One of my favorite faith images comes from within the Jewish tradition, and is called the Tefillin. It’s an object rooted in Old Testament literature, but maybe more so than any other place, from Deuteronomy 11:18 where God gives us the commandment; “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and as an emblem on your forehead.”
It’s with these words that observant Jews wear a set of small black leather boxes stacked on top of another containing verses of Torah on their right hand and upon their foreheads as a reminder of God’s blessing, and that because of this blessing, all that they say, and all that they do are to be in service to God.
Our Gospel text for today presents us with some pretty tough scripture, as Jesus gives us words that stretch our understanding of discipleship far from his teachings on love of neighbor.
We read that as Jesus travels, large crowds follow him. As they move, Jesus speaks, saying to those around him, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Here, Jesus’ words are clear. In order to be a disciple, to truly follow Jesus, one must choose him above all other things, even above that which are most important to us, our closest family members and our most prized possessions. That discipleship, both then, for those who first sought to follow Jesus, and now, for Christians today, requires sacrifice.
In today’s text, Jesus describes this sacrifice in three forms. First, his followers must “hate” the people who in anyway shape or form deter from following him completely, no matter who they are. Second, they must “carry their cross”. And third, they must forfeit their possessions, all of them.
As Christ followers, post crucifixion, we know that Jesus carried his own cross in the most literal of ways. Out of his love for God the Father, and for the world he was sent to save, Jesus gave his life. Through today’s gospel message, given to us at the hand of Luke, Jesus calls us to carry our cross in all that we do.
That discipleship is not something that happens here or there or with partial effort. It’s not simply taking the time to pray before a meal, or attending church once a month, or every couple of months. Through today’s scripture, Jesus calls us to really follow him, even, and maybe especially, in the times when it means making the most difficult of sacrifices.
There is a lot happening right now in the life of St. James. Just to name a few:
Our stewardship committee has been developing a mission plan based budget, with the hopes of guiding our focus from the giving of our offerings in order to pay for the light bill or to pay the pastor’s salary, to living as good stewards out of response to God’s so many blessings.
Just two weeks ago, our congregational Council approved the formation of an addictions ministry taskforce in order to begin conversations on how we as church can respond to the recent drug epidemic permeating throughout Adams County.
And of course, as you are all aware by this point, there is the long range strategic planning process that we have been working towards, officially set to begin on September 14th as the questionnaires are made available.
The list goes on… But why mention these things in light of today’s Gospel?
While it’s unlikely that Jesus really wants us to hate those who we hold closest to us, or to give away all that we own, it’s clear that Jesus does expect us to carry our cross. To put Christ, and our faith in Him, before all things and to live out our daily lives accordingly. To put the faith we claim to have into action.
We are called to do this here at St. James through the ministries of this congregation. We are called to do so in the relationships we have with those we love. And we are called to do so in the giving of our time and of our resources. In all that we do.
And while we have to hold today’s gospel, as we do with all scripture, in tension with the context of which it was written, we must at the same time, take Jesus’ words seriously.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, and that which Luke wrote, following Jesus more often than not did divide families and separate one from their homes and their possessions. And while this rarely happens in quite such dramatic a form for those who follow Jesus today, Jesus’ call still remains. We are to follow Christ above all else, to carry our cross. A task not to be taken lightly, but one, that if we’re honest with ourselves, too often is.
But what if we took Jesus for his word? What if we actually did put Jesus above everything else in our lives? What would our world look like? What would our community here in Gettysburg look like? What would this congregation look like? What would our individual lives look like?
In going back to my introduction, while the word tefillin isn’t found anywhere within the Hebrew Bible, in its’ supporting verse from Deuteronomy, we find the Hebrew word totafot. While its exact meaning is disputed, our Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, renders totafot as “something immovable”. “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and as “something immovable” on your forehead.” Something immovable.
Jesus calls us to be his disciple and to follow him in exactly this way. That his message, his life and ministry, and his death on the cross would be expressed as “something immovable” from everything we do.
And while this is no easy task, as Jesus makes clear, the good news is, that the burden is not ours to carry alone, but one given to us to carry together, united as one as the Body of Christ through the promise made true in the gift of baptism. With this, burdens once heavy become light, hope can be found in moments of hopeless, and the challenges we face become a bit easier to bear.
So while Christ’s challenge in today’s Gospel remains… that we are to carry our cross… we are upheld in the assurance that we don’t do so as individuals.
For just as Simon of Cyrene, in his compassion for Jesus, helped to carry the cross of Christ, we too are surrounded by people willing share the weight of ours. For this we give thanks… And with this, we go forth from this place, carrying out the mission of Christ, not tied down and burdened, but set free and in thanksgiving…. Or as our sending hymn goes, we go to be the hands of Christ… to serve in peace… we go in Jesus’ name… Thanks be to God. Amen.