Harrowing Of Hell
June 25, 2023

To Be A Disciple of Christ

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

To watch the sermon click here.

I remember a picture that hung on the wall of one of the Sunday School classrooms in the church where I grew up. It was a pastoral scene. Jesus was seated on a large stone beneath a tree, a tree unlike any I was familiar with in West Virginia. Gathered around him were boys and girls and some sleepy looking sheep. You could see that he was telling a story and all eyes, except the sheep’s, were on him. It was a very sentimental picture in a 1950’s sort of way, and it conveyed a sense of security and warmth. Being in Jesus’s presence, the children were safe. Being in Jesus’s presence, the children knew comfort and love. And looking at that picture, I knew all of that security and warmth and comfort and love for myself.

That picture came to mind this week as I sat with this morning’s gospel reading. Along with last Sunday’s gospel, it paints a very different picture of Jesus and his companions. The children are all grown up now and Jesus is telling these grownups some hard truths. He’s giving them a reality check on what is in store for them if they want to continue being his followers. They are disciples, which is a churchy word that means students, and if they want to be students they have to learn to be like their teacher. And that will be hard. In fact, the words we hear Jesus speaking to his students this morning are among what scholars call the “hard sayings” of Jesus. We sometimes, maybe oftentimes, have a picture of Jesus like the one hanging on my old Sunday School wall. The warm and winsome Jesus, the one who is safe and comfortable, the one who, let’s be honest, doesn’t ask too much of us. Well, that’s not who we and his students meet this morning, is it? This morning we hear about how hard and dangerous true discipleship is. True discipleship may bring the disciple into conflict and controversy. True discipleship may bring discomfort instead of comfort. True discipleship means picking up a cross and following—following even when the way forward feels scary and uncertain. “Hard sayings” indeed.

So let’s talk about what it means to be a disciple, a follower, a student of Jesus right here in Seattle WA USA in June 2023. Now let me assure you that I’ll never say a word to you that I don’t first need to hear myself. One of my great mentors in seminary said to me on more than one occasion, “Watch your pronouns, Breckinridge,” meaning that whenever I had the pull to say “you” – like “you should or you shouldn’t do this or that” – perhaps I really ought to be saying, “I”. “I should or I shouldn’t do this or that.” You see what I mean? So this morning, I’m going to make it explicit that I’m preaching a sermon to me. Now I’m sure going to invite you to come along, but I want to make it clear that the first person I’m talking to is me. In fact, I can’t tell you how hard discipleship is going to be for you without telling you how hard it is for me. And there has never been a more urgent need for true discipleship than in this moment we’re living in. It’s an apocalyptic moment – remember that the term apocalypse means a revealing, a showing, an unveiling. The pandemic has certainly revealed the fragility of our economy with its huge gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest among us. The sin of racial injustice embedded in our culture that is crying out for healing and reconciliation is being revealed ever more clearly even in the midst of the   attempts by some cynical thought leaders to deny that it even exists. And day by day the bitterness and rancor and division in our culture that has been with us far too long is becoming ever more destructive. Civic violence that was once upon a time unthinkable has now become commonplace. This moment really does meet the definition of apocalyptic. So the question I’m putting to myself right now is “How shall I be a follower of Jesus, as hard that that will certainly be, now, today, in this apocalyptic moment?” To address that, I’m going to invite you to join me as we focus on three parts of this morning’s text, which, remember, is Jesus talking to his own followers in the midst of their own apocalyptic time about the cost of being his followers –a time, like ours, of political and civic and religious unrest.

First, Jesus says, the student, needs to be like the teacher. So what does it mean for me to be like Jesus? Well, Jesus lets it be known right quick that he’s not here to be a warm and fuzzy do-gooder. “Do not think I’ve come to bring peace, but a sword,” he says. The cost of real peace, true peace, might feel like a sword cutting through some of my conventional wisdom, cutting through some of my assumptions about how to comfortably get along in the world. I mean, if Jesus was just a sweet guy with a sweet message, shouldn’t he have been able to stay out of trouble? Why did people call him such nasty names? Why would being his follower wreck families? And if he was so well thought of, how did he end up on a cross? The answer isn’t that his opponents had a lot of strange, unpopular ideas. No, he did. It turns out that the Kingdom of God that Jesus was teaching and living out was subversive. It was controversial. It was counter cultural. The Kingdom of God was going to bring conflict and not phony peace. So being a follower means seeking the Kingdom of God in a single-minded way and letting go of worrying about the consequences. Remember in the Beatitudes where Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God?” That’s what he’s talking about. Being “pure in heart” means being single-focused and letting the chips fall where they may. Will I be able to seek the Kingdom in these times without worrying about who gets offended or unhappy or angry with me? We’ll see, I guess. But that’s the way it will have to be if I’m to be a true follower of Jesus.

The second part of the text I need to focus on as I figure out how to be a real follower of Jesus in these days is whether to be afraid or not to be afraid. The text is a little ambiguous about that. On the one hand, as in so many other places in Scripture, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid. Be brave, have courage, stand strong. You’re worth more than all the sparrows. If I’m going to speak God’s truth as I understand it, I’m going to be opposed. So the strength of my convictions needs to be able to withstand intimidation and unpopularity. On the other hand, I better fear God too. If the words I speak and the actions I take – even if they are nice and kind and uncontroversial – are really words and actions that deny the Kingdom, well, that means I lose my advocate before the Father. So, God’s claim on my life is a comfort in the face of the dangers that working for the Kingdom brings. But that claim is total. I read something from a biblical scholar recently that really resonates with me. “Proper fear of God always manifests itself in the world of human affairs as fearlessness.” So here’s a case where fear is actually healthy.

The third piece of the Gospel text that I need to hear is what seems like Jesus’ strange antipathy towards families. Not just here but in other places in the Gospels, Jesus speaks as if families get in the way of being a follower. And Jesus is often seen to be in conflict with his own family. Now we should know that the first hearers of the Gospel often faced immense family pressure to reject Jesus. He was, after all, countercultural. He seemed to be a dangerous opponent of the established order and the established religion. We can well imagine the most loving mother or father admonishing their son or daughter not to be led astray by this radical. Undoubtedly, lots of family bridges were burned by Jesus’ earliest followers. I often think about the calling of James and John who were among Jesus’s first disciples. Remember they were fishermen working with their father, Zebedee. One day this character Jesus shows up and says, “Come with me and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” And we’re told they immediately—immediately—dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Now, I worked for my father in his business for about five minutes before I went to law school and I’m also a father with two sons of my own. We’re not told how Old Man Zebedee felt about his only deckhands abandoning the family business, but I’ll bet he wasn’t happy. I can resonate. How about you?

What other loyalties might get in the way of my being a follower? How can I make sure that the Kingdom of God is my first priority? It’s a call for me to examine my attachments. Another old teacher of mine used to say “Tell me the most important thing in your life and I’ll tell you who your God is.” Is my family the most important thing in my life? Yep. Sure is. Is that a barrier to me being a fully committed follower? I’m quite sure it is on many occasions. So the work for me is to know that being a fully committed follower actually strengthens the bonds of family and kinship. And to make sure that the bonds of family and kinship don’t weaken my commitment to being a follower of Jesus.

So in the days and weeks and months to come, as I live and work in this apocalyptic time, my hope is to live and work fearlessly – fearlessly following Jesus – fearlessly following where the Holy Spirit leads me. And as we work through what has been revealed in this apocalyptic moment, the Spirit is undoubtedly going to lead me, and lead you, into places that are uncomfortable. You know, the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim, the Kingdom of God he came to bear witness to, is just as radical and controversial and unsettling in 2023 in Seattle WA USA as it was in occupied Palestine in 30 CE. And here’s a newsflash. It’s complicated. Yes, indeed, it is. Very complicated. Yet, it’s also not. We simply must keep ever before us the words of the Prophet Micah, who said: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God.” It’s the work of the Gospel of Jesus – the work of the Kingdom of God. I pray that I – and you and all of us – will be wise enough and fearless enough to begin. To begin the work of justice. To love mercy and kindness with all our hearts. And to always – always – walk humbly before God. As I continue to discern what it means for me to be this kind of follower – one who seeks to do justice, one who loves kindness, one who walks lightly and humbly upon the earth– that’s going to invite discernment about what it means to be a follower who is also a devoted husband and father and grandfather and a loyal friend and a responsible citizen. And it will be different for each one of us. We’ll discover that calling both in our individual prayer time and in communal Christian discernment about what it means to follow Jesus in such troubled times here at Epiphany Parish.

Now let’s land this airplane by returning to that sweet little picture on my old Sunday School wall. That picture tells a deep truth. In the presence of Jesus, the Risen Christ, there is safety and security and comfort and love. And now let’s hold that picture right alongside the picture from this gospel reading of the hard truths that come with being Jesus’s disciple. I am here to tell you that both of these pictures are true! But here’s the thing. You have to go through the second picture, you have to really live out the hard truths of being a disciple, before you can claim the truths of the first picture. There’s a story which is told about one of the 20th century’s greatest Protestant theologians, a man named Karl Barth. Barth wrote a magisterial six volume work of systematic theology called The Church Dogmatics. While I read as much of it as I could in seminary, I’ll tell you it was a real slog. Nevertheless Barth’s work has been extraordinarily influential. So the story goes that towards the end of his life, following a university lecture during the Q & A time, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth replied, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ “He paused for a moment and continued, “But I had to write The Church Dogmatics to know what that really meant.” He had to do the hard and difficult work of being a disciple, of being a student of Jesus, before he could sink into the deep truth, the uncomplicated simplicity, of Jesus’ comfort and love. So it is for you and me, my dear friends. The hope and comfort and love of Jesus are here before us That hope and comfort and love will carry us along as we do the hard but necessary work of following Jesus in these apocalyptic days. Always remember the two pictures. And remember that both of them are true.