At the moment, Martin and I are making our way through the book of Luke: the second of the four books that tell us about Jesus' life on Earth. Today's reading was from the end of chapter 14:
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish
Luke 14:25-30, NIV
This passage contains two ideas that are very familiar to me: "take up your cross" and "count the cost before you take the plunge". However, as seems to happen depressingly often, it now seems clear that neither of them mean quite what I thought they did.
In the society that Jesus' first hearers lived in, only one group of people went around carrying crosses: condemned prisoners. When Jesus asked them to take up their crosses, he wasn't asking them to endure hardship, he was asking them to die, or at least knowingly take on that risk. The earlier sentence actually says it even more clearly. To put it in my own words, Jesus is saying "if you aren't willing to risk both your own death and that of the people you're responsible for looking after, then you just can't follow me".
As a matter of fact, I found reading these words on this morning to be oddly comforting. In the last fortnight, our household has felt called by God to do something that carries a small risk of exposing one or all of us to considerable physical harm. I'm disproportionately likely to be the recipient of any such harm, should such harm come. This passage affirms my conviction that accepting such risks (and Martin and I allowing each other to accept them) is a normal part of following Jesus.
Once you've grapsed that that's what following Jesus is like, the bits about counting the cost before you start make perfect sense! However, while I was familiar with the idea of counting the cost, I don't think I'd ever noticed just when you're supposed to do this. You count it before you start following Jesus at all and not, as I had thought, before you agree to accept each particular risk.
Have you ever been in an evangelistic situation where people have been encouraged to do that? Encouraged to count the cost, not of rejecting Jesus, but of actually following him? I don't think I have. Is that one of the reasons why so many people start following Jesus but then give up - that it was never made clear to them just what following Jesus might entail? And peversely, would more teenagers and young people be interested in following Jesus if any expression of interest on their part was greeted with an exhortation to consider the potentially life-threatening consequences before making any rash choices?!
Exciting (and disconcerting) stuff, this Bible-reading!