As we conclude this series we are faced with the question of whether Jesus was demanding the impossible of his audience…
The post-resurrection church, as seen most clearly in Luke’s second volume and also the letters of the Apostles, understood that system of the world had such a strong hold on people that only the Spirit of God could liberate them from it. A more nuanced theology of the powers is needed to understand just how this grip is exerted. Just as the Levitical Jubilee (Lev. 25) of the old covenant, with its regular redistributions of capital and remission of debts, failed because of the grip of sinful greed in people’s hearts, so the promise of a new law written within the heart by the Spirit gave hope that people really could live a life of peace, justice and harmony in the world, as God intended.
Such an outpouring and continuous infilling of the Spirit would have dramatic consequences on individuals and communities. Paul, perhaps reflecting on Jesus final command to baptize and make disciples, used the motif of death and resurrection to make it clear that the life in the Spirit was radically new and empowered the followers of the way of Jesus to live an alternative lifestyle and to create a counter-cultural community. He says in Romans “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6) and later “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”(Romans 6:11). To the Colossians he makes it clear that this death is connected with the system of the present world “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules” (Colossians 2:20) and links the new resurrection life to some sort of communion with God “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). To the Ephesians he links the new life in the Spirit to becoming just and holy like God “and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness (dikaiousune) and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). In 2 Corinthians 5:17 he links the life in the Spirit to the broadest cosmic eschatological purposes of God “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, it is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The overwhelmingly radical nature of the change wrought by the Spirit is interpreted by the writer of the Gospel of John in John 3:5 “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit […] you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” This life in the Spirit offers the hope of freedom from the quite natural, Darwinian desires to look after oneself and one’s own “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:14), “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27) “for of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person, such a man is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:5). “you, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9) “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). This is most clearly summarised in Ephesians “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in indebtedness—it is by grace you have been rescued. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1-7).
So in answer to the Pharisees and tax collectors question, yes, following Jesus will cost you much that you presently hold dear, but in following him you will die to that old life, which was actually a life of slavery to the world’s system of greed and injustice, and in dying you will be born again, into the resurrection life of Christ, which was made possible in the cross, and made new into the eschatological people of God, with a new heart, new desires, new ways of seeing the world and eventually an entirely new way of thinking.