The Would-be Disciples – March 1, 2009

Genesis 12:1-7, Luke 9:51-62

March 1, 2009

The story we have for today is a very interesting one. In some of the early stories in the Gospels we find Jesus choosing his disciples. Those are wonderful stories where he approaches certain people, and he says “follow me,” and they get up and follow, often leaving everything behind.

This story for today seems a great contrast to that. Here in this story, sometimes called the story of “the would-be disciples,” Jesus seems to be discouraging certain people from following him. Did you ever wonder about that? Why would he discourage anyone like that?

One man approaches him and says, “I will follow you anywhere, Jesus!” And Jesus says to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, “If you follow me, you won’t have a home to speak of!”

To the next person in the story, Jesus did say “follow me.” But the man said, “First let me go and bury my father.” Now, it’s been suggested that what the man was really saying was, “I’m still needed at home while my father is alive. When he dies, then I can come and follow you.” Either way, Jesus gives him this line, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But you come and follow me!” Those are pretty tough words!

Then the last person in this story says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go and say farewell to those at home.” That doesn’t seem so unreasonable a request does it? The man’s not asking for time to let certain “family matters” run their course – like the last man. He seems more willing. And yet Jesus seems to reserve for him the harshest words of all. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I suspect that’s a metaphor that we can’t really relate to. But they could! I’m sure the people listening that day knew this example well. It probably meant one of two things. First, it may have meant, “It’s not good if you start work, and then look back and get distracted from it.” Or it may have meant, “If you’re plowing and you start looking back, you won’t be able to plow a straight line.” Either way, this is a tough response from Jesus! It really seems like Jesus is uncharacteristically discouraging these men from being disciples.

As I’ve thought about that this week, I’ve begun to think a little differently about this story. Was Jesus really discouraging these people? Or was he laying out the cost of being a disciple? And there were other people hearing him speak at the time. Was he aiming this message at everyone who was there?

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that’s exactly what he was doing. As he often did, Jesus was using a daily occurrence as a teaching tool. He was very good at that. In this case, he was helping the people to understand the cost of discipleship. And by the way, calling this the story of “the would-be disciples” may not be fair. Because there’s something here that I never noticed before – maybe you did. It is that none of these men turned and walked away! If you read the story, it’s just as likely that these men did follow Jesus – and with a better understanding of what it meant to be his disciples! That’s what I want us to think about today. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus.

A story is told of a youth minister who was sitting in his office one day, and one of his youth – one of the youth leaders in the church – came in. The young man stood in front him and said, “Pastor, I’ve been a phony. I’ve been your youth leader, I’ve led Bible studies, I’ve spoken in Church, I’ve done the work camps. But when I’m not in the Church setting, I’ve been the big party guy. I’ve worried more about my image than anything else. I’ve been mean to the nerds in school. I’ve been completely opposite of what I am when I’m here. And I can’t go doing those two opposite things any more. So I’m leaving the youth group and the church.” And he got up, and he left. And the pastor, while being somewhat stunned, thought a while, and later said him, “You know, even though he walked away from the church, that young man may have been closer to being a true disciple of Christ than he ever was before. Because now he knew what it was really about.”

I like that story. For one thing, it’s a Tony Campolo story. But I really think it’s true. Being a disciple has certain “costs.” And too many people don’t really consider those costs. Too many people speak with their voices what it sounds good to do – follow Jesus, but they don’t live the faith in their everyday lives, which is the heart of the faith – being like Jesus! Too many people don’t really consider the cost of discipleship.

That’s part of what Lent is about. It’s about seeking to understand what being a disciple is about, and determining in our lives to do just that. As we think about that today, I want to suggest to you that there are several levels of understanding about discipleship. And as we think about these, I want you to ask yourself what level you are on. And I want you to consider raising the bar. I want you to consider raising your level of commitment to Jesus Christ.

The first level I want you to think about is being a believer. Now, what does that mean. I know these terms are often used interchangeably. But at the basic level, a believer is one who believes the reality of something. A believer is one who believes Jesus is who he says he is. But I want us to see the problem in that. In his letter, James said, “You say you believe… even the demons believe! And they shudder!” (James 2:19)

Just believing is not enough. James spent almost his entire letter trying to explain that it’s what we do with our belief that matters. “Faith without works is dead,” he said. Or perhaps he might explain further by saying, “The strength of our faith shows itself in how we live it out in our daily life.” We cannot just believe. It has to be more. But with that understanding, would you characterize yourself as a “believer?”

The next level I would suggest is that of being a follower. I am a follower of the Phillies. I have been since the days of Gene Mauch, Johnny Callison, Ritchie Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Clay Dalrymple. Clay Dalrymple was my hero! (Here’s a postcard he sent me in December of 1966! I was nine years old.) And I’ll never forget the day I was at my grandparent’s house, and my grandfather – George senior – walked in the kitchen door with Clay Dalrymple! I couldn’t say a word!!

I am a follower. And let me suggest to you that a follower is one who might “follow” the story of Jesus. A follower might want to learn about Jesus, his life, his teachings, his theology. And that’s all well and good. But is it enough to be just a follower? Some people in Jesus’ time may have “followed” him in that way. They may even have followed him literally, traveling with him, observing him, listening to him, but without really being committed to him. With that understanding, would you characterize yourself as a follower?

The last level I want you to consider is that of being a disciple. And a disciple is what Jesus really wants his people to be. A disciple is one who gives his or her life to Jesus. A disciple is one who follows the “discipline” of striving to pattern his or her life after the example of Jesus, and “living” like the one in whom they believe and who they follow.

Do you see the difference? One person once said, that in the Church we shouldn’t aim at making people believers. We should aim at making people disciples! And I think that’s true. Remember, Jesus had many disciples. And that’s not to be confused with twelve special disciples who were later given the title of “Apostles.” There are a small number of them, but there are many disciples. And that’s what we should be aiming for our people to be.

So, with that understanding in mind, would you characterize yourself as being a disciple? Do you believe and follow and learn, but then commit yourself to being what Jesus has called you to be? No, I don’t think Jesus was discouraging these men from being his disciples at all. On the contrary, he was challenging them to know the true cost of discipleship. And the story is preserved in the pages of scripture so that we too may understand that cost as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German who was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. And he wrote a book called “The cost of Discipleship.” In it, he spelled out what it’s like to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to give one’s life to him and the service of his kingdom, and to be the true light of Christ to the world. And it’s ironic because Bonhoeffer lived in a time when the world was trying its hardest to squeeze the church into a mold that was subservient to the state – a state run by Adolph Hitler. He was part of the movement in the German Church to refuse allegiance to Hitler and eventually to depose him. And in the end Bonhoeffer paid the highest cost in this life for following the liberating message of Jesus!

That doesn’t mean we are going to be martyred for our faith. But as Jesus said, we do have to “give up our lives.” That is, we give up the way we would have otherwise lived, we are to give up the way we would otherwise have thought, and acted, and treated others. And we are to be disciplined in following the ways and example of Jesus – loving others, promoting peace and justice, being joyful, and seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.

So that’s what I want you to think about today. What’s it going to be. Believer? Follower? Or Disciple?


Lord, teach us to follow Jesus example. Help us to have the discipline to be his disciples. Uphold us by your spirit so that we may count the cost of discipleship and have the strength to accept that cost. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.