I am old enough to remember the days before decimalisation. I remember that my parents were quite anxious about whether they would understand the cost of things when the new regime was introduced. My father bought himself a Ready Reckoner which was a book of conversion tables between old and new measures. Going shopping became a nightmare. Eventually we got used to the new way and the book could be left at home but there was an anxiety for some time about what things actually cost. In a way it’s the same impulse that is behind this reading from the gospel of Luke. What might be the cost of becoming a Christian?
I know it is often hard to work out exactly what things cost. Today we have had a baptism. Wonderful. I do not wish to be the harbinger of bad news but when I looked it up recently the cost of bringing up a child from the age of 1 to 18 is something in the region of £200,000 pounds. That is an eye-watering amount. Having children is an expensive hobby.
One thing that I have learned though is that the real cost of children is nothing to do with the money. Not really. The cost is much deeper than that. When we have children we become totally invested in their life for as long as we are alive and that means we experience the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows of our children’s lives.
Perhaps anything worth having or being has a cost to it. Love is the costliest thing because (along with lots of joy) it involves risk and change and putting others first.
The reading from the Gospel of Luke that you have just heard answers a thorny question – what is the cost of becoming a Christian? It isn’t a balance sheet, but the picture of a balance sheet gives some very big clues.
Before I became a Christian I thought that the cost would be in having to give up things and be dull and I wasn’t a big one for modern hymns and I felt that becoming a Christian and joining a church might drain the colour from my life.
It is interesting because I had an inkling that a commitment to Christ meant more than a hobby, but I hadn’t realised the real depth of it.
My old professor at Oxford Alister McGrath once said to me the thing about Christianity is, it works! It’s truly transformative. I will try to explain.
God doesn’t want your money he wants you and that can be a scary thought especially when we’ve been used to picturing a God who is distant and disinterested in us. But God will be with you every step of the way, just like a good parent.
A good analogy is when is when your child takes their first steps. I very well remember when my daughter had her first (one – not needed) when she was one. It was wonderful; it was not the most elegant walking in fact it was punctuated by many falls. But I was full of joy full of admiration for her for getting up and just trying.
The first faltering steps are part of a journey that goes on and as a parent I’ll go along all the way at every stage encouraging and being happy for my children God does the same thing on our journey towards him. Small steps are fine.
Let’s look again at the reading. Jesus has had a bit of a knock-back. The people in Samaria have rejected Him. It shows I think that the Christian journey is never straightforward that there will be opposition. That is a cost.
But Jesus continues with his usual ministry – which is the ministry of walking along. Walking along and talking with people. That’s the ministry of the church, her clergy and members: to walk alongside people.
Jesus deals with people in a very rabbinical way. He asks questions. He provokes. He poses dilemmas. It isn’t factual, dogmatic teaching. It isn’t the manifesto for being a Christian. Instead, he gets people to fill in the gaps and examine their own hearts and motivations. That dignifies us and our choices.
There are three distinct interactions in this gospel encounter.
In the first one a man comes out full of shallow enthusiasm and says I’ll follow you wherever you go. Jesus has to remind him that wherever he goes it’s not going to be a five-star hotel. The Son of Man, God, has no place to lay his head.
The second person is someone Jesus nabs – come along and follow me, he says. It is a request.
However, the man has a pressing engagement – no less than burying his father. Jesus says a hard rather than confronting) thing to emphasise the priority of God’s Kingdom – let the dead bury their own dead but you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. The burying of a father was a sacred and holy duty for the Jewish people. Jesus asks the man to put this kind rule-based holiness aside. This isn’t a punishment for the man who Jesus is talking for. Jesus is saying I have something so good so true lined up for you, it will take precedence over everything else.
And the third person says they need to go back to their family before they can get on the road with Jesus. He tells them not to look back and not to go back. Looking forward in hope and expectation is far healthier than dwelling on the past that seems to me again to be a very sensible way of living life. Jesus uses a farming metaphor – if you are ploughing you have to look ahead. Today he may have used a motoring one about not looking in the rear-view mirror too much.
Put together these responses provide an interesting sketch of the costs of discipleship – no promise of health and wealth, no rule-bound by rote faith and a focus on the future and on doing God’s work. From my experience, I can tell you that the costs are as nothing compared to the joys.
The English Christian writer, CS Lewis, had it right when he tried to explain both the cost of following Jesus and the joys and how it can be completely transformative.
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Yes, live in your heart and life – that’s what Baptism is about, the old be coming new, our lives enriched by the presence and the love of God here and now.