The Aim of Discipleship
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, September 8, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (year C): Psalm 139, Luke 14:25-33, Philemon 1-20
Luke 14:25-33 (NIV) Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “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. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Psalm 139, quoted below
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus again takes up the topic of the cost of discipleship. Three weeks ago, when last I preached, Jesus also spoke about division in families because of faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus’ words are shocking—shocking because we also know Jesus’ teaching about loving even our enemies, and we know about his teaching of forgiveness and turning the other cheek. But Jesus wants to get our attention so that we do not drift into idolatry—drifting into putting anything or anyone ahead of God.
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon gives us an example of the cost of discipleship. Paul sends Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his master, Philemon. Onesimus carries this letter that Paul wrote, asking Philemon to welcome back Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul shows that being a disciple of Jesus is costly—great risk for Onesimus, and sacrifice for Philemon. But look what they gained! The gained each other—they gained brothers in Christ! It turns out that God knows each one—and God knows how each can truly love the other. So when they follow God’s calls, they gain far more than they sacrifice.
Instead of repeating the theme of my last sermon about the cost of discipleship, I want to turn to the other side of the coin: the aim of discipleship. What makes discipleship worth the cost? Of course, the question is a kind of self-interested question: ‘what’s in it for me?’ It should be enough that the call to follow comes from the God of the universe. But as it turns out, the God of the universe is good and does care for us. So what are the fruits of discipleship—the blessings of following God?
The answer should be the subject of every sermon, I think—the good news of God in Christ. But today, I would like to focus on today’s psalm to find part of the answer. We read segments of Psalm 139 today. Psalm 139 has two parts, the first which marvels at God’s knowledge of us, and a second part asking for God’s justice against the wicked. We read excerpts from the first part today. The lectionary leaves out verses 6-11 for some reason, but I think they are integral to the passage. So let’s look at them. If you want to read along, see page 794 in the prayer book.
1 LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme or meter like some English poems. Instead, Hebrew poetry works in pairs or triplets. These are like “thought rhymes, where an idea is paired with a parallel, or with a contrast. These three lines in the first verse all parallel each other, and the next verses follow suit.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
God knows us so well. God knows the intimate and ordinary moments of our lives. God knows us from beginning to end and all in between. He even knows our inward thoughts.
There are many kinds of psalms. There are psalms of praise, psalms of lament, psalms that ask God for justice against enemies, psalms that cry out for forgiveness and mercy. This psalm starts with a kind of praise for God that is different from so many grand and majestic images of God. Here, God is still the God of the universe, but this is God who knows us more intimately than we can imagine.
4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
The next verses that we missed earlier today play an important role in the psalm. Picking up on the idea from verse 4, the psalmist marvels at how God’s presence fills the universe, and that we cannot be separated from God.
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
These are places far away from home, far away from security, far removed from what feels to us like safety. And yet, God is there. In the highest heaven, and even in the depths of the grave, God is there. The sea, for the old Hebrew writers, was always a place of great violence and chaos. We’ve seen this week how true this can be about the sea. And yet, even in the distant parts of the chaotic sea, far from land, even there, God’s hand will lead you, God’s strong hand will hold you fast—hold you secure like a firm foundation for a building so that it will not be battered and destroyed by the storm. Even there, God will lead us and hold us fast.
10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”
11 Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
Not even darkness itself, with all its fear and mystery, can conceal anything from the mind of God. For God knows all mysteries—even mysteries of ourselves—even those things about ourselves we don’t understand.
12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14 My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
16 How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!
17 If I were to count them, they would be more in number
than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.
The psalmist shows us a glimpse of the aim of discipleship. We are called to follow not just any master, nor are we called to follow a distant and heartless god. We are called to follow the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. We are called to follow the one who can make sense of all that is mysterious and confusing in our lives. God not only knows us, but God also knows the other people in our lives as well. If we start with loving God, we learn how to love our fathers and mothers, our family and friends. For we discover that God not only knows us, but God loves us.
Isn’t that amazing! Some people are thrilled by this intimate picture of God—the God of the universe is that close to us and knows us so well! But others might be a bit intimidated by this knowledge. Each of us has parts of our lives that we wish were more hidden. These are the parts of us we know and don’t like, and the parts of ourselves that we still don’t understand. And yet—God knows all of that about us and God loves us anyway! This is the grace of Jesus. This is the aim of discipleship—to follow the one who loves us with redeeming love—transforming love—to bring us closer to God’s intentions for us.
God also pursues us too. We cannot hide from God’s presence. We try to flee sometimes, but God is there anyway. Though we might feel nervous about this, God’s presence is good news for us. God holds us securely in the storm—even the storms we create for ourselves. We look to heaven and God is there. We look to the grave—and God is there too.
We cannot hide from God’s presence. However, we can fail to follow God. That’s why God calls us to follow as his disciples. When we follow, we are guided by the one who knows and loves us, who knows and loves others, who can sustain us through any trial, and who, despite all our failings, loves us and gives us new life.
If you have ever felt far from God, listen to the message that God brings you today. I know someone who once felt far from God. He was in prison, the end of a long road of addiction and self-destruction. And yet—even in the darkness of prison, God was there. God was there in prison bringing renewal and new life my friend never thought possible.
I know a woman who mourned the death of her son. Yet even at the grave, God was there. God was there bringing new life and new hope stronger than death.
I know of so many struggling in relationships weighed heavily with conflict and pain. And God is there too, bringing light and life in places that seemed only like darkness to us.
Even in a calculus exam, when all feels lost—when all the pressure of school and parents and future press in, God is there too. Even if the next steps are picking up the pieces of a failing grade and starting over, I can tell you from experience, God is there too.
Lest we forget, God occasionally lets us see even more of his glory. For when a child is born, God is there rejoicing with us. God is even there on graduation day, when the memory of exams is behind us. In the recovery from illness or injury, God is there. In the recovery from hurricanes, God is there. In the difficult steps we take toward reconciliation, God is there, guiding us in the confusion, holding us fast. God is there freeing slaves and redeeming masters and making them brothers in Christ!
Jesus calls us to undivided devotion to God. To be Jesus’ disciple is to make all other claims on us secondary—even claims of family and the love of our possessions. To be Jesus’ disciple sometimes means that we give up even good things to follow him. But when we do, we follow the one who knows us at the very core of our being, who is close to us. We follow the one who knows us and loves us, who holds us fast in the chaos, the one who leads us home, the one who gives us new life.