I’ve been seeing a lot of orange, black and gold at the stores these past few weeks. Yes, some of the stuff are pumpkins, bats, witches, and other Halloween paraphernalia, but this is also the season when we become quite serious about cultivating our tribal roots. Summer is over, and we are proudly displaying our colors, for we are Commodores and Gamecocks, Volunteers and Mountaineers, Titans and Seahawks, and forgive me if I didn’t mention your tribe. Our allegiances are many, and many a Sunday I will once again consider wearing a pink tie with light blue polka dots just because those may be the only colors left that have not been claimed by some school or team.
And our tribal allegiances aren’t limited to schools and sports. We are Yazoo and Bud Light, Chevy and Ford, Mac and PC, Republican and Democrat, Coke and Pepsi, Lululemon and Under Armour, Hershey and Olive & Sinclair, and forgive me if I failed again to mention your particular tribe. We wear carefully chosen colors, styles and logos, and everything from our footwear to our hair product and our water bottle projects who we are or how we want to be seen. Every purchase we make is an identity statement, and who we are, it seems, is a carefully created composite of our consumer choices. None of this is terribly new, except that it is, historically speaking.
For much of recorded human history, a person’s identity, in addition to their status as men and women, children and adults, was defined by their birth into a particular family, clan, or tribe. You were somebody’s son or daughter. You were born on this side of the mountain or the other. You were a Capulet or a Montague, a Hatfield or a McCoy, or, less dramatic, a Smith, a Miller, or a Rodriguez, and the best you could do with your life was to bring honor rather than shame to your family name. Some people called Jesus Mary’s boy, and most of them knew it wasn’t a kind thing to say. Others called him Joseph’s son, and to them that meant he would learn a building trade, get married and have children, and eventually take over the family business; that was the right and honorable thing to do. Only Jesus had the kingdom of God on his heart. And speaking in today’s terms, Jesus had the potential to become a very successful brand. 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. On the way to Jerusalem, he turned to the crowd, and with fewer than 160 characters, just the right length for a tweet, he sent a most disturbing message, “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.” Hashtag #discipleship. Not exactly what you would call a rousing summons to the masses to join the movement, is it? And he follows that with two more tweets, short and memorable. 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.
Imagine the marketing experts and the personal brand consultants. Can you see them scratching their heads? “This kingdom mission was such a promising start-up. But what is this? Is he trying to alienate people and push them 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?
You are asking yourself very similar questions, aren’t you? When he speaks of ‘hating father and mother’ – does he mean to suggest that the teenager who storms off to her room shouting, “I hate you, Mom!” and slams the door, does he mean to suggest that she is the ideal candidate for discipleship? And when he speaks of ‘hating wife and children’ – is he seriously looking for deadbeat dads to assist him in proclaiming a message of compassion andreconciliation? He also mentions ‘hating brothers and sisters’ – well, yes, sometimes, I remember a couple of moments like that, but really? Hate? That is very strong language. Is this the same Jesus who challenges us to love even our enemies?
The scholars remind us that in this context “hating” is not the emotionally charged expression it is in English. Its meaning, they say, is closer to “turning away from” or to “forsaking” as in our wedding vows when we promise to be faithful only to her or him, “forsaking all others.” Following Jesus isn’t like following him on Twitter. Following Jesus is exclusive and it’s a life commitment, not something we do when we have nothing else to do or stop doing when we have other plans. Jesus compares the claim and cost of discipleship with our most deeply held allegiances to our parents, our siblings, our spouses and children, and ourselves. Following him doesn’t necessarily mean that we walk away from our other commitments, but that we live them in light of his kingdom mission. Our identities have been shaped by our families and the cultures in which we grew up, but when we begin to follow Jesus, our kingdom identity as citizens of heaven and members of God’s household begins to reshape us. 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 and the world. We learn to say, “I am a child of God. Jesus is my brother. I want to love as he loves.” That sounds perfectly lovely and harmless, only it isn’t.
That new identity and purpose has divided families and will continue to do so, three against two and two against three, father against son, and daughter against mother (see Luke 12:51-53). When we follow Jesus, we must be ready to be changed deeply. We must be ready to have our other allegiances, loyalties, and belongings relativized. We must be ready to have our lives completely reoriented by divine love and toward divine love, and that kind of reorientation causes division.
In my own experience, this has meant being ready to have my male privileges pointed out to me and being committed to being part of dismantling them for the sake of women’s flourishing. After immigrating to the U.S. it has meant learning to see what it means to be white and how much the grand narratives of this nation have depended on excluding the lives and the stories of Native Americans and African Americans; it has meant looking at European history and thought no longer as one epic tale of progress, but as human constructs in need of God’s gracious redemption, for the sake of life’s flourishing.
We must be ready to let him change our name. Our culture teaches us to see ourselves as the carefully created composites of our consumer choices. In sharp contrast, Jesus calls us to carry the cross. He calls us to follow him on the way that weaves our lives into his and his life into ours. He calls us to a life that reveals the shape of God’s unsentimental and passionate love for the world. Carrying the cross is not about looking for some heavy and painful burden. It is about seeking the pattern and finding the rhythm of a life that has Jesus Christ at the center. Alan Culpepper comments (NIB, 293),
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.
Now to the third of Jesus’ very difficult teachings. None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. We live in a culture where who we are is largely defined by what we have. The things we own allow us to project how we want 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 you depended completely on God’s love for you and the world?”
None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Giving away everything I own doesn’t make me more of a child of God than I already am. But seeking life’s fulfillment in God does help me sort out the things that possess me and keep me and others from living more fully in God’s reign. Jesus invites you and me to be attentive to his call and to walk away with him from all things that keep us from living with God at the center of our life. The decision to respond to his call is not just a one-time action. It is the decision to live each day in response to Jesus’ call to the kingdom. It is the decision to open every layer and dimension of our life to God’s redemptive love.