Galatians 5:1, 13-25
“When the Spirit says Follow”
On this day, when six members of our community have decided to reaffirm their faith and become professing members of our congregation, it seems very appropriate that the Gospel text in the lectionary today begins with a moment when Jesus made a similar decision.
No, he didn’t affirm his faith in the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed. (They’re ancient to us, but not yet even written for Jesus.) Nor did he settle down in one particular faith community in which he promised to serve and share his gifts faithfully as a member of the church.
But Luke 9:51 represents a key moment when Jesus seems to decide, to commit himself, and to persevere towards the mission to which God has called him. The text says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem was a place Jesus had been to many times before. It was the central place of worship for his people. He’s likely been there every year throughout his life, perhaps as many as three times a year – for all the great pilgrimage festivals.
We know the story of Jesus as a 12 year-old boy in Jerusalem – sitting and talking with the teachers in the temple. We can imagine many other conversations like that one as he grew up, and that the trips to Jerusalem were something he would have looked forward to.
But this journey to Jerusalem would be different. He had to “set his face” towards it, stealing himself against the challenges that would come his way, committing himself to the risks and the sacrifice that lay ahead, trusting that this was indeed what God wanted him to do.
I once conducted a baptism where the baby girl cried and cried and cried. She cried before I picked her up, wailed while I sprinkled water on her head, and didn’t stop when I blessed her and passed her back to her mother.
I remember commenting at the time that perhaps she knew what her parents were signing her up for. Life as a Christian would not be an easy way, a simple way, or a safe way. Her cries reminded me that following the way of Jesus means making a decision to go where he goes, to give as he gives, and to love as he loves even when that doesn’t come easily.
Jesus’ decision to set his face towards Jerusalem affected how people saw him and received him. In today’s text, he enters a Samaritan village together with his disciples, and they don’t treat him very well there.
The SALT Lectionary Commentary explains that: “In the ancient world, denying hospitality to a traveller was widely considered a serious insult. Why don’t the Samaritans receive Jesus and his entourage? ‘Because,’ Luke says, ‘his face was set towards Jerusalem.’
“Samaritans were the descendants of Jews and Assyrian occupiers, and they disagreed with Jews about the preeminent place to worship God: for Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim; for Jews, it was Jerusalem. As Luke tells it, the fact that Jesus was bound for Jerusalem is what made him unwelcome from the Samaritan point of view. No sooner has Jesus ‘set his face’ towards Jerusalem than he’s rejected for that very reason in a case of what we’d call, ‘religious intolerance.’”
You may notice that Jesus’ disciples want to respond in kind. The Samaritans have insulted them, so they suggest getting God to command fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritans. That escalated quickly, didn’t it?
It was hatred and intolerance breeding more hatred and more intolerance. It was anger and violence justified by the idea that “they hated us first!”
Of course, Jesus immediately rebukes them. Their religious convictions and identity may cause some people to judge or reject them, but the “Jesus way” is not to respond in kind.
A short time later, Jesus will actually tell a story about a Good Samaritan who is the only one to help a man who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead. Jesus teaches his disciples then and now that “so far from destroying your neighbours who believe differently than you do, you should learn from them, with humility and grace!” (SALT Commentary)
Being a Christian today in our culture may once again cause some people to dismiss or reject us. They may think that our beliefs are misguided, or that our practices are a waste of time. And more often than not, they may assume that our faith makes us judgemental and exclusionary. We could be the kind of Christians who want to call down the fire and judgement of God on all those who believe differently and act differently than we do.
But Jesus invites us to love and show respect for even those who do not seem to respect us. We are supposed to be the ones to interrupt that pattern of hatred and intolerance breeding more hatred and intolerance. We are supposed to be the ones who look at our neighbours with the eyes of God, and see that they also are God’s beloved children.
After Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, others are called to follow him, just as we are called today. And rather than simply rejoicing in their desire to make such a decision, Jesus warns them about the implications of the journey they will embark on with him.
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.”
Do all Christians become homeless? No, joining the church today does not require you to give up your apartment or to sell your house and give the money to the poor. Though at times Jesus may indeed call us to such sacrifice.
But there is a restlessness that comes with following Jesus faithfully. It means that we may not rest easy at night, content and at peace in our happy lives. Not that we won’t be happy, but we’ll be constantly reminded of our mission as Jesus’ followers:
All is not yet right in the world – with hunger and homelessness, with violence and war, with human rights abuses, racism and misogyny and homophobia, with conflict and division. And our calling as Christians will push us to keep moving, to keep helping, to keep advocating and giving and praying for the good of the world and all its inhabitants.
To another Jesus said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
I don’t think that Jesus is suggesting that we should neglect our relatives or treat our parents with disrespect. But our priorities will need to change when we put our all into following Jesus. It will become less important to follow societal expectations and norms, and more important to enact love and compassion. Like Jesus, disciples won’t always do what is expected.
We’ll put off our schooling to go on a mission trip or volunteer for an International Aide Agency. We’ll skip our graduation ceremony because we’re needed to help at the soup kitchen. We’ll forgo our usual family supper plans on a holiday weekend because a neighbour is struggling alone and needs our help or companionship. And we’ll do countless other self-less and unexpected things when we’re listening to the Spirit and following the Jesus way.
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That’s a hard one: “Don’t look back.” I can’t imagine that Jesus meant to cause worry and concern for the disciple’s family when he disappeared without even saying goodbye. But spending too much time looking back never seems to do us much good, whether as individuals or as a church.
Sometimes our looking back is all about nostalgia for how things once were – comparing the present to the past glory days, and leading to discouragement and resentment.
And sometimes looking back involves remembering past conflicts and hurts. Grudges are held tightly. Expectations are lowered, and new, hopeful possibilities are impeded.
My interpretation of this passage suggests that discipleship will include restlessness and longing for a world made right, a need to go beyond social norms and expectations, and a determination to focus on the present and the future that God is preparing for us.
Being a Christian is not summed up in learning the commandments, believing a set of doctrines, or even trusting Jesus to forgive and save us from our sins. Being a Christian means turning to follow Jesus with our lives (again and again) – seeking his priorities, taking his risks, setting our faces towards Jerusalem with him to give ourselves in love for others without counting the cost or looking back.
The good news for our new members today, and for all of us who desire to say to Jesus once again, “I will follow you wherever you go,” is that the Holy Spirit is here to help us.
We have received the Spirit as a gift at our Baptism. And if we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, the fruit that will grow within us will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The Spirit does not promise us riches, fame, success, renown, or even the appreciation of our community. But it does promise to help us to become the loving, joyful, peace-making people that we are meant to be.
You may have noticed in the Galatians reading today that the Apostle Paul gives quite a list of the works of the flesh – activities and practices that gratify our basest instincts, but lead us away from lives full of love, joy, peace, and good relations with ourselves and our neighbours.
But we don’t just have a list of things to do and not to do, plus our own will-power to avoid some behaviours and embrace others. We have the Spirit in us to remind us of what Jesus taught, to comfort us when we are tired, frustrated, or afraid, and to empower us to do things we never imagined.
If the Holy Spirit was a tree, it would be producing a plenteous crop of oranges, apples, bananas, berries, melons, pineapple, and so much more!
When we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit – when we listen, when we discern, when we take courage, and when we obey… that’s when the fruit of the Spirit grows in our lives. And that’s what it looks like to follow Jesus.
Today we celebrate that some new members are choosing to join our congregation as we follow Jesus together in this community. But most of all, let’s give thanks for the Spirit’s help as we set our faces towards Jerusalem and follow our Saviour all the way.