Sermon for Pentecost 16(c)
Philippians 3:4b-11 + Luke 14:25-3 + Genesis 12:1-8
Are the words of today’s Gospel still ringing in your ears? “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.” It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible. You may think that’s weird. But you see, it cuts through all the false images of Jesus that society has created – of a wishy washy, soft-spoken, always gentle Jesus who speaks only of love, who just wants people to do him the favor of letting him be a part of their lives, at least, a little part – a Jesus who just wants to fill up churches around the world with lots and lots of people, lots and lots of growth – no matter what they actually believe, no matter what the church actually teaches.
Today’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who doesn’t want large crowds following him with half a heart, but rather who wants disciples who have seen in him a treasure worth more than all the world’s wealth – disciples who realize: it’s expensive to follow Jesus; who realize that it’ll cost them everything, they’ll lose everything – and who want to follow anyway, because to gain Christ is worth more than the loss.
In Philippians 3, we see an example of a man who did count the cost of discipleship, and as far as he was concerned, the gain by far outweighed the loss. His name was Paul, and at one time, all of you who were confirmed in the Lutheran Church said that you agreed with him, that to gain Christ was worth losing everything. When you were asked, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in the teaching of Christ as you have learned it in the Lutheran Church and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it?”, you answered, “I do.” In this text from Philippians 3, and through the Gospel today in Luke 14, God confronts you with the probing question: Is the gain still worth the loss?
First, consider what you must lose to gain Christ. The Apostle Paul had much to lose. Here are some things he had: 1) circumcised on the eighth day, 2) of the people of Israel, 3) of the tribe of Benjamin, 4) a Hebrew of Hebrews; 5) in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6) as for zeal, persecuting the church; 7) as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. In other words, Paul had everything that a human being could possibly have in order to claim bragging rights before God. He had the right family – Israel, chosen by God to be his people. He had the right upbringing, the right reputation, the right behavior. He was sincere in his beliefs and zealous in living according to them. So meticulous had he been throughout his life that no one could point to a single law within Judaism that Paul had failed to keep. His record was spotless. If anyone had reason to brag before God, it was Paul.
But in order to gain Christ, Paul had to lose it all. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. All of those things that Paul used to boast about – he had to turn his back on them as useless when it came to God’s approval. He couldn’t rely on any of it – not his Jewish heritage, not his circumcision, not his obedience to the law, not his sincerity, not his zeal.
But it wasn’t just those things Paul had to lose. With them, he also lost the respect of his Jewish extended family. He lost his position of honor and power in Judaism. He lost his livelihood, his home, his stability. He lost all earthly comfort; he lost his health and his freedom on many occasions, and eventually he would have to lose his head – literally, because in order to have Christ, he couldn’t hang onto any of those things.
And neither can you. Not father or mother. Not wife or husband or children or friends or career or comfort or reputation or life. You can’t rely on any of those things. You can’t cling to any of those things. You can’t live for any of those things. And you can’t be devoted to sin. And you can’t hold onto your own righteousness, goodness or decency to wave before God and expect him to applaud or to smile or to give you his approval. It all has to go. You have to lose it all, renounce it all – at least from your heart, and maybe also from your life if any of it threatens to come between you and Christ. That’s what it means to die to your self.
That’s the price – the high cost of discipleship. Your self has to go. Every day. That’s what it means to repent. That’s what repentance looks like, to confess that it’s all worthless, to consider it all rubbish. Who could do such a thing? Who would be willing to pay such a high price? I mean, to lose everything, to renounce everything, even your own self – what could be worth that?
Hear Paul’s answer again: I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
Paul realized that nothing he had could earn him God’s approval, and all his earthly comfort and possessions – even his family would be gone in a heartbeat. Then what? Without God’s approval, he had only God’s eternal condemnation to look forward to, because for as righteous as he might have been in comparison to other people, in comparison to God, he was still a poor sinner who didn’t deserve God’s love or God’s approval. Paul realized that he was, by nature, just like everyone else: dead in trespasses and sins; an enemy of God; an object of God’s well-deserved wrath.
But in Christ Jesus everything changed. In Christ God revealed his compassion toward undeserving sinners. In Christ God revealed just how far his love for sinners goes – that he would give up his own beloved Son to save those who were so desperately clinging to this world. He would lose his Son to gain his enemies. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness. Apart from Christ there is no happy ever after, no righteousness before God. But in Christ there is complete forgiveness for everything and a gracious Father in heaven. In Christ there is an innocent verdict in God’s courtroom and that happy ever after that’s beyond our wildest dreams. In Christ there is salvation from this corrupt, dying world, salvation from the devil’s schemes, salvation from your own demented self. Those are the benefits of Christ. That’s what you gain when you gain him.
And best of all, the benefits of Christ are not given to the one who works for them. The benefits of Christ are given to faith, to the one who believes this good news. Instead of relying on your own record of behavior to be considered righteous by a righteous God, instead of offering your righteousness to God, Paul says that true righteousness comes from God as a gift, and comes by faith in Christ Jesus.
And when you gain Christ by trusting in him, you not only gain his righteousness before God and a place in that eternal inheritance. You gain a new perspective on this world – as a dying place, as a temporary place, as a place that we patiently live in for a little while longer, but no longer as a place we live for. You gain a new worldview – you no longer view God’s commandments as unreasonable burdens you have to bear, but as an altogether reasonable guide to behavior that just makes sense for children of God.
When you gain Christ, you gain a completely different take on suffering, too. Listen to how Paul puts it, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. The cross, for as bitter as it feels, is not the Christian’s enemy, but rather, the Christian’s friend. You get to be like Jesus when you bear the cross in his name! And if you’re like him in suffering, you’ll also be like him in glory. The power of Christ’s resurrection enables you to endure under the cross, to hate your own worldly life, even to rejoice in the face of suffering and death, because you know how this story ends. It ends with life for you who believe in him. It ends with Jesus who died and rose again and promises that you will rise from the dead, too, one day, if you are found trusting in him when the time of your death comes.
So to be found in Christ, to be found clinging to him by faith – that was THE life-goal of the Apostle Paul. That is the goal of every true Christian. If you find that other goals have become more important in your heart, if you find that Christ is little more than a Sunday morning tradition, if that, then it’s time to confront that question: Is the gain still worth the loss? Or have you foolishly chosen to renounce Christ in order to gain back some of the earthly things you once considered to be loss? You can’t cling to both. Christ is an all or nothing Savior. Renounce everything else, and get all of him, with all his benefits. Cling to anything else, and get none of him.
Is he worth it? Is his kingdom enough? Is what you gain in Christ still worth the loss of everything else? The Lord Jesus was confronted with the same question by his Father, but in reverse. Are they worth it? Is having them in your kingdom enough? Is what you gain in those sinful human beings still worth the loss of your dignity, the loss of your glory, the loss of your life? Without hesitation, Christ answered with a resounding, “Yes! The gain is always worth the loss.” Christ’s answer is what inspired the answer of the Apostle Paul. Let that answer inspire your answer, too. Amen.