The Cost of Discipleship and the Last Man

How does Friedrich Nietzsche help us make sense of the astonishingly tough demands Jesus makes of his disciples? How could being told to “give away all your possessions” possibly be Good News?

A sermon on Luke 14:25-33 preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church on 31/8/2022 for Proper 18 (23) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Does anything really matter? I get up, I do my thing, enjoy my little pleasures, do my ordinary work, spend some money, watch some TV, go to bed again. And then I repeat it, day after day. Is there anything important at stake? Are we part of a bigger story?

And how does this very unsettling passage where Jesus is challenging us to take up our crosses to follow him help? I mean, Jesus makes it sound like a pretty bad trip: where on earth is the Good News here?

And what light does the unlikely figure of Friedrich Nietzsche shed on the question?

We live in a world where we struggle for meaning. The universe just seems like a machine, whirring along like a clock wound up by who knows whom, or, perhaps even worse, just a chaotic assemblage of random events, none of which could possibly “mean” anything, because meaning itself is just an imaginary creation of the human brain – just a sort of foam thrown up by the impersonal, meaningless bio-chemical and electrical systems of our bodies, which are themselves dependent on physical laws.

We like to think as though things matter, that how we live counts for something, but the deep suspicion of our culture is that it’s just all meaningless. Like the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said: vanity of vanity, all is vanity…

All things are wearisome;
   more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
   or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.

Our situation makes me think about a book written at the end of the nineteenth century, where it took a keen eye to see what was happening in European and Western culture at the time, megatrends in how we understand and experience the world which are still unfolding today.

The book is named Thus Spoke Zarathustra[1],  written by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German thinker who died in 1900.  It’s a complex, hard to understand, much debated book. But the key idea from our perspective is what Nietzsche calls “the last man.” The point is not that this is literally the final person to live, but a sort of end point of humanity, a possible final destination if the trends which he saw in his time were to continue into the future.

The point of the Last Human is that they don’t strive for anything, don’t believe in anything much, don’t really do all that much. They take their little pleasures like a tame animal. They avoid danger. They aren’t at all interested in bigger questions of life and meaning because they live entirely on the surface, because either they think all the questions have been received satisfactory answers, or because they don’t believe the big questions can be answered at all, or because, really, who cares, when there is a pleasant enough life to be had? 

This sounds, to be frank, a lot like our culture.

In fact, these “last people” sound like the perfect consumers. They work obediently, spend their money on whatever the latest trend is, and don’t make trouble. They are addicted to their televisions or social media. They displace their desire for meaning and purpose into a fantasy realm, because they live in a culture which, at quite a deep level, really doesn’t think that there are big questions at issue. All of their physical and psychological needs are met by a beneficent welfare state,[2] and there is nothing left to strive for, no big questions at issue.

We perhaps haven’t quite met that final point yet – there seems to be no lack of physical and psychological needs which remain unmet – but that is the direction in which our society wants to travel. Even the big questions about the environment and what to do about it are largely seen through that lens: if only we had enough renewable energy, then surely we would finally be happy? For us, it’s a question of technique, of how we go about making the energy transition. It is not about any sort of fundamental question. There are struggles, but they are more about how to go about it – questions of engineering and prudent government.

But here’s the thing: if we transition to entirely net-zero energy, I am far from convinced that we would be any happier. We could carpet the entire continent with solar panels and fill the Pacific Ocean. Because the problem with our life isn’t fundamentally outside ourselves, and can’t be solved by technology.

Our real problem is our alienation one another and from God and even from ourselves.

It is a problem which cannot be solved by technology. It can’t be solved by Instagram, can’t be solved even by wellness.

The problem goes by a lot of names, and surfaces in a lot of different forms in different cultures, but I think the form in which it shows up in our culture is best called meaninglessness. That sense that there is nothing to strive for, that the universe doesn’t care one way or the other what we do, because we know that the universe is just a machine which literally cannot care about anything any more than the number 2 could be fond of cheese or the colour orange could hang out in a café with its friends.

Into this world where nothing matters, and nothing could ever possibly matter, Jesus comes with his life-altering call.

Take up your cross, and follow me.

There are no two ways about it: this is a challenging passage. Let’s briefly have a look at it to see what’s going on.

Let’s begin at the beginning. What does it mean “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself”? Firstly, the word “hate” doesn’t precisely mean what you might think. In the context, it doesn’t have a sense of emotional intensity. It doesn’t mean Jesus wants you to “loathe” your parents, or even your own life.

But it does mean that if you have to choose between your parents and following Jesus, you need to follow Jesus first. 

A Korean friend of mine told me that when she became a Christian as a teenager, her Buddhist father was so angry with her that he locked her out of his house.

I think he let her in eventually, but the idea of her sitting, weeping, on the front doorstep is powerful.

A lot of people have similar experiences: at the very least, to become a Christian is to puzzle your family. And if your family are strongly against Christianity, then the response is stronger yet.

Next, when Jesus says that his disciples will have to “carry the cross,” he is, of course, on his way to Jerusalem where that is exactly what will happen to him: to literally pick up the instrument of his own death and be executed with it.

It wasn’t metaphorical for him, and often hasn’t been metaphorical for his disciples either.

At the very least it means something like: you need to be prepared to put your own life, your own preferences, on the line for Jesus. It’s easy to say, but harder to do, day by day, week by week, year by year.  It’s as though we are to all intents and purposes already dead. Our own worldly desires are in the process of being transformed into the desire for God.

But it is costly, and we have to be aware of it. There’s no point trying to do a renovation and running out of money halfway through – you’ll just end up with a house with gaping holes where the new kitchen should be.

Finally, perhaps the most shocking of all Jesus’ demands: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

I don’t want to dilute the shock of that.

I think: What, all of them?

How on earth am I supposed to live? 

Perhaps we might tone it down slightly by thinking of it as being something more like giving up our sense of right to our possessions? To be prepared to give them away when our life as disciples demands it. After all, if we are prepared to take up our crosses, then we are prepared to give away our possessions.

We aren’t told what the large crowds who were traveling with him made of this, but surely they found it at least a bit off-putting. And I am very aware of my own failure to live up to these hard words.

So at one level, it could be seen as bad news rather than good news. These sound like impossible burdens – how on earth could anyone live like that?

But that, ironically, is where the Good News is to be found in this passage.

The very hardness of the task makes it a worthy life goal. It isn’t something you can tick off a busy to-do list. It is something to structure an entire life around.

And, because it comes from Jesus, the one who is the image and revelation of the creator of all things, it means that, far from the universe being a meaningless place, it is in fact a deeply meaningful place.

God doesn’t want us to be passive consumers.

God thinks it is important how we spend our time, how we structure our lives.

God cares deeply whether our lives are lives of love and self-giving, or lives of apathy or self-centredness.

God, the power behind the universe, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, cares about us – about how we live. God enters the universe in the person of Jesus Christ, to share our human life, because God’s purpose for the universe can, apparently, only come to pass with our collaboration.

We all have a role in this astonishing adventure.

We have been given the gracious gift of God’s own self in Jesus Christ, and the Spirit living among and within us. Far from the meaningless life described by Nietzsche, we have been given the gift of a life that really matters, a life of internal and external transformation into greater and better connection with ourselves, with one another, and with God.

This resolves the paradox of how a live that Jesus tells us to “hate” can be, on the contrary, profoundly worth living. Because as we are gradually, haltingly, iteratively drawn into the life of God, then everything which holds us back from living as children of God will fall away.

This does, however, always leave us with the question of what precisely this life of discipleship looks like in our lives right now? What does it mean for me individually, and what does it mean for this Christian community at this stage in its life?

Finally, at the end of all our deliberations: this Jesus who calls us on, who summons us away from our meaningless lives as “the last humans” has promised that he will neve leave nor forsake us as we continue along the way of love, following Jesus, the founder and pioneer of our faith.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Michael Hulse. New York Review Books. 2022.

[2] See also Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man. Penguin UK, or Macmillan USA, 1992, 448pp., ISBN 978-0141927763

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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