Scripture: Luke 14:25-33
Led by the star power of Hulk Hogan and then further bolstered by wrestling legends like Macho Man Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, and the Ultimate Warrior professional wrestling entered an era of heightened popularity in the late 80’ and early 90s. When Hulkamania rolled in I was in 3rd grade, and like a lot of other kids my age I got caught up in it. For me wrestling was just a phase and it is probably been close to 20 year since I have really watched it. Despite that, there are some aspects of the whole concept that I still find fascinating. Wrestling is sports entertainment. Wrestlers do have incredible physical prowess and ability, but the fans know it is scripted. Even though it is not real, great lengths are taken by the talent, the producers, and the fans themselves to treat it like it is. This dedication to immersion is one of the reasons why professional wrestling has persisted and has some really devoted fans. I find the dedication to immersion and the persistence to deliver a manufactured reality to be fascinating. One of the ways this is seen is in how the wrestlers portray their characters. Unlike other actors, wrestlers never break character. Even when not actively performing, whenever the wrestler appears in public they tend to stay in character. There are some wrestlers have taken this to incredible extremes.
One example of this is the 1980’s era wrestler Nikita Koloff, the Russian Nightmare. As you can imagine, a Russian wrestler during the height of the cold war made for an easy villain that the audience loved to hate. Accept Nikita Koloff was not really from Russia, and his name was not initially Nikita. He was born as Nelson Scott Simpson and he grew up in Minneapolis, not Moscow. He set off to be an American football player and kind of stumbled into professional wrestling. Once he got into it though he dedicated himself to the role of the Russian Nightmare. He legally changed his name from Nelson Scott Simpson to Nikita Koloff, and he learned to speak fluent Russian. This was not just a persona in the ring either, he kept up his character at all times. Even when getting up a lease on an apartment, he brought a real Russian translator with him to translate the English he understood into the Russian he was learning. Only after he formally retired from wrestling did he drop the act, but for eight years he kept appearances as being a Russian wrestler. No matter what your personal thoughts are about professional wrestling, that level of dedication to not breaking character is truly remarkable. For eight years he was all-in on living out his wrestling persona.
The example of Nelson Simpson’s transformation into the Russian Nightmare is a bit of an extreme example, but that commitment to character is common in the world of professional wrestling. We do not think of chokeholds and suplexes when we think of our Christian witness, but I think we can actually learn a bit about our faith from professional wrestling. The wrestlers go all-in on their commitment to stay in character, and we should show that very same level of life-defining devotion when it comes to following Jesus.
This morning’s scripture is one that can be somewhat of a problematic one for us. Because it is in this scripture we have Jesus Christ, the prince of peace and the Lord of love utter these words: “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.” This scripture is problematic because at face value we have Jesus advocating we hate people. This is not an instance where we can go to the original language and chalk it up to a translation issue. The original Greek word used here is a common one, and it is one that best translates to hate. However, language has always been and continues to be a tricky thing. Even in our own language the word hate has different connotation. In understanding exactly what Jesus means here there are a couple of contextual points to keep in mind.
First, we need to consider Jesus use of language. From Jewish writings that exist from the time period of Jesus, we can clearly see that Jewish rabbis made use of hyperbole. It was common practice to make exaggerated statements, which are not meant to be taken literally in order to make a point. Jesus himself utilizes this technique in the gospels. For instance at one point Jesus states “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” It is commonly understood that Jesus was not advocating that we literally cut off parts of our body, it is a hyperbolic statement to underline the seriousness of his point. The same principle is at play here. To get the point across he intentionally uses stronger, hyperbolic language. Jesus is not advocating that we have an adversarial relationship that wishes harm upon others in the use of hate, but rather generations of biblical scholarship uphold the intention here is that in order to follow Jesus one must love Jesus more than they love those that mean the most to them.
The second point to keep in mind is why Jesus was making this hyperbolic statement in the first place. Verse 25 states that large crowds had begun to follow Jesus, and he addressed this morning’s scripture to those crowds. Jesus was an anomaly of his day. Jesus was a traveling rabbi, and like traveling rabbis of the day he had disciples. The disciples were the people who had committed to following from, learning from, and emulating the rabbis. Typically these rabbis required elite qualifications from their disciples. Only the people with the highest marks, the best pedigrees, and the most promise would usually get accepted into discipleship. The burden and workload of discipleship was demanding, it was not for the faint of heart, and it was only for the elite.
But Jesus was different. He said my yoke is easy and my burden is light. His disciples were not the elite of the elite, but everyday people. This led large crowds thinking they could be part of it to. We get a sense that these large crowds gathered because they were looking to a shortcut, an easy button to righteousness. In this scripture, Jesus was making it clear to these crowds looking for easy status, that while Jesus had a light yoke and an easy burden, there was still a cost involved. Jesus did not, does not demand, that his disciples be people of means, be the best of the best, or be flawless in their execution. What Jesus does demand though, is a changed heart. Jesus demands that we take seriously following and loving him. We should love Jesus so much that the amount of love and esteem we have for him, dwarfs all of our other relationships in comparison. This is also a non-negotiable. This is why Jesus spoke of measuring the costs. Just like a builder will only commit to a tower they can finish and a king will only commit to a battle they can win, we are only to commit our lives to God if we truly mean that Christ is all in all. When it comes to being a Christian, to being a disciple of Jesus Christ, we are either all-in or we are not in at all.
Jesus had to remind the crowds that there was a cost to following him, because some of them were likely looking for a low commitment way to be closer to God. A low commitment faith is honestly an oxymoron. There is no such thing as an almost Christian. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, preached about this all the way back in 1741. In a sermon entitled the Almost Christian, he preached about the temptation the people of his time faced to merely dabble in following God without going all in.
This is still a problem today. Kendra Casey Dean identified this an issue in her 2011 book that she also titled Almost Christians. Her book builds off a landmark 2004 study that profiled the religious beliefs of young people. This study found that while the vast majority of people claim to believe in God, their actual beliefs on God do not actually reflect Christian beliefs. The belief that the majority espouse has been labeled “moral therapeutic deism.” This is the belief that God primarily wants people to be happy, and will make them happy as long as they are mostly good people. This kind of self-centered faith is what Dean labels as Almost Christian. This selfish belief is one that requires a very low personal commitment while still claiming all of the benefits of faithfully following God. In Dean’s understanding an almost-Christian is someone who continues to love themselves first and fore most above Christ. Today’s almost Christians are people who have not yet truly taken up their cross to follow Jesus.
Back to his sermon, John Wesley described the counter of the almost Christian as the “all together Christian.” According to Wesley the “all together Christian has a love for God. . . this kind of love completely lays hold of the entire self. It claims every affection, fills the entire capacity of the soul, and engages the full range of its abilities.” For Wesley the difference between an almost Christian and an altogether Christian was a matter of the heart. . The altogether Christian is someone who has can all-in on loving Jesus.
The All-together Christian’s heart is so oriented towards Christ, that a love for Christ is the single greatest and most defining aspect of their life. The love for Christ becomes greater than every other driving force, every other relationship, and every other motivator in life. Nothing they love compares to how much they love their savior, and where ever Jesus leads the all-together Christian will follow, even when it means the suffering that can come from carrying a cross.
This morning’s scripture and the concept of an almost Christian should cause us to reflect about our own faith. It should bring us to look in ourselves and ponder the question: Am I an almost Christian or an altogether Christian? Following Jesus is not like doing the hokey-pokey. We do not put our whole heart in, take our whole out, put our whole heart in, and shake it all about. We are either all in or we are all out. Remember, there is no such thing as an almost Christian. Our faith in God through Jesus Christ is not something that we should only get on Sunday mornings. Being a follower of Jesus is not something we do as long as something better comes along. Christianity is not a sweater that we only put on when the wind is blowing a certain way. Our faith should not just be one part of our life, it should be the defining aspect of our life. It should be the bedrock upon which we are grounded, the purpose for which we stand, and the very air that we breathe. Following Jesus is not a decision to be made lightly, as Jesus himself makes clear this morning we need to count the cost and be willing to go all-in on loving him with all of heart, all of our mind, all of strength, and all of our soul. In this morning’s scripture, Jesus urges those who seek to follow him to consider the cost of doing so, to consider what it would mean to love him more than we love anything else. Personally, as I consider that question I find a lot of truth in the old hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”. As I turn my eyes upon him and look full into his wonderful face, then the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
May you also consider the cost of following Jesus, and may you also find the light of his glory and grace to be worth it all. May you not play hokey-pokey with God but may you love God with all of your mind, all of her heart, all of your soul. May that love and the relationship with God through Jesus Christ be the most important, valuable, and defining aspect of your life. Brothers and sisters, it is my deepest desire that none of us are almost Christians. Rather, in the grand Methodist tradition of John Wesley, may we be all together Christians. May we be all-in .