A few years ago, I read a fascinating and somewhat controversial book called The Churching of America, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. In it the authors examined and brought to light the history of religion in America by arguing it works as a free market economy, an economy in which there are winners and losers. The authors were not pastors or theologians, but professors of sociology and they tackled the issue as sociologists. They do not speak much about orthodoxy or heterodoxy or faithful confessions but use the language of economics. In fact, they assert that religious economies, like commercial ones, consist of a market made up of a set of current and potential customers and churches are a set of firms seeking to serve their market. The fate of these firms depends on their organizational structure, their sales representatives, their product and their marketing techniques.
Now think about this idea for a moment. Think about a given church as a firm serving a market. Not all churches are going to be successful in their endeavor, some will win, others will lose their market share. What sort of things do you think would make a church a winner? We like to think, or at least pastors like to think, the greatest driving principle is going to be faithfulness to the Word of God. If you are teaching and preaching in accordance with God’s Word, you will be successful. But that is not actually how it works, is it? Winners and losers are defined by things like how the worship service is run, what sort of songs they sing, and if they have day care? People go in search of specific programs which cater to their age group or their hobby or just about any other thing you can think of.
The Word of God, as it turns out, is not at the top of the list of what makes a winner or loser in the religious economic landscape of America. I suppose we should not be surprised by this. After all, take the text we have before us today from Luke 14. Where do you think it would fall on a scale of things which would attract or detract from people to a church? Imagine you walked into church for the first time, or at least this church for the first time, and the words you are greeted with are Jesus turning to a large crowd of potential customers and saying,
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
That is not the most enticing of sales pitches. This would be the type of thing you would avoid at all costs. It is not the sort of thing you would spring on the first date; you would let that one linger in the back, hoping it goes completely unnoticed.
This is a radical call to discipleship, one leaving no part of your life untouched, and so, it is one we would rather not focus on. It is certainly not going to help our popularity because what Jesus is talking about is a discipleship not marked by glory, but shame. It is not about being healthy, wealthy and wise, but taking up a cross and following Him. The faith, as Jesus lays it out here, is not a rag to riches story. It is not about the little guy who had nothing and just believed and worked hard and so overcame all life threw at him and became a great conqueror.
I remember when I was in high school a few of my buddies and I would go to various other youth events at some of the local, more popular churches. We were not going because we were seeking the truth. We were going because there were girls there and we were seeking them. This is how they were increasing their market share. But it would never fail, at these events there was always the moment where a person stood up to give their personal testimony with some story of how God had impacted their life. Now I was not the smartest kid there, but you could easily see the same pattern develop. Their life was some sort of tragic misery. Usually, it was drugs or gang violence but then they gave their life to Jesus and things began to turn around. They mended torn relationships, got cleaned up and found a new lease on life. Yet the whole time, hiding in the background, was this text from Luke 14 where Jesus is saying you are not going to get a new lease on life but a new sort of slavery. You are not going to fix relationships but tear them even further apart.
Jesus is not joking here. He pushes straight forward and says, “Look, which of you if you were going to remodel your kitchen would not first stop and figure out if you can actually afford to get it done.” Imagine if you tore it down to the walls, put new flooring in, got the plumbing fixed and the electrical rerouted, installed new cabinets and even those granite countertops you have always wanted, but you could not afford the appliances. No stove, no fridge and just a big hole where the dishwasher is supposed to be. Would you ever invite anyone over? Of course not! The one thing a kitchen is supposed to be used for you could not do and all because you failed to count the cost.
Jesus then tells another story about a king going to war, but the principle is the same. For if the king knows he cannot win he sends in a delegation to offer terms of peace. You need to count the cost to make sure you can see through what you have begun. The cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is easy to figure out. You do not really need to sit down with a pen and paper, for what He demands is absolutely everything… up to the point that you hate your father and mother and wife and children and brother and sister even your own life. Or as the first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Now, let us be honest, this is more than a little unsettling. It cuts close to the bone does it not? I mean, you know what it is to count the cost. You are not children who just wandered in here with no idea regarding what this discipleship thing is all about. You know you are called to fear and love and trust in God above all the many things in your life. It is not a knowledge problem; you know how a Christian ought to act and how you are supposed to be in the world but not of the world. It is a problem of ability. After all, you may even say you desire to be a disciple, to live faithfully, but you stumble and fall short. You sit here today, and you know too well the sins you have done, the moments of selfishness, the lusts, the anger of your own heart. You count the cost over and over again. You count it up and come to only one conclusion, you cannot see it through. You cannot go all the way. Like salt which has lost its saltiness you have become useless.
And so, perhaps, you give up counting the cost. Perhaps you wish we had not focused on this text today. Maybe just stick with something easier, something more joyful. How can we hope to become a winner in the marketplace of American Christianity with such a difficult Word? But the counting needs to go on. In fact, it must go on. It does go on. Not by you, but by another. For just as you count the cost of discipleship, so Jesus counts the cost of your salvation.
He counts it all. He counts your depravity, your failure, your inability to keep the commands of God. He counts the wrath of the Creator against the sin of man. He counts what it will take to complete the task, to breath the air of His own creation, to endure the scorn and mocking of sinful men. He counts what it will cost to pay for sins which are not His own. He sweats drops of blood in the Garden as He counts the cost and prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). He counts the cost and knows that to pay it will mean He must be crucified, die and on the third day rise again. This is the cost He counts. And to our shock, to our wonder, He freely pays it all. All, and He leaves nothing left for you to pay.
Jesus makes a radical command for discipleship and then He meets it with radical grace. He alone is the author and perfector of your faith. He alone is your hope and your life. So, whether we are winners or losers in the religious economy of America, one thing is for sure, in the gifts of Christ alone you remain winners. Winners of an abiding hope, of an eternal promise, of forgiveness beyond all your counting. For you are heirs of eternal life.