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The reading this morning in Luke talks about commitment as disciples of Christ, to bring about social justice as we work towards the Kingdom of God on earth. The call to leave everything behind and find a new way is central to this reading, as it symbolizes the dismantling of the walls of patriarchy and dominance intrinsic to the Roman rule during the time of Jesus, and calls us to continue that struggle today.
As I reflect on the way we are called, I think of the monks of Nadi El Natroun. Last year I cruised into Alexandria, Egypt and was determined to find the monks of the Egyptian desert, descendents of the early Desert Fathers, who left the comforts of city life for a contemplative existence, their only shelter the desert rocks and caves. Perhaps they were escaping burgeoning taxes imposed by the great Roman cities, or sought to live out the life called by Luke in the gospel reading today. I was fascinated to find the caves have morphed into 4 great monasteries surrounded by huge adobe walls rising out of the arid landscape, walls built as protection from the warring Berbers. The Coptic Christian monks of today seem unchanged by time. They are marked by the cross with a tattoo on the inner wrist and make their living by embroidering and weaving fabric used for their robes. The 10th century churches still stand within the walls, now surrounded by the cells and cactus gardens that expanded to become monasteries. This ancient worn habitat is home to Father Joakim who greeted us insisting we stay for a meal. Inclusive hospitality a sign of Christ is present here, in stark contrast to the menacing walls and isolation of the monastery. We ate beans with olive oil and preserved lemons added and soaked up with flat bread. Over this austere lunch we were welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I reflected that this symbolic life of giving up everything to follow Christ, was part of the fabric of my own journey, albeit less apparent, living in secular society today. The cost of discipleship is indeed high. We are all called to give up our own life just like Father Joakim. Our growing in a relationship with Jesus, searching for a new direction in life, a new way of living, calls us to a commitment no less than the disciples in Luke’s gospel, or the monks of Wadi El Natroun… we struggle with the distractions of our everyday life, and the monks have isolation to combat. The Coptic Christian monks carry on the traditions of the Desert Fathers of the first centuries, but we too share those traditions with prayer, blessings, shared meals, poignant God moments and inclusive hospitality that is part of our life today as a Christian community.
Just as the disciples follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem we also journey, nourishing our spirituality, refining our theology and our images of God, through the process of dying and being born again in our own personal transformation, as we move ever forward to a Kingdom of God on earth. The reading today is about journeying, about dying and rising again to new life, the way that Jesus taught. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me – and if you don’t then you are not my disciple. They were following the way of Jesus which was his path to death and resurrection. The message is clear… to save your life you have to loose it, as we too journey to follow the path of many deaths and resurrections in our own life. Journeying towards a new kingdom is a dream for earth as a place of peace and justice for the disciples – like all the great prophets that went before, and for us as Christians today. The gospel of Luke structures Jesus journey ever facing towards Jerusalem, so that those who join him are ever moving forward, just as we today are ever moving toward the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51), a new kind of public ministry which involved journeys and which Luke continues with Paul’s journeys In Acts.
The instructions for the journey to Jerusalem are in the main part of Luke’s gospel, including today’s reading. Luke focuses on how the disciples should behave – to mistrust money and material things which are likely to stifle their spiritual life, as it had with the Pharisees. They are instructed to be good neighbours no matter what religion or race, which is modeled in the Good Samaritan story, and to be committed to a prayer life.
The requirement to leave the family in Luke 14 in order to join the journey, is representative of leaving all structures of the time, especially the patriarchal domination of the Roman rulers and the Synagogue leaders. The revolutionary Jesus by including everyone disregarded the social constructs of his time, pitching the patriarchal family against the community of equal discipleship. The Jesus movement does not respect patriarchal family bonds, but rather disrupts the peace of those structures by setting each against the other. It is not our extended family that is our focus, but rather a larger family open for anyone to join, where we are equally accessible to God. This radical new way of being is referred to often in the gospels where the great or the first must be slaves and servants of all, by working together for those who are slaves and servants (the marginalized) in our community. Today we work in solidarity for those who are marginalized through sexism and prejudice… now more than ever when our church will not support the ordination of gay clergy, and where women clergy are marginalized in some diocese.
You will notice that the disciples must leave behind their wife, children and families to follow Jesus. This reading (Luke 14:26) has been used to justify that only men can join the new radical discipleship of Christ, as there is no mention of husband. It paints a picture of a group of men in a charismatic movement, who having left home, follow Christ to spread the good news. Although Luke is silent about women in the group, the feminist theologian Fiorenza quotes Mark 10:29 where they are told they must leave their brothers sisters, mother, father – no mention of husband or wife. She argues that the women disciples followed Jesus in Galilee, ministered to him and came up with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15), having left everything and followed Jesus on the way to its end at the cross as eye witnesses of Jesus death and resurrection. Fiorenza states “The evangelists Mark and John highlight the alternative character of the Christian community and therefore accord women apostolic and ministerial leadership.”
‘Carrying the Cross’ in Luke 14 can also be seen as symbolic of the Roman domination. The disciples understood kingdoms with all the political barriers and constraints which Herod and Caesar imposed. The cross was a sort of social terrorism reminding people that any time the rulers could take away your life. Were the disciples carrying the cross as a form of revolt diminishing the power of the cross in the process? Or was the cross a symbol of new life and personal transformation written by Luke after the resurrection, calling for lack of self interest and competing loyalties? Either way it is both personal and political, railing against the powers of domination, and stresses the high cost of following Jesus. There is no doubt that the primary allegiance is to Jesus, one that might well bring strife amongst the family and incur the wrath of the social and religious elite.
The theme continues in Paul's letters. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”, as we walk in the newness of life gifted to us in Baptism. As Marcus Borg claims, it is a way of awareness of self and the world, as we are born again like Saul on the road to Damascus, or slowly over time develop a relationship with Christ where our identity is centred in Christ. We become intentional about our awareness of God and our Christian faith here in this place. The requirement is to give up the old life, an ongoing struggle in our journey to remove the crutches that keep us from a closeness with God, and also means a solid commitment to struggle for social justice. The call to give up your family and carry your cross in Luke’s gospel is symbolic of this struggle and indeed a high price of discipleship. The fruit is love.