When I was 19, my best friend, Mackay, and I decided that it would be all kinds of fun to ride our bicycles from Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico. And so one sunny morning in June, we set off pedaling down the Pacific Coast Highway with sleeping bags, a 2-person tent and a few other necessities strapped to our bikes.
The hills of Laguna slowed us down a bit more than we had anticipated, but it was still too early for lunch when we reached San Clemente, so we decided to push on and have lunch in Oceanside. But at the south end of San Clemente, we ran into a very big obstacle that we hadn’t planned on. Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to ride through Pendleton on the freeway, but we thought we could ride through the base on the old highway, which, according to our maps, still ran alongside the freeway. The very nice Marine guard at the entrance to the base told us that that was not going to happen– because the old highway was long gone.
After some begging and pleading and a few choruses of “Gosh, We’ve Ridden All This Way,” he got on the phone and managed to get permission for us to ride through the base. He sketched out a map for us and gave us very strict instructions to stay on the route he had outlined for us, making it clear that straying off that route could have grave consequences, including but not limited to death, dismemberment or being imprisoned.
An hour and a half later, we were utterly lost on a winding dirt road when a very perturbed Marine in a jeep came roaring up to us and asked us what the H-E-DOUBLE-Q we thought we were doing. He also told us that we were perilously close to a live-fire range, then threatened to throw us in the stockade or make us enlist or both before finally deciding to guide us down to the southern end of the base. He sent us off with a warning that if we ever set foot or bicycle tire on the base again there would be dire consequences unless, of course, we were in a Marine uniform.
We had lost a lot of time on the confusing roads of Pendleton, so we powered through Oceanside and into San Diego without stopping for lunch. Then came the ordeal of getting through San Diego on surface streets which proved to be far more complicated and took much longer than we had planned. And just so you know, not even the military had GPS yet in those days, so we were at the mercy of outdated gas station roadmaps.
The sun was getting ready to call it a day by the time we crossed the border into Tijuana. We grabbed a couple of tacos from a taco cart then raced the sun for the last 14 miles to Rosarito Beach where we camped for the night.
The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. The ride from Rosarito to Ensenada on the old road up across the mountain—the only way bicycles were allowed to go—was a challenging but beautiful ride. After a night in Ensenada, we turned around and headed for home.
We spent the night at Rosarito Beach again, had a good breakfast at the cantina, then set out for the border. We made good speed and got to Tijuana at about three in the afternoon which gave us plenty of time to make it to Silver Strand State Beach in San Diego where we planned to pitch our tent for the night.
And that’s when we ran into another obstacle we hadn’t planned on. There were three long lines of cars waiting to cross the border into California. We rode our bikes up between the lines of cars to the state line expecting that the border guard would just wave us through—after all, where would a couple of guys on bicycles hide anything? But the guard at the border wasn’t having it. He gave us a lecture about trying to cut the line then told us to go all the way back to the end of the line. Two hours later after standing in the heat astride our bikes and breathing exhaust fumes from all the cars, we finally got back to the border where the same guard just waved us across without even asking for our I.D.
At that point, we pulled over to the side of the road and took stock of where we were and what lay ahead of us. We were exhausted, hot and sweaty. Our legs were trembling and aching. We didn’t even want to think about trying to get through Pendleton again. What we wanted most was a good shower, a long, cold drink and a good meal. What we wanted was to be home.
The bicycle ride that we had thought would be all kinds of fun had turned out to be all kinds of challenging. Our stamina had evaporated in the exhaust fumes and unrelenting sunshine while we waited at the border. We were fresh out of possibility. Our ride was over. We made our way to the airport and, grateful for small miracles, managed to snag seats on a flight back to Long Beach.
“Who would build a tower without first figuring out how much it’s going to cost?” asked Jesus. “What king would go to war without first figuring out if he has a chance of winning?” Who would ride a bicycle to Ensenada without making sure that they could actually get there and back?
Luke tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem. They had been watching him heal people. They had been listening to him as he taught them about the kingdom of God and how radically different it is from the kingdom of Caesar. The crowd was drawn to him. They liked him. They liked the different world he described, the better world that he told them is possible. A lot of them were probably wondering what it might be like to be part of his inner circle—to be his disciple.
But there’s a big difference between being a fan and being a disciple.
Jesus wants to make it clear to the crowd that becoming a disciple means putting him and the kingdom of God first. Jesus wants them to understand that becoming a disciple means you join him in making the kingdom of God a reality on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus wants us to understand that the other kingdoms of this world are going to resist you when you do that.
The kingdom of family may be perfectly happy for you to be a fan of Jesus, even for you to embrace some of the things he teaches. But they may not be so happy when you start giving away time and resources that they feel they have a claim to. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus. And no, he didn’t mean a disciple has to have some kind of intense animosity toward family, but he did mean that you, as a disciple, have to be willing to turn away from them, to let them go, when what they want is trying to pull you away from where Jesus is leading you.
The kingdoms, the empires of this world will resist you when you become a disciple of Jesus and set to work in earnest to make God’s reign a reality in your life and in the world.
The kingdom of consumerism will sneer at you for not having the newest, shiniest, most fashionable, most advanced everything—clothes, gadgets, house, car or whatever when you, as a disciple of Jesus, learn to be satisfied with what you have and to give away what you don’t really need.
The kingdom of capitalism will call you a socialist or maybe even a communist when you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that those who have more should contribute to the well-being of those who have less. When you remind them, as Jesus did, that God did not intend for the bountiful resources of the earth to enrich only a few, they will call you a radical and try to silence you.
The empire of power will oppose you when, as a disciple of Jesus, you call for liberating the oppressed and setting the captives free. When you, as a disciple of Jesus, insist that all people are equal and beloved in God’s sight so the opportunities and benefits of life together in a civil society should be equal, too, regardless of race or gender or color or sexuality. They will call you a trouble-maker and try to put a stop to you…one way or another.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus, and those people in the crowd, especially the wannabe disciples, knew he wasn’t just using hyperbole. They knew that the cross he was talking about wasn’t a metaphor. He was telling them there would be a real cross with real nails and real pain…because when you try to establish the kingdom of God in the midst of the empire of coercive power, coercive power will try to stop you. Brutally.
If you want to be my disciple, then stop and think about what that might cost you says Jesus. There’s no shame if you can’t go that far. There’s no shame if you just want to follow in the crowd and listen from a safer distance. But you should know, eventually that won’t be enough.
Eventually the Word of God will bring you to a place where either you will summon up the stamina and will to finish the ride… or call it quits. Eventually either the vision of the kingdom of God will become all-consuming for you, or you will dismiss it as a nice but unobtainable ideal—or maybe some kind of prize in the afterlife if you are nice enough to qualify.
Traveling with Jesus sounds like all kinds of fun. And it does have its rewards. There are healings along the way. He’s a marvelous teacher and the kingdom he envisions is beautiful. He loves you and isn’t shy about making that known. Jesus loves the crowd… but not everyone in the crowd is ready to go all the way to discipleship.
Lots of people can ride a bicycle. Comparatively few can ride it all the way to Ensenada and back.
How far will you go?