Real Fans, or Just on the Bandwagon?
In 1848 the phrase “jump on the bandwagon” first appeared in American politics. Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for campaign appearances. A bandwagon was the vehicle that was used to carry the band in a parade, circus, or other entertainment through town. As the politicians who rode on Dan’s bandwagon through town met with more and more success, more politicians strove to get a seat on the bandwagon as it passed through towns across the country. During the time of William Jennings Bryan’s 1900 presidential campaign, bandwagons were standard marketing tools for political campaigns, and the phrase “jump on the bandwagon” was commonplace. Today, we tend to think of it in terms of sports teams. I was living outside of Philadelphia in the fall of 2008 when the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team were on the road to winning their first World Series in 25 years. People who didn’t even know what a baseball was became “Phillies Phanatics” overnight as local sporting goods stores sold out of jerseys and anything in Phillies red and white as tickets to games became impossible to find or cost as much as a month’s pay. When the local media covered the games, the sport reporters all stood outside the ballpark reporting on the fans and the players, making note of how many people had jumped on the Phillies bandwagon. For the fans who had faithfully renewed their season tickets for over 25 years, following the team through some winning seasons, and some losing seasons, through the good, the bad and the ugly, telling someone they had jumped on the bandwagon was not a kind remark. It implied that they had been caught up in the frenzy, that they were not real fans, that they were fair-weather followers and as soon as things got hard or there was a losing season, they would not have the fortitude to remain faithful.
In our text for today, I wonder if those were the kind of people Jesus was talking to – those who had jumped on his bandwagon so to speak as he moved from city to city, from meal to meal, on his way to Jerusalem. He was followed by large crowds – multitudes – no longer just his disciples, no longer those who have heard what he has had to say about what will happen when he arrives in Jerusalem. There are the people who have begun to follow him after hearing the good stuff – -the healings and miracles, the loaves and fishes. They have not heard him tell of his impending death and suffering. Reading this passage in Luke today, we see that Jesus is at a point where he needs to make sure that those who follow him down the road, into Jerusalem, really understand where this road ends, and what the cross he will carry means. This bandwagon does not end in a city celebrating a World Series end with a ticker-tape parade and trophy held high. Rather, it ends with his trial and execution. It ends with him crucified on a cross, with the temple curtain torn in two, and his crying out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” If those who follow him are not prepared to follow him all the way to that end, to his death, if they are not prepared to give him their complete allegiance above all else, to give up everything for him, then they should stop now.
The words Jesus uses when he speaks to them are harsh indeed. “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.” In chapter 12, Jesus tells them that his message will bring strife to even the closest of families. His words here echo that. In our modern context, the word hate makes me cringe – -it is a word we hear parents say to children that we don’t use. Did you have the rule in your house that we had in mine? I would say “I hate green beans” and the response would be “we don’t say that word.” It is a word we do not say to one another – -one that is full of anger and division and, well, hatred. For Jesus to tell us that we must hate our families if we are to follow him is not what we want to hear. But is this what he was really saying? We have seen Jesus use hyperbole before when he teaches, and this may be one of those times. When you compare the reading from Luke to its counterpart in Matthew, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37). Another way to approach look at the idea of hate here is not how we view the word, but one of primary allegiance – who do you put your allegiance to first? Jesus indicates that primary allegiance is not to our families, but to him.
In the context of the Middle-eastern first century world, hate was not an emotional position, but a matter of honor and shame. “Hating” someone’s family did not mean being repulsed by them at a visceral level, as we may interpret it today. Instead, it was a matter of having done something that injured or disgraced them. In this family centered culture, each member of the family was expected to protect the honor of the family. Joining this new “Christian” movement certainly would not have brought honor upon the family – -remember, Jesus was not seen to society as the Son of God and someone to be revered and worshipped. For most, he was a trouble maker, a crackpot, suspect, and if your children or spouse joined his movement, it was something that brought disgrace to the family. Wrapped up in Jesus’ requirement that his followers must “hate” their fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers is the idea that if they are truly his disciples, if they truly follow him, they may be separated from their families. The decision to follow him will lead to familial disgrace and discord. There will be divided loyalties, and Jesus demands that primary allegiance be to him. The past allegiances no longer matter – identity is no longer formed by how one answers the question “who are your people and where are you from?” Those are questions for the old world; the one Jesus calls his followers to leave behind. The world into which he leads does not make those distinctions. Our family members are those who also proclaim their primary allegiance to be Jesus.
This idea can be hard for us to hear today. We want to proclaim that we put our families as our first priorities, or our country, or any number of other things that seem like they should be our first priority and our first allegiance. “How can I comfortably follow Jesus if I don’t know for sure that there is food on the table and a roof over our heads?” we might ask ourselves as we once again put our job first. Or, as we look at the flag and the soldiers who defend us, we say that we give our nation our primary allegiance – it is the freedoms we have here that allow us to worship Jesus in the first place in the way we do, right? Families make choices about how to allocate time and resources, placing themselves first, thinking this is how we are called to live as faithful disciples and Jesus today says that is not the case. He tells us in today’s text that to follow him, which is what discipleship is, to follow him all the way to the cross, and then beyond, will require some hard choices. We will have to redefine our priorities and our thinking – -to be a disciple of Jesus means that he is the one who has our primary allegiance, and is our priority. Our faith in him is what comes first. His message to his followers today is that this does not come without a cost, and we must be ready for that.
Knowing that the decision to follow Jesus might mean we break ties with family, or at the very least, have to put them second on the loyalty list was hard enough to process for those following him that day. It was a hard enough concept to try to wrap your head around and come to terms with. One might hope that Jesus would give them a few moments of silence to think about what he said. But no, Jesus just keeps going. Maybe he didn’t notice a few of the followers who stopped to look at the map display at the truck stop when they stopped a minute ago didn’t come back. The family that got all excited after being with Jesus when he saw the man with dropsy suddenly turned back – they were heard muttering something about leaving the iron on at home. Some of these folks decided that they were not sure this is what they signed up for, and that they are not willing to go that distance. And yet, Jesus just keeps talking. “27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
We focus on cross bearing as the negative things in our life that we have to suffer through, because after all, Jesus told us we had to bear a cross, and he carried one, and he died on one. There is an overused phrase – -how many times have we heard it – “I guess that’s just my cross to bear….” Something bad happens, we have a hard day, there is someone difficult in our lives we have to deal with day in and day out, we or someone we love has an illness. “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” I tend to hear the phrase said despondently with a sigh at the end. “Well, that’s just my cross to bear (SIGH).” In fact, I almost did not preach this passage today because of those very words – they have almost become a cliché. The mental image that goes with this phrase is of someone hunched over, carrying a heavy cross on their back as they slowly. and painfully. Shuffle. Through. life. And then I came across the words of Alan Culpepper on the subject of cross-bearing that offer a completely different perspective on the matter. He writes, “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.”
That was the epiphany for me: Cross bearing is “what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.” As disciples of Christ, as those who follow Christ, we are invited, not forced, to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We are invited to commit to be disciples, to place our primary loyalties in Christ, and then as a consequence of that commitment to follow, have our lives shaped to the crucified messiah anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Instead of mentally picturing the hunched over person bearing the weight of the cross on his or her back, what if we are bearing the cross to the world –taking the cross to the world in all that we do. As we go about our days, as we teach, as we drive, as we type at keyboards and send e-mails and answer phones – -our lives are shaped by the commitment we have made as disciples and we bear that out into the world. Tomorrow is Labor day, a day when we celebrate the end of summer, but also a day to think about work, and how we labor. Each of us has been given a vocation, and the labor each of us does serves a unique purpose in this world, and makes a difference. All of our labor, volunteer and paid, sacred and secular, for the church or for the city and state, farming or running a company, raising children and caring for parents, being a friend or caring for family, being a student, all of our labor, if done as a consequence of our decision to be committed to Jesus Christ is cross bearing. When we offer our time, our talent, and our labor to God, we allow the whole of our lives to be shaped by our commitment to Christ.
Discipleship, living the Christian life is a daily choice. We decide every day where we place our allegiance, and where our priorities are. We decide every day who we will follow and who we will leave behind. Jesus tells two parables about counting the cost – not beginning to follow unless we know that we can go all the way to the end. You do not start a major house renovation if you cannot pay for the whole thing, nor do you plan for a war without knowing what the consequences will be. Imagine deciding to remodel the kitchen and then running out of funds before you finish the floor or put in the refrigerator or stove. Or planning a cross country expedition by car from Cartersville to San Diego and running out of money for gas food and lodging in Arizona. There is a cost to deciding if you will follow as a disciple of Jesus. We have to leave behind things that make us feel safe. We cannot say “my family comes first” anymore – it is not true. Jesus comes first. Every day we have to make the decision that following Jesus Christ comes first, and our lives are centered on that. We bear this into the world. We volunteer to center our lives on the one who bore death for us. We willingly commit to follow Christ and do all that we do in service to him. The cost means we have to leave behind notions of security, of patriotism, of the past. We have to follow Jesus all the way to the end, to the cross and then beyond it. As disciples of Christ, we make the choice every day to do this. We decide how we will live and how we will be.
Jesus had harsh words that day for those who were following him. Perhaps he was trying to make sure they were not simply jumping on the bandwagon before they were ready to make a true commitment. Those words can still sound harsh to us when we hear them today. Discipleship is not an easy road. There are days when we will question our faith, question why we did it in the first place. Jesus calls us to make sure we have thought the commitment through, that we understand that this is not a temporary decision to be taken lightly. To be a disciple requires placing Jesus Christ at the center of your life, as the first priority. When Jesus comes first, we live our lives by faith, trusting Jesus for what we need as we go. We trust that as we live as disciples we will be sustained along the way. Jesus didn’t promise it would be easy or pleasant. He did not promise to stop and look at the scenery. In fact, today’s text is a warning that being a committed disciple can be a hard road sometimes. All that you are, all that you seek to be, all that you labor for – -it is all for him. We bear witness to the risen Lord in all that we do when we are disciples of Christ. We are called to proclaim that Jesus is Lord every moment of our lives. The question we are asked today, and every day, is this: are we willing to make that proclamation, place our allegiance in Christ, and follow him to the end of the road? In the name in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.