Transcribed from the audio recording.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In reflecting on the Gospel reading you just heard, noted preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor said that after careful consideration of Jesus’ hardest sayings that she had to conclude that he would not have made a very good parish minister; that much of the parish minister’s time and job is spent seeking ways to make it easy for people to come into church and to find it rewarding to stay there. I would take it a step further to say that I don’t know many church growth experts who would lift up those sayings as a winning strategy for recruiting new disciples. They are hard, very hard, and it’s there, so we’re called to wrestle with it.

What was Jesus trying to say to the would-be disciples that day and what does he have to say to us today? I think one of the hardest sayings in that Gospel reading is the passage that any who would come to him must hate father, mother, spouse, children, even one’s life. And it’s hard to get your head around what in the world he could have been talking about. And I think it’s helpful to put that in a little bit of context. What we hear with our twenty-first-century ears on hate is something akin to despising and that’s not what he was saying. In the Semitic context it was closer to a detachment then despising. That if one were a follower of Christ, you shift your principal identity and it reframes and shapes all the other relationships in your life—that as a follower of Christ, you are a new creation and you leave some of the old ways of being behind.

If we think about that in the context of initiation into the body of Christ—our baptism—go back to the early Church, back to the second and third centuries—and the process for baptism, initiation into the body of Christ, was long, was serious, was substantive because in that day, Christians were persecuted. To identify yourself as a Christian left you open to the danger of arrest and death. It was serious business. So over the course of three years, candidates for baptism, called catechumens, would get instruction and mentoring on what it meant to take up your cross and follow Christ. It put everything at stake in your life and that over the course of those three years, you would have the opportunity to weigh if you were really willing to risk it all, in the name of Christ. Over that three-year period you would slowly but surely be mentored into having the principal center of your life in the world—and those relationships—into becoming a new creation, as St. Paul cites it in Corinthians when he said you see everything old has passed away and you are a new creation in Christ.

That was symbolized in baptism in that day by literally, on the edge of being baptized, catechumens would remove all of their clothing, enter the baptismal waters stripped of their old selves so that they carried nothing from the old into the new. They would put on white robes symbolizing that they were followers of Christ. At our own baptism, after we had been baptized with water in the name of the Trinity, usually with all of our clothes on—so that’s one difference, the priest will make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Marked as a follower of Christ forever. Have you wondered what it would be like for you if that mark, that identification as a follower of Christ, were visible forever, like indelible ink on your forehead? Would it change how you see yourself? Would it change how you see other people? Would it change your words and your deeds if every day everyone who encountered you could see whom you claimed to be and whom you claimed to follow? For me that was a hypothetical question for most of my life until I became ordained and put on a clergy collar symbolizing to everyone who sees me whom I claim to follow, whom I profess I try to follow in my life. And I can assure you that it doesn’t necessarily make me any better a person; it does make me more cognizant of how often I fall short in following Christ; but I wear my vocation. I wear whom I say I attempt to follow. Many of my clergy friends have noted that one of the first things they noticed, in terms of a change of behavior after they put on a collar, were their driving habits behind the wheel. That’s a somewhat silly example but think about it, if you were marked in a visible way, would it change you, and if so, how? I think that what Jesus is trying to say in that passage—in that day, in our day—is, if you wish to follow me, yes, there is a cost to discipleship; it will change your relationships; it will change how you see everything in the world. I think C.S. Lewis expressed it best in Mere Christianity when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it rise, but because by it, I see everything else.” Amen.