If Jesus is trying to build a mass movement to change the world, he’s got an odd way of doing it. At the end of chapter 14, he warns people against following him on the spur of the moment – they need to know that the way of discipleship is risky and costly, and not for everyone.
That seems to go against our instincts in church life, where it seems so clearly right and obvious that we should be doing all we honestly can to encourage people to become disciples.
If Jesus were telling people to hold back from being his disciples, and if that conscious, chosen discipleship were the only way to eternal salvation, and if that were the key thing he came to achieve, then his words here would be strange, and hardly kind or loving. But that seems to be a picture of discipleship overlaid with later ideas and priorities. Jesus didn’t come to fill churches – or synagogues – with worshippers. He came to announce the kingdom.
In his words to the Pharisees and his actions that go with them, he seems to suggest that the kingdom is seen in the small acts of healing and kindness which take place on the sabbath more than in the rules and piety which enforce a burden of obligation and call it ‘rest’. In the parable of the yeast, he seems to suggest that the work of his disciples is about the quiet transformation of the world more than in big rallies and membership.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not a good thing to get more people to church – after all, that’s the main place people learn about the Kingdom in teaching, worship, sacrament and through one another. But it does remind us that people-in-church is a means rather than an end. The end purpose is to do with the establishment and demonstration of God’s kingdom in the world – whether that’s done in a given place by a handful of people or a crowd.
So what’s discipleship all about? It’s a costly calling to answer, but it’s a way of great reward. It’s the way of living, serving, worshipping and learning alongside Jesus. It costs everything, because part of the way of discipleship is the recognition that all else, even the best of life, has to take second place. Paradoxically, many of those good things will turn out to be better and richer than ever when they’re taken up into the life of a disciple, but that’s not the point. The way of the disciples depends on absolute commitment (though it will waver, of course) to Jesus’ way. And it will cost us – in what ways we won’t exactly know ahead of time – but for those who can answer the call, the cost will be repaid many times over. Apart from anything else, it’s (among other things) the journey of finding out who we are called to become.
How much would you be willing to leave behind for that goal, and for the life of a disciple?