to love your family (that would be against everything he stands for), but he is saying that when there is a family issue that conflicts with what you are called to do as a disciple of Jesus, Jesus must be the priority not just sometimes but every time, no matter how difficult it is. And detaching from your own life is about the willingness to give up self-interest and focus on God’s purposes for you.

Then Jesus says disciples must be willing to carry the cross. Discipleship is likely to cause suffering. You may be outcast by the synagogue. You may be disowned by your family. Your behavior may be criticized. It can even cause you to pay the ultimate price of your life.

Jesus says you have to give up all your possessions to be a disciple. Now we know the twelve that traveled with him did a lot of giving up, but there were people like Mary Magdalene who had money and gave to support Jesus’ journey. Paul worked as a tentmaker to earn money. It is true that the early church held possessions in common, but there must be more to this than giving away everything you have and becoming dependent on others, even if Jesus and his followers did that.

Possessions can be anything – anything at all that stands in the way of you being a disciple (Emilie M. Townes). Material wealth is certainly a big thing that can stand in the way. If you are concentrating on getting and keeping stuff, you cannot concentrate on loving God and neighbor. If you possess attitudes such as resentment, envy, superiority, or fear, you have to work at giving them up to do this work.

That’s what Jesus says to us today. But the other readings also provide clues to what has to be given up and taken on to be a disciple. The collect says we have to trust in God with all our hearts and give up our striving to be independent. No more “I can do this myself. I don’t need any help.” And equally important, no more “I have to do this myself because no one can help me.” Instead of boasting in our own strength or fearing that our own insufficient strength is all we have, we have to believe God’s mercy will be our help and salvation. That is not an easy thing to do.

Jeremiah talks about molding Israel on a potter’s wheel. And being shaped and molded is another discipleship must. We have to be willing to be transformed from our old familiar selves to new selves that are the people God calls us to be. We have to let God be in control. And we don’t like that. We want to be in control ourselves, to do our own thing in our own way.

And Paul addresses Philemon about his slave Onesimus, who has been of great use to Paul in prison. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to his owner. He hopes that Philemon will treat Onesimus as his brother in Christ and not as a slave. Being a disciple means that you need to go against the social mores of the time. You have to open your arms to everyone, welcome the stranger and help anyone who needs it. These attitudes and actions may put you at odds with your society.

Wow, you say. That is a huge list of must dos. The benefits are great, but I can’t commit to all those things. If it weren’t for the suffering promised, maybe I would do it. If it weren’t for giving up control, maybe it would be possible. I really want to be a disciple. I want to have a good relationship with God in Christ. I want to have a wonderful community to care for and depend on. I have a real passion for helping those in need. And I really want the gift of the resurrection. But I can’t meet all these requirements. Can I hope for anything in God’s kingdom?

Yes you can. You can be a disciple in spite of your fears and here’s why.

God wants people like us to be God’s disciples and issues calls to us every day. God wants ordinary people to spread the good news of God in Christ to other ordinary people. The first disciples were ordinary folks and Jesus called them. We are invited to participate in this great venture because God not only wants us but needs us!

Discipleship is a process (Emilie M. Townes), and learning means people make mistakes. The disciples did not know everything all at once. They learned as they journeyed with Jesus. Sometimes they did well and sometimes they did poorly. Sometimes they got what Jesus was about and sometimes they missed the point entirely, usually when suffering was the topic of conversation. And they were not perfect. His closest friends betrayed and deserted him before the crucifixion. They weren’t stripped of their discipleship and we won’t be either when we make a mistake. We will receive forgiveness and an invitation to get up and start again.

God is there to help us every step of the way. We do not make ourselves disciples. God makes disciples from people who want to follow Jesus. God transforms us. Look at the first disciples. After the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, they let go of everything, including their lives, to spread the good news about the kingdom of God.

Yes discipleship is costly in terms of giving up things that are valuable to us – possessions, independence, security, scrambling for success. But we want to be God’s people; we have said so when we affirm our baptismal vows. And God wants us – God needs us. So we reach for God and God reaches for us and in that process we are changed. There are so many ways to be Jesus’ disciples in this community that we can be engaged in God’s work every day. Discipleship is hard, but it is not out of reach. Ask God for help and be transformed.

Emilie M. Townes, Feasting on the Word, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pp.44, 46.