I find it interesting the way that readings come up in the lectionary. For all my griping about some of the editing, I do love the way the readings force us along and the way that we have four choices every week. That is especially true this week. Looking back three years, we were apparently in a place of transition. The last time the passing of the mantle of Elijah had come up Michelle was taking over AFM from Vern, we had a couple unexpected voices on the Vestry, and we had even had a switch from Rick to Annette as Treasurer. Discussing change was very appropriate, given where we were. Of course, with the exception of Jon taking over for Annette, we do not have much change.
On the other hand, three years ago we were not focusing as intently upon discipleship as we are this time around. Thankfully, the same set of readings that allows for us to examine change in leadership also includes good teaching on discipleship. In fact, Luke chapter 9 begins an extensive treatment of the commitment required of disciples of Jesus and of how that commitment to Him will often cause divisions and even hostility to Him and His mission. Over the course of the next few chapters, Luke will recount how the temple elites come to view Jesus’ ministry as a threat to their own power and authority. But, in today’s short lesson, we get two small lessons about discipleship, lessons which are important and, yet, hard to digest.
The passage begins with Jesus sending His disciples ahead of Him through Samaria. It is almost a cast away set up, yet think of its importance. Jesus has gone to Samaria to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins! Samaritans were viewed as traitors and half-breeds by those in the southern kingdom because they intermarried with pagan nations. Luke tells us that the Samaritans rejected Jesus because His face was set on Jerusalem. Their rejection is understandable, if misplaced. The capital city of the people who mock and ridicule them is the ultimate, determine destination of Jesus. Why should they want to help Him along on His journey let alone listen to Him, knowing He is heading to Jerusalem. The lesson for His disciples in two-fold. First, James and John want to call down fire on the village that rejects Jesus. Notice our Lord’s response. He rebukes them! There will be a time for judgment, but it will be His judgement and it will be His time! That seems only fair. After all, He is the One being rejected. You and I are called to remember in the course of our lives’ ministry and service that, when the Gospel is rejected, our Lord is the One who is rejected. In rejecting our sincere efforts to share the Gospel, people are actually rejecting our Lord who sends us. This is an important aspect of evangelism to remember. We are called to love and serve and witness others into the kingdom, cognizant of the fact that not all want to call Him Lord. Our job is to as winsomely as possible witness to His saving and redeeming love. If they turn and repent, the glory is His; if they continue along and reject, the rejection is His. The personal stake really is His. We do well to remember that, and we do better not to desire judgment at all times, particularly when we know the stakes.
I often half-jokingly tell people I am glad I don’t have some of my powers in real life that I have in WoW. Yes, I understand the aggravation of rejection. Yes, I understand the feelings of humiliation and failure. But I also understand that His love and His willingness to call human beings to Himself over and over and over far exceeds my personal patience, and most of yours as well. To put these in terms that make more sense, what if I could cast “Holy Fire” on people who used to ignore the stop signs here in front of the church whenever they cussed at me or gave me the universal sign of respect? Can you imagine the utter destruction? How deep would the potholes be? How big would the scorch marks be? Sure, there would have been a feeling of vindication, at least until I found out someone had had a bad day, that someone I had nuked had been fired, or beaten by a loved one, or hurt in other ways that the world hurts us. Would I have meant well in casting the bolts? Hopefully. After all, I helped officers clean up after 26 accidents my first three years here. I saw the consequences of impatience. I knew the hurt; I knew the worry about replacing a car. But like James and John, I did not know the heart of the one who raced through the signs. What business would I have with such power?
Thankfully, several women took it upon themselves to remind me to pray for those who cussed me out, who gave me the finger, and who otherwise made that intersection such a dangerous place. Have you prayed for them? Have you tried to figure out how we can help make it safer? Are you ever really in that big of a hurry to get home or to church that you cannot let someone race ahead of you out of turn? Each of us gathered here today knows of what I am speaking, even if you have no idea about the lightning bolt zap and accompanying burn over time of Holy Fire in WoW. There are, simply put, times in our life where we become so convinced the world and God’s plan of salvation would be better if only we were in charge that we act in ways or say things without realizing the consequence. Each of us has experienced the mercy and patience of our Lord; yet each of us have experienced the judgment and impatience of the flesh. One of the requirements of discipleship is to remember that patience and care which He showed us and reflect it in our love and service of others.
Of course, the other part of the teaching of this Samaritan response is the reminder that rejection can come from anywhere. In the larger scheme of Luke, this passage takes place in the rejection of Israel of the One who comes in the fulfillment of His promises. This section of Luke, unfortunately, will end with Jesus weeping as He enters Jerusalem. He is not weeping because He has failed. Indeed, He will have blessed all of those who have turned to Him for salvation. No, our Lord cries because Jerusalem has missed and rejected the visit of her Lord and King. We might like to think that only the rich and the powerful and the privileged can reject God, but even those on the margins like the Samaritans can reject Him as well. Our job is simply to be loving and winsome in our efforts to serve, ready to have an account of why we do what we do, and unsurprised both at those who turn to Him and at those who reject Him. We are, in truth, called to do faithfully whatever tasks with which He entrusts us. He, working through the Holy Spirit, gives meaning and purpose to our work.
The second lesson about discipleship in Luke’s Gospel is tough. I know from time to time that people wonder what is going on with Jesus when He tells the man not to bury the dead or the other man not to look back. Most of us, save perhaps Amanda, think that the time for giving up everything for the service of the kingdom is a quaint notion that has had its time and passed. In her trips to Tanzania, she has seen the cost of discipleship first hand. Some of those whom she has met have been abandoned by families, by employers, and by friends because they are Christians. In the West, we take it for granted that one can claim to be a Christian or a druid or an atheist and often elicit the same response of indifference. In some parts of the world, as in the ANE in Jesus’ day, following Jesus meant giving up everything. There was a real cost to discipleship.
What of those last two statements? Doesn’t Jesus want us to bury our dead? Can’t we say good-bye to our families? Are those good things, burying our dead and having good relationships with our families? Of course. Burying the dead is even in God’s economy. The problem is a question of priorities and primacy. In both cases, it is the Incarnation of the Holy Trinity calling. It is Jesus who says “Come, follow me.” If He is Lord of our lives, He gets primacy over everything in our lives. The “but wait” comments we love to say to Him simply remind us that He is not quite the Lord we profess Him to be. Should the man want to bury his father? Of course. But the greater desire should be to follow the Messiah, the Incarnation, while He is here on earth. At some point, we know it to be the Ascension, that part of Jesus’ ministry will end. Put differently, we will always have the poor to clothe, the prisoners to visit, the hungry to feed, and the dead to bury. We will not always have our Lord with us. In the face of that reality, these two men chose poorly.
Jesus’ response to the second man reminds us of the difficulty of following Him. Those of us who are OCD might understand this better, but everyone who has followed Kathleen’s travels and pictures in Israel ought to understand this as well. The land in Israel is not flat. It’s not like Indiana, where one can see for miles and miles. Similarly, it is not full of rich soil. There are lots and lots of rocks. When one is plowing behind an ox (using ANE methods), what can happen when one looks back? The furrows can get wonky. We might trip over rocks. Heck, in the wrong place, one might even fall! The plower’s face must always be looking ahead to get nice straight lines and to maximize the potential harvest when obstacles are in the way.
Discipleship is very much like that, too. Like St. Augustine, before he was found by the Lord Christ, we might like the parties, the debaucheries, the idols of our past life which drove us to distraction, and even sleeping in on Sunday mornings when we know we should be worshipping our Lord. But once found, our priorities should shift. There is no way that we can reconcile the idols of the old life will the trials and demands of the new life in Christ. Jesus is not hiding this fact. He is, instead, making this clear from the start of our relationship with Him. His call is absolute, even though He understands far better than us our weaknesses and temptations.
Truthfully, I spent some time trying to think of this in terms in which we can better understand. It finally hit me on the return from Grinnell on Friday. Discipleship is like marriage. I know, He calls us to a wedding feast, but I am talking about the way our lives change from when we turn to Him and follow Him. Many of us are or have been married. Hopefully, each of you present had good pastoral counseling beforehand. One of those questions a prospective young couple must answer is the question of the new family unit. From the time until we are born or adopted until the time we marry another, we are part of our home families. They teach us their customs, what is important to them, how to behave, everything. But at some point in life a man and a woman find one another and, hopefully, discern that God is calling them to marry. All those traditions and all those expectations must be addressed. We as pastors try to give them a sense of what is about to happen. Where will you celebrate Thanksgiving? Christmas? Vacation? What foods will you serve? How will the money be managed? What are your thoughts about children? How will you discipline? What about school? Who is going to help with the homework? As you each know, I could go on and on and on. The problem is that the bride and groom may have been raised with all kinds of expectations. Once they determine to marry, however, there is a cleaving which must take place for the marriage to fulfill its purposes. The two become one. The traditions of two, the expectations of two, must become the traditions and expectations of the new family. It is incredibly hard. The families will often push back, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. But we always celebrate Christmas together. We always serve turduckham for Thanksgiving. We never open presents on Christmas Eve. It is the responsibility of the boys to put the seat down when finished. You are laughing, but you and I know it is a rueful laugh. Most of us have been there. Most of us have found ourselves torn. We love those who raised us. We love our families. Yet, we also love the one we have chosen to marry, one who also loves his or her families and his or her own traditions. That we ever negotiate those beginning minefields is big evidence of God’s grace in our lives.
The truth is that those negotiations are really the husband and the wife carving out their own life together. They are called, for better and for worse and in sickness and in health, to begin the creation of their own family. Can you imagine the pain and the hurt if one was always looking back saying “this is ok, but when I was younger we did this”? Some of you may have been that spouse or married to that spouse. You know the pain and the hurt and the disappointment.
Following Jesus is like marrying Him. Sorry guys, I know it is an uncomfortable image. But think of the similarities. He desires to re-orient all our life for the purpose of glorifying Him and growing His kingdom through faithful obedience. He creates a new relationship which supersedes all prior relationships. All. We are called to love Him more than family, more than friends, and even more than we love ourselves. Part of the problem with looking back, as He warns today, is that we can be more easily seduced astray. If the idols of our lives were money or power or alcohol or other relationships or sloth, think of how much easier it is for us to turn astray if we are always remembering “the good old days.” Put in the language of the day for those of you who are or have been married, how much does your or did your spouse like it when you brought up the positive attributes of a prior boyfriend or girlfriend? Your spouse only married you. Now, think how God must feel when you wistfully think on idols in your life, knowing that He went willingly to the Cross to save you.
Is this calling to be a disciple easy? No. It is an incredibly difficult task. It lasts from the moment we invite Him to become our Lord until our death. There are no vacations. There are no coffee breaks. What’s worse, there is a certain individualism about each call. Each of us experiences a different life of a disciple. Each of us will progress in that transformative process at different speeds. And each of us has different talents and responsibilities which He will use, assuming we let Him, for His unfathomable purpose of growing His kingdom. Look around this room for just a second. Your experience of the Lordship of Christ is far different than the persons at whom you are looking. Some of express His sovereignty through health while others express that same sovereignty through our illnesses. Some of us express His sovereignty through our relative wealth while others express His sovereignty through relative poverty. Some of us express His sovereignty confident in our faith while others of us express His sovereignty clinging as hard as we can to His promises despite our unbelief. And yet, each of us gathered here understands that His call to discipleship ought to have primacy in our lives. Many of us gathered around this altar know our failures and the failures of those with whom we gather today to celebrate our Lord’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension as we await His coming. We know the patience and grace with which He has dealt with us and them. When we allowed our priorities to become misplaced, He did not nuke us or them. Instead, He called us to repent and to try again to obey.
Does His calling to be a disciple deserve primacy in our lives? Ah, that is the question with which many of us struggle, is it not? How do I know I am not wasting my time or spinning my wheels trying to follow this God whom the world tries so hard to forget or ignore? That, brothers and sisters, is the question of faith. If the body of that carpenter’s son is rotting in the ground, then we are to be pitied. But, if He was raised from the dead, as Luke and John and James and Mary and Martha and all those claim He was, then all His promises are sure and all His demands worthy, including His demand that our discipleship under Him have priority over everything else in our lives and in the world.