St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Reading: Luke 9:51-62
Each of the Gospel writers has his own way of telling the story. In Luke’s Gospel we’ve got to a point that’s called the journey section or travel narrative. It begins by saying that Jesus has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ It’s the start of the last leg of his journey. The trip from Galilee (where Jesus is now) to Jerusalem is about 137 kilometres, but it’s going to take about ten chapters to get there – whereas Mark covers the same distance by express, taking just one chapter. But Luke is into journeys – for Jesus and for us. The first name given to people like us was ‘people of the Way.’ We’re heading somewhere with Jesus. Life for those who follow Jesus is never static. There are always new discoveries to be made, new things to learn. It’s like that for us a parish as well as in our personal lives. Travelling with Jesus means that we’ll experience many delights and joys, but also some tough and challenging times along the way.
One thing Jesus can never be accused of, is misleading potential followers. The terms and conditions of discipleship are set out in bold type on the front page, as in the Gospel reading. It fills out the question posed to a candidate at Confirmation and asked of us every Easter Eve when we renew our baptismal promises: ‘Will you accept the cost of following Jesus Christ in your daily life and work?’
At the start of the journey Jesus and his friends pass through a village of Samaritans who snub Jesus. This is an age old conflict between two groups, and James and John respond in what we might call a very natural way. They get angry, and offer to call down fire from heaven to consume the inhospitable villagers. I can understand their reaction. Like them I don’t always handle rejection and deep seated differences very well, and there’s a part of me that wants to extinguish those who oppose me. These days, we draw the line at incinerating those who see things differently. Yet the inflammatory exchanges between polarised groups in controversies fracturing the Anglican Communion these days are fierce enough to make one wonder. But that’s nothing new. Paul had to address the issue when he wrote to the Galatians.
Paul contrasts two ways of living: one follows our own self-seeking impulses and desire to gratify our own needs without regard for others and for God. At the centre of that way are enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions. That’s what James and John are giving into. However, before we beat up on them, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how we often respond…. Following Jesus challenges our natural instincts, and Paul describes another way, what he calls the fruit of the Spirit. This is what grows within us when we journey with Jesus and allow him to shape our lives. Then we find ourselves responding quite differently: with ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’
What the first followers of Jesus had to learn, as do we, is that while we don’t always agree with one another, we do need to relate to one another knowing that God unconditionally loves people who we’d rather discard. The desire for retribution is often our first reaction, but that’s utterly opposed to everything Jesus said and did. His mission wasn’t to destroy people, but to reconcile, and that’s to be our focus.
As the group moves on, Jesus meets three would-be followers. His responses are startling and somewhat terse, but Jesus wants us to be clear about what following him entails. First, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus doesn’t even have a bedroom where he can go to sleep. He’s given up any sense of normal security. Are we willing to live like that? Are we prepared to take risks? He’s asking us to think about who he is; whom the person is that we choose to follow. A question for us: are we willing to follow this entirely ‘unsuccessful’ man who doesn’t even have his own bed? Where we follow him may not lead to so-called success (at least not in society’s terms). He may lead us to places and situations that are uncertain, unstable, and unsuccessful.
Then another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Here it’s worth knowing a bit about burial customs in Jesus’ time. Back then, when someone died they were normally buried right away, usually in a burial cave. Immediately after that, the family would stay at home and mourn for seven days, not going out – certainly not walking along a road and meeting anyone like Jesus. That initial week was followed by a less intense period of mourning for another 30 days, and then they took up their lives again. Then about a year later, when the flesh of the body in the burial cave had decomposed, the bones were collected and placed in chests, in a second burial (something that Maori did and which the Liturgy of Unveiling of a Memorial in our Prayer Book is derived). So the potential disciple’s request is about wanting time to finish the rite of secondary burial. And Jesus is telling him that he can’t wait for the rest of the year to pass: the kingdom of God is at hand, and following Jesus takes priority. But it’s still tough to hear that traditional duties and obligations come second to our loyalty to Jesus. For me, perhaps for you too, there’s often a big ‘but’ in my response to Jesus. I’ll follow you, but… I wonder: where are the ‘buts’ in our Christian life?
A third person said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Ploughing a straight line with animals requires that you watch a fixed point ahead. It needs immense concentration. Looking back causes you to swerve. Creating a crooked line results in wasted seeds, and in terrain littered with rocks, it could spell disaster for the animal, for the farmer, and for the future of the crop. A modern metaphor is the person who turns to look at the back seat while driving, and we know what the consequence of that could be.
We’re being asked to make God our first love and priority. Jesus is saying that our loyalty and commitment to him can’t be half-hearted. It’s the affirmation we make at every Baptism, that, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ In other words, our first priority and primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
Teachings like this can leave us feeling inadequate, even perhaps, a failure. But then we need to remember, that following Jesus is a journey that we don’t travel alone. He didn’t ask the disciples to go places where he hadn’t gone before. So in this journey we’re accompanied – by Jesus and by each other. The responses made by the three potential followers may find an echo in our own lives. But remember, some of the giants of the faith were very reluctant to accept God’s call. Yet each, however half-heartedly or hesitantly, did what God asked, and God blessed their discipleship. This is good news because it means that God doesn’t write us off as failures when we may hesitate in responding. The journey of following Jesus isn’t easy, yet the Lord, who has called us to follow, will stay with us along the way.
Lord, you have called us to serve you.
Grant that we may walk in your presence:
your love in our hearts,
your truth in our minds,
your strength in our wills;
until, at the end of our journey,
we know the joy of our homecoming
and the welcome of your embrace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.