Point of No Return

Luke 14:25-33

I think one of the hardest things to teach a child is that there are in life points of no return. You cannot take back something that you said or did or broke. You can make amends and apologize, but you now have a totally new relationship to others and to the world around you. As a child you sometimes break the dolly and dolly can’t be fixed. It is a painful lesson for a child to learn and many of us experience that lesson far too often in our adult lives. Last Sunday, I said that where you stand often depends upon where you sit. Much of what we do depends upon where we have placed our values and what the configurations of our experiences with others are.

Now Luke tells us that Jesus had many followers and He now points out the cost of discipleship – of being a disciple and not just a follower. He tells them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Woe! Ouch! I am supposed to preach that to those whom I visit? I am supposed to say this to the dying, the depressed, the grieving, and lost? I had a mother who could get a case of “the mean reds” from time to time and was really scary. But hate her? No way. My brother’s first wife, maybe, she used to terrify me. But in a sense she was more to be pitied than to be hated. I am not about to go around hating people and then preach a God of love and forgiveness. In times past I have argued that Jesus is not telling His disciples that they had to hate their relatives but rather was predicting the friction that would follow as a result of their becoming disciples. His words were descriptive rather than injunctions or hortatory. I really don’t think that interpretation works too well.

Hence I want to do three things. First I want to talk about the world in which Jesus lived. Secondly, I want to do some semantic exploration of the Aramaic language, which Jesus spoke. Thirdly, I want to try to apply the results of what Jesus is really saying.

His world: Israel in the time of Jesus was not monolithic. It was extremely diverse. As the cross roads of the Middle East, Israel had various racial and ethnic groups. There were the Greeks, the Romans, the Hasmoneans and the Jews, to name the dominant groups. Non-Jews were regarded as “the gentiles,” apostate Jews were called the Samaritans. Traditional Jews found their focus in the Temple in Jerusalem and in the local synagogues, which were scattered throughout Israel. Within Judaism there were zealots who wanted to overthrow the puppet Roman rulers. Barabbas was the leader of one such group. John the Baptist represented those Jews who were looking for a Messiah, who would establish a new kingdom, preferably on earth and similar to that of King David’s. In addition there were the social and ethnic divisions: Galilee vs. Jerusalem, peasants vs. those in power, laity vs. clergy and Jews vs. Romans. So Israel was a complex place in which to live. To identify oneself with any one of these groups meant that you were going to be in opposition to one or more other groups. It meant that you were going to pass one or more points of no return. You were going to have to make choices that were difficult and often called for danger and sacrifice. In his enthusiasm for righteousness, John the Baptist lost his head. In his desire to overthrow the Roman puppet government, Barabbas was sentenced to be crucified.

For the Jew, the touchstone was the Law of Moses amplified by the pronouncements of the prophets. Over and over Israel was called by its prophets to uphold the Deuteronomic Law of Moses and not to compromise, to assimilate or go off following other gods. Today’s Old Testament Lesson tells us:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous….Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him….”

In the midst of the complexity of life in Israel, the Jew believed that Moses called his people to follow Moses’ laws and to “choose life.” Tragically, time and again Israel lost its way and listened to other voices and chose other gods. Too often the people made choices that crossed the points of no return; they were apostate, or lost in a spiritual and religious wilderness. John the Baptist addressed this problem, but we know what happened to him.

Now for some helpful semantics or word studies. If you have attended church for a number years, you have certainly heard in a sermon sometime that the word in English that is translated “repent,” actually means, “to turn around.” So too, the word in Aramaic that is translated in English as “hate,” actually means to “distance oneself,” or to separate oneself from someone else.”

The parallel translation in Matthew uses the term “love more,” rather than the term “hate.” Hence it is that Jesus is saying that to be a disciple is to be more than just a “follower;” it is to distance oneself from the obligations of family and society by having your primary allegiance to Jesus. By stating this, Jesus is in effect placing Himself, as God’s incarnation (and later as God’s paschal lamb) in place of the Law of Moses and the expectations of the prophets. As Jesus approaches His crucifixion and resurrection, it becomes clear that He is seen by His disciples as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the fulfillment of the messianic expectations of the prophets. So in the network of many loyalties to which Jesus’ followers are called, the disciples are to understand that the claim of Christ and of the gospel takes precedence and redefines all other relations and loyalties.

Jesus is saying that to be a disciple one passes points of no return. It is now “all or nothing at all.” One must bear one’s obligations, one’s cross, and follow Jesus. There are significant consequences in regard to one’s life, which are different from those who are merely followers. Hence Jesus tells the two parables of the builder and the king, each of whom must face up to the costs of his endeavors. Once they commit, they are “in for a penny, in for a pound.” They will have pasted the turning points of action and decision. Jesus ends His teachings regarding discipleship by saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” One must surrender those things, which possess us to be redefined by our allegiance to Christ.

Now how do we apply the results of what Jesus is saying about discipleship? Each one of you is a follower of Christ Jesus. Each one of you struggles with being a disciple, of letting Jesus as the incarnation of God and as the sacrificial lamb redefine your view of things and your allegiances. This passage in Luke works, I think, to encourage us to continue to work on being a disciple and to reflect to some extent about how we have past points of no return in our own lives that define who we are and define the living out of our faith.

I think that the sacrament of marriage oddly enough offers a parallel for discipleship. The couple vows to uphold and to be faithful to one another in sickness and in health until death separates them. The marriage vow defines all else within the marriage. It is a point of no return for the couple. Granted, this analogy does not always work for those who are single or divorced, but the pattern is there. In the marriage of Faye and me we had to separate ourselves from our families in order to be married. Each set of parents strongly opposed our marriage (Catholic-Protestant), but we persisted over three years and were finally married in the chapel at the base of Harkness Tower at Yale by the Episcopal chaplain, Ken Coleman. Likewise, the day after our wedding, when I woke up, my first thoughts were, “I’ve really done it this time!” Not an appropriate thought. However, it did acknowledge that through vows and through the sacrament Faye and I had passed a point of no return. Similarly, when we had children, there was no going back. We were committed to being parents (for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer.)

Later, when I was priested by Bishop Clarence Coleridge, in the sacrament of ordination, I took vows, which I have upheld for 25 years. I reached a point of no return. As an aside, I might add that the practice of the diocese of having the priests renew their ordination vows every year I find repulsive. For me, a vow is a vow. It is not a yearly negotiable contract.

So in my life and I am sure in most of yours, there have been times that affirmed your allegiance to Christ. You have been shaped by Jesus as Lord and by the Gospel of new life. Most likely you were baptized and confirmed and had to go to Sunday school. Most likely you were married in the Church. Each of those events was a point from which there was no return.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, consider how your lives have been marked by the call of Jesus to be followers and disciples, and, yes, apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let your faith in Him and His spirit in you guide your hearts and minds as you grapple with the problems of living and the problems of every day that you must carry – your crosses. Be strong, knowing that in Christ your possessions do not possess you; rather Christ guides how you possess your possessions and your lives. For in Christ and in the life of Christian faith, you and I receive new life every day. Today, tomorrow and the next, “choose life.” Embrace Christ Jesus in your discipleship. “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” –Amen