Growth Strategy

Labor Day weekend. This is the time when we cultivate once again our tribal roots. We are Dores and Volunteers. Titans and Saints. Royals and Burros. Forgive me if I didn’t mention your particular tribe. And our allegiances aren’t limited to sports. We are Sam Adams and Bud Light. Chevy and Ford. Mac and PC. Blackberry and iPhone. Explorer and Firefox. Coke and Pepsi. Hershey and Godiva. Again, please forgive me if I didn’t mention your particular tribe.

We wear carefully chosen team colors and logos, and everything from our footwear to our hair product and the color of our wrist bands projects who we are or how we want to be seen. We drive cars that say, “I am successful” and carry water bottles that say, “I am cool.” Every purchase we make is an identity statement, and who we are, it seems, is a carefully created composite of our consumer choices.

Historically speaking, this is a rather recent development. For hundreds of generations of human life, a person’s identity was defined solely by their birth into a particular family and ethnic group. You were a Capulet or a Montague, a Hatfield or a McCoy. The best you could do with your life was to bring honor rather than shame to your family name.

Speaking in today’s terms of consumer choice, we could say that Jesus had the potential to become a very successful brand. He had more followers on Twitter than Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. People wanted to be close to him, see and hear him in person, touch him. Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and telling kingdom stories was a phenomenal combination that attracted large crowds and met real needs.

But apparently Jesus hadn’t talked to a single marketing expert or social media consultant. He turned to the crowd, and with less than 160 characters, he sent the most disturbing message of the day, “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.”

Not exactly what you would call an invitation to discipleship, is it? Who wants to hear that? What kind of growth strategy is that?

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The branding experts were scratching their heads. “This movement was such a promising start-up. What is he trying to do? Is he intentionally pushing people away?” Hate your family, carry the cross, and give up your stuff. If this is what it takes to be a disciple – who would ever want to be one?

To the people who are curious about his words and deeds, curious enough to consider following him, Jesus says, “Are you sure you want to do this? Have you considered the costs? Why don’t you go home and think it over?”

He says, “Hate father and mother” – and you wonder if that makes the teenager who storms upstairs shouting, “I hate you, Mom!” the ideal candidate for discipleship. He says, “Hate wife and children” – and you wonder if he is seriously looking for irresponsible dads to embody and proclaim his message of repentance and reconciliation. He says, “Hate brothers and sisters” – well, yes, sometimes, but really? This goes against everything you know about Jesus, doesn’t it? Can the same Jesus who challenges his followers to love even our enemies make hating one’s family a condition of discipleship?

Biblical scholars tell us that the word translated hate is not the emotionally charged expression it is in English. Its meaning, they say, is closer to turning away from, or detaching oneself from. To follow Jesus means to turn away from what has shaped my identity and what has been my primary source of security and purpose, and to find my new identity and purpose through Jesus.

The question for us, then, is, “What is shaping my sense of identity? What makes me who I am? What are the things that give me purpose and meaning?” Of course, our identity is shaped by our families, by our ethnic heritage and the culture in which we grew up. But when we follow Jesus, who we are begins to be determined by his relationship with us. We continue to be our mother’s son or daughter and our father’s pride and joy, we continue to be loving spouses and parents, but we grow into our new identity as brothers and sisters of Jesus. When we follow Jesus, we don’t cut the bonds of love and commitment that connect us with those closest to us, but we turn away from their exclusive hold on how we know and understand ourselves. The relationship with God we are offered through Jesus Christ becomes the primary source of our identity. We learn to say, “I am a child of God, Jesus is my brother, and I am learning to love all whom Jesus loves.”

And in learning to say and live that, much turning away from and detaching oneself from is needed, and just as much turning toward and attaching oneself to. Following Jesus is not about learning to hate, though, not ever. On the contrary, when you follow Jesus you have your life completely reoriented by divine love and toward divine love – and there simply is no room for hate.

What is required of anyone wanting to follow Jesus is a readiness to be changed deeply, a willingness to be remade in the image of Christ. What is required of you and me and anyone else wanting to be a disciple of Jesus is to be attentive to Jesus’ call above all other concerns and commitments. If you can’t turn away from being a Capulet or a Montague for Jesus’ sake, you cannot be his disciple. If you can’t imagine yourself leaving behind your identity as a Hatfield or a McCoy for Jesus’ sake, you cannot be his disciple.

The point seems to be that we are always following somebody or something, whether by choice or by chance. We grow up with ideas of who we are supposed to be, and we follow. We are surrounded by messages and images of who we could or should be, and we follow – the only question is, follow whom or what? To follow Jesus means to make all other options, all other allegiances secondary – and Jesus wants any potential follower to know that. Our relationship with God through Jesus Christ becomes the primary source of our identity.

Our culture teaches us to see ourselves as the carefully created composites of our consumer choices. In contrast, Jesus calls us to carry the cross. He calls us to a life whose moments and seasons, actions and decisions come together like a fabric, a woven cloth revealing the shape of a cross – the shape of God’s unsentimental and passionate love for the world. Jesus calls us to follow the path that weaves our lives into his and his life into ours.

To carry the cross is not about looking for some heavy burden. Carrying the cross is all about seeking the pattern and finding the rhythm of a life that has Christ at the center. We tend to think that when Jesus talks about carrying the cross he is referring to some major spiritual travail or at least significant suffering or sacrifice. But mostly it is much less dramatic.

Alan Culpepper comments,

The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.

To carry the cross is to have our daily life shaped by our commitment to the Crucified One – wherever we are and whatever we do. Husbands and wifes, parents and children, attorneys and auto workers, software engineers and song writers, brick layers and professors – we are given countless opportunities to let our daily work reflect the love of God we know because of Jesus Christ. Labor Day weekend is a perfect reminder that discipleship is not something we do in addition to everything else we do, but the relationship that defines how we do what we do.

Now to the third of Jesus’ very challenging sayings. This one is particularly important for us to remember.

None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

We live in a culture where what we have defines who we are. The things we own allow us to project who we are or how we would like to be seen. Possessions give us security, comfort, and status, and Jesus asks, “Who would you be without all those things? Who would you be if your security, comfort, and status depended on nothing but God’s love for you?”

None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

I hear these words not as a condition, but as an invitation. Giving away everything I own doesn’t make me more of a child of God than I already am. But seeking peace and fulfillment in God alone will help me put all things in perspective: which things last and which don’t, what is important and what is not, what is worth my time and energy and what is not.

Jesus invites you and me to be attentive to his call and to let go of all things that keep us from living with God at the center of our life. And the decision to respond to his call is more than a one-time act. It is the decision to open every layer and dimension of our life to God’s presence. It is the decision to live each day as if we had been wakened by Jesus’ call. Who would you be if you lived that way?