July 1, 2007

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Today’s Gospel passage begins with a significant moment in Luke’s story of Jesus’ ministry. It is the moment when the author of the Gospel first hints that Jesus’ ministry is going to come to an end in Jerusalem with his death on a cross. The passage begins: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Although Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing does not change dramatically at this point in the story, the reader who notices this key moment in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life will read everything that happens after this in a different light.

Jesus is not like any other preacher or healer or prophet that might have lived in the area at that time. Jesus was different, because even at this point in his ministry, he is recognizing that his mission is to do something more than preach sermons and offer help to the sick and suffering people that he meets on his journey. Jesus is committed to a ministry that is much broader and more far-reaching than the typical itinerant preacher. He knows that he will need to travel to the centre of things at Jerusalem, and perhaps he also knows that what he must do will lead to intense suffering and even to his death.

But here, at Luke 9:51, Jesus chooses to start heading towards Jerusalem. Though to some, Jerusalem is just a large city, the reader who knows the Jesus story recognizes that Jerusalem represents betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and death. Jesus chooses to go to Jerusalem. He is committed to his mission, no matter how significant the cost to himself.

As Jesus begins his journey, he and his disciples go through a Samaritan village. Not surprisingly, the Samaritans who had a long-standing disagreement with the Jews, do not welcome Jesus into their community. This seems to anger James and John, and they want to retaliate, but Jesus tells them off. Perhaps only Jesus can predict that even his closest and most loyal followers will treat him similarly when they get to Jerusalem. Jesus does not condemn the Samaritans, but simply continues his journey. He was on his way to Jerusalem, where his actions would show God’s love and mercy towards all people, including Samaritans. He was going to Jerusalem, where from the cross he would pray to God saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Given how easy Jesus is on the Samaritans, it may seem a little odd to see this same Jesus with some very harsh responses towards the would-be followers in the next part of the passage. The same Jesus who was deferentially kind towards rude Samaritans who refused to welcome him, now seems a bit rude himself towards some folks who are eager to hop onto his kingdom bandwagon.

Two people volunteer with earnest zeal to follow Jesus, and a third person is directly called at Jesus’ initiation. Their reasons for being rejected — or at least seriously put off — by Jesus vary a little, but none of the reasons seem all that reasonable. Why would Jesus scare off one man by promising him a homeless existence? Why would Jesus seem so brusque towards a man whom he himself called at the same moment the man was sunk deep in grief over a dead father? Why would Jesus refuse so much as a final farewell for the third fellow? It all seems rather “over-the-top.”

Surely we are not to conclude from these verses that followers of Jesus may not sleep in their own beds at night. Surely we are not to take away from this passage the idea that funerals (if not grief over dead loved ones generally) are forbidden to followers of Christ. Surely we are not to conclude that loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plough when it comes to kingdom work.

If the cost of following Jesus is to lead an itinerant life free of family obligations and attachments, it’s fair to wonder just how many believers across the millennia have really, therefore, followed Christ at all. Luke 9:57-62 is one of those exaggerated passages that tempts people to ignore the passage completely, or at least chalk it up to mere metaphor or overstatement that we are free to translate into kinder, gentler ideas.

Jesus said to be homeless. So we take this to mean that we are to have homes, but not be too attached to them. Jesus said to let the dead bury their own dead, and to not be so attached to loved ones that we feel the need to say good-bye to them before taking a mission trip. So we translate this to mean that we have to love God MORE than spouses and children and parents, but we can and will still love spouses and children and parents a very great deal indeed. The question is “Is this passage a reminder of gospel commitment in the midst of our ordinary lives, or is it a call to quit our ordinary lives in favour of a gospel-focused ministry that shoves aside all the usual trappings of life?”

We may take note of the many followers of Jesus, both in biblical times and throughout the centuries that have given up relatively normal lives to do the work of ministry. But it’s also historically clear that God can and does work through people who own homes, and who love their families, and who attend the funerals of their loved ones. And so, we are much more likely to accept the “toned down” interpretation of what we read in Luke. But let’s not dismiss the original, radical, challenging comments of Jesus too quickly.

The American preacher Fred Craddock recently delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In this message he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the log from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told that a shepherd would abandon 99 sheep in favour of searching for just one that had wandered off. We’re told that if everything Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a million gezillion dollars, who then turned right around and just about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous. Over-the-top. Who can take such hyperbole, such exaggeration, seriously?

But as Craddock went on to point out, it’s all a little less ridiculous once you come to realize the wonder of the kingdom of God that Jesus came to announce. It is perfectly appropriate to describe the kingdom of God with these kind of “over-the-top” statements. It’s the only way to get across the amazing love and grace of God towards God’s children.

God IS like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search out the one who is lost. God DOES love us so much that God forgives our debt-loads completely, even if we owe a million gezillion dollars! Jesus cares about us so completely and is so committed to the mission of sharing God’s love with the world that he never gives up. He perseveres through rejection, betrayal, suffering, and death — until God does the most “over-the-top”, amazing, and shocking thing of all — God raises Jesus from the dead!

If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really cannot overstate its power or beauty. We cannot exaggerate enough to convey the good news of this kingdom and of the God of all grace who through Jesus Christ has brought us from darkness into light.

So let’s not take the radical language of Luke 9, and too quickly assume that Jesus must have meant something less than what the text says. After all, Jesus’ ministry required him to give up a great deal. It had to be his first priority. He had to be committed to God’s mission, and it called for amazing sacrifice on his part. Remember, he was on his way to Jerusalem. Doesn’t it make sense then, that following Jesus would require a great deal from us? How can we expect to live in his way without putting his priorities first in our lives?

No, not all believers are called to leave family and home behind, but some are. William Willimon says that while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University for many years, he received any number of complaints from parents, but many of those complaints all boiled down to just one complaint. His phone would ring, and the parent on the other end of the line would say, “What did you do over there at Duke? Our daughter went to school to become a research scientist, but now she says she’s going to become a medical missionary to Haiti. You ruined her life!”

Whether or not we are called to leave behind home or family, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. And if, in the midst of our lives, that sometimes means turning down a promotion, saying hard things to our children, denying our families the dream vacations taken by others, or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the power and beauty of the gospel… well, we ought not be surprised.

In fact, the only thing that should be surprising is the fact that there are so many Christians around who seem to think that being a Christian makes so little dent in their lives at all. Sometimes, even we are those Christians.
May God show us the reality of what it means to follow Jesus — the cost of discipleship, and may we follow him wherever he leads us with courage, commitment, and hope. Amen.