Following Jesus is Hard

Luke 6:17-26

Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

You know, following Jesus wasn’t so bad for the disciples when it consisted mostly of listening to him preach. After all, who doesn’t enjoy sitting back and hanging on the words of a captivating teacher and preacher. And following Jesus wasn’t so hard for them when it involved quiet retreats to the countryside for prayer and rest. Indeed, it sounds quite nice for us who live in a world of hectic busyness and noise. And following Jesus could be downright enjoyable for the disciples when Jesus was about the miracles of abundant fish and good wine. I mean, you can get me to come to about anything if there is seafood and wine.

Following Jesus would be easy for the disciples if this was the sort of stuff that Jesus was about all the time. But following Jesus was hard. All the nice, enjoyable, and easy parts were only a small piece of what it meant to follow Jesus. But Jesus was also about doing those things that pushed the disciples, that made them feel uncomfortable, that stretched their idea of what it meant to follow in his footsteps.

Yes, following Jesus would be easy if it weren’t so hard.

I imagine that is what the disciples were thinking as they came down from the mountain and saw the scene that was playing out in front of them. For ahead of them a great crowd of people had gathered, all clamoring for Jesus. As the disciples watched, amazed, Jesus went before them into that great crowd. As he went, Jesus spoke with the people who had gathered there. As he went, they brought forward their sick and suffering, and Jesus healed them. As he went, Jesus cast out unclean spirits who were tormenting and afflicting.

Deeper and deeper Jesus went into the great crowd of people who hungered for his presence. Deeper and deeper he went into this milieu of human brokenness. And the energy flowed out of Jesus, and all who were there and sought healing and wholeness found it.

In the midst of this loud and jostling crowd, in the midst of this chaotic scene, Jesus looks up to the disciples and began to speak. I like to imagine that the disciples were still standing on a high place, watching everything that was playing out below them. I like to imagine their shock, their disbelief, and their discomfort at what they were seeing as Jesus looked up to them and began to speak the familiar words of the Beatitudes.

There are many ways that the manner in which the Gospel of Matthew remembers the Beatitudes differs from the version we encounter in the Gospel of Luke this morning. One of them is that instead of speaking these words to the crowd, Luke has Jesus speaking them directly to the disciples as he looks up at them.

I don’t think that this is an insignificant distinction. I believe that in the context of this story in Luke, Jesus’ words to the disciples are a mixture of instruction and invitation. I believe that they are a commission to his disciples. Standing in the middle of the crowd, pouring out Good News and healing upon all who gathered around him, it is as if Jesus is saying to his disciples, “See, this is what I am about.”

This, this, is what it means to follow Jesus. This is the work that discipleship entails. This is what discipleship looks like.

Following Jesus would be easy if it weren’t so hard.

I wonder what the disciples were thinking as Jesus spoke to them. I wonder how they were feeling. Were they excited by what they saw? Did they see the possibility of what it was that Jesus was leading them into? Did his words move them and fill them with hope? Did what Jesus said overwhelm them and fill them with uncertainty and fear about what they had gotten themselves into? Did the sight of the huge crowd make them want to turn around and go back up the mountain?

I wonder if the disciples found themselves longing for something simpler. For wedding feasts and turning water into wine. For teachings and conversations over a shared meal before a warm fire. For feeding the multitudes with the absurdly abundant loaves and fishes. I wonder if they longed for church potlucks and bake sales. For Bible studies and pageants. For tastefully short sermons from the preacher and a nice coffee hour.

I mean, that’s how we feel sometimes as we hear Jesus’ words, right? If we’re being honest with ourselves, that is how we feel, isn’t it? I know that it is how I feel sometimes. I know that after a really good adult formation class, or as I turn off the lights after the last service on Christmas Eve, after the last carol sung, that I feel an immense satisfaction. I know that in those moments a part of me wishes that it could always be so straightforward, so simple, so satisfying.

But the great crowd from which Jesus calls to us in today’s reading is a long way from Sunday morning. It is a long way from coffee hour and youth groups. And it is outside of what we know, what we find familiar. It stretches us. It makes us feel uncomfortable.

And that is not just me saying it—I think we all feel it. After all, we as a congregation have said that we want to get out and do more ministry and outreach in our community. But the hardest part of doing the work of discipleship and apostleship is actually getting out there, of pursuing Christ on our streets, in our local businesses, and at our schools and places of work.

I imagine that we understand very well how the disciples felt as they came down the mountain, watching what Jesus was doing in the crowd below. I think that there are ways in which we ourselves, like the first disciples, are standing on our high place and feeling some trepidation about what it is Jesus is asking us to do.

I am also proud of us because we recognize that this is hard to do; we recognize our own struggle with this work, and we want to do it anyway. I’ve seen it in the work we’ve been doing to make ourselves a welcoming parish, ready to extend hospitality and God’s love to people of every walk of life. I’ve seen it in our efforts to learn and grow in the work of reconciliation and dismantling of racism and white supremacy in our world and within ourselves. And I’ve seen it in the ways we’ve begun putting ourselves out into the community, to meet our neighbours and build new relationships, whether it has been through our neighbourhood stations of the cross, our Easter rock hunt, or our St. Francis Day pet blessing.

We have done good work, yes, and we have been getting wet. But Jesus is still calling us down off the mountain to join him. Jesus is still calling us into the lonely and broken places in our community, and those places exist right here, right around us. I see it in the homelessness that is so often hidden from our view, but that is apparent if we look for it. I also see it in the isolation in our community, our isolation from our neighbours, our isolation from one another. It has many causes—the struggles of growing older, the struggles of soaring property values and empty homes, and the struggles of being new in the neighbourhood and unsure how to go about finding those connections.

I wonder where you have found the broken and lonely places in the community, whether it is the community outside these walls, or the community where you live. I wonder where you have glimpsed Jesus, where you have heard him calling your name.

My friends, Jesus has gone ahead of us into the brokenness in our communities. Even now he is in the midst of it, pouring out Good News and healing upon all who are seeking it. Even now he is calling up to us, saying, “Come, these are my blessed: the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the outcast. Come,” Jesus beckons up to us as we watch on, uncertain, “this is what it means to be my disciple. This is what discipleship looks like.”

Friends, I don’t know what it will look like when we step down into the midst of the great crowd to be with Jesus. I don’t know what we will find there. I don’t know what we will experience: the joy, the hope, the suffering, the pain, the brokenness, the healing, and the promise. What I know is that Jesus is calling us into it. What I believe is that Jesus is calling us to join him.

Following Jesus wouldn’t be so bad if it were mostly adult forums and Bible studies. Following Jesus wouldn’t be so hard if it consisted mostly of church on Sunday and quiet retreats. Following Jesus would be downright enjoyable if it was mostly about potlucks and coffee hour. Following Jesus would be easy if this was all that Jesus ever asked of us.

But following Jesus is hard.