Sermon for June 30, 2019, Pentecost 3C. Audio will be here for several weeks.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, 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.” To 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.” Another 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.”
I have read the bible a lot in my life, so I remember how surprised I was, when I went to seminary, to learn some of the things I had missed. A huge theme in the gospels is what they call “discipleship failure.”
Repeatedly the disciples don’t get it. They don’t understand, they have faulty priorities, they lack compassion, and have to be corrected by Jesus. It was obvious that Peter got it wrong, and also Thomas, but I missed how large a theme the failures of all the disciples were.
I will tell you part of why I missed that, a bit later, but first, let us just notice how that theme that comes out so strongly in today’s text.
Why would the gospels highlight the failure theme? My professors told us that the likely reason is that the early Christians struggled to live faithfully into Jesus’ admittedly radical, and often counter-intuitive path.
Who, after all, would claim to be good at turning the other cheek, loving enemies, welcoming strangers, or praying for those who persecute you? It has never been easy to actually follow Jesus. It was not easy then, and it is not easy today.
So, the church remembered, and recorded, and handed on stories of the original disciples getting it wrong, partly to show the ways they got it wrong, and partly to encourage us, who also get it wrong, that we are not alone in the struggle — but that failure is not fatal. Jesus corrected the disciples, but he never gave up on them. Jesus modeled grace, which is the very character of the God Jesus taught us about.
We are going to look at the kinds of discipleship failures Jesus had to correct in this text, and then we are going to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus today, in our context, which is different, but not easy.
A Journey of Change
So, the story, according to Luke’s gospel, takes place on a journey. Most of Luke is set on this long journey Jesus and the disciples make from Galilee to Jerusalem. That is part of the point: following Jesus is being on a life-journey. We are not expected to stay put, as we are. We have to learn, and learning involves making a lot of mistakes before you get it right. Failure is just part of the journey. We are expected to grow and to change.
I love the way the poet Mary Oliver wrote about change:
“We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we(from “Almost a Conversation” her collection, Evidence)
you have changed.”
So, on this journey, they have to pass through Samaria. Most of us know that there was ethnic animosity between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans, Luke says, “did not receive him” when Jesus went through their village.
The cardinal virtue in the ancient world was to provide hospitality to travelers. They broke it. So the disciples get angry. They ask Jesus,
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
They are asking to do what the Hebrew Bible says Elijah did; call down fire from heaven on the bad guys. (2Kings 1:9). But there are two things wrong with this idea.
First, Jesus rejected the use of violence. Even if the Hebrew Bible is full of divinely sanctioned violence, Jesus was a person who showed that he would rather die than kill. He taught us to love our enemies, just as God does. So no, calling down fire from heaven is wrong.
The second way this request of fire from heaven is wrong-headed is that it is a rejection of the “other” on ethnic grounds. If you have problems with people of other races or religions, as the disciples clearly did here, then you do not yet get Jesus.
Jesus was constantly crossing lines to reach out to non-Jewish people, specifically including Samaritans — remember the woman at the well and her village? This is not a small point for Jesus.
Of course it is not easy, and of course, we will fail to get it right, but to follow Jesus means being on the journey from every form of racism, overt or covert, personal or systemic. Jesus is not okay with it, and we must never be okay with it. We are not supposed to be causing human suffering, we are supposed to be alleviating it. So the disciples were wrong on those two counts: violence and bigotry.
Then, since Luke is on the theme of discipleship failures, he strings together a series of similar conversations. Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him. Here we see some of the stated or implied reasons people gave for not following Jesus.
One says she or he will follow Jesus wherever — but Jesus says it is going to be rough. Sometimes there will be no place to lay your head down in comfort and safety. The following objections lead us to assume that this first one was put off by the difficulty, and did not follow Jesus.
So what are the next objections? One has aging parents to care for until they die, which could take years.
Another has apron strings that cannot be let go of, so she or he wants to go back to Galilee for a final, maybe lengthy, goodbye.
We could spend some time unpacking each of these objections and each of Jesus’ responses, and that would be good to do sometime, but right now, let us just notice the big picture; lots of people fail to follow Jesus. It is hard. It is demanding. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Some just do not think it is doable, or worth it.
Jesus put a lot of effort into teaching about how valuable and how amazing the kingdom of God is — think of the parables about the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price, the wedding banquet — but some people just don’t see it. They have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, as Jesus said. It’s tragic.
The same thing can be said of our day. It is still hard to follow Jesus. It is still counter-cultural, and it is still true that many people fail.
On Not Reading the Gospels
Now I want to get back to why I missed the huge theme of discipleship failure in the gospels, even though I was in church every Sunday for both Sunday School and worship, all my life.
Here it is: besides Christmas and Easter, in the church I grew up in, we hardly ever read the gospels. Now, this may shock you, because we hear the gospels read every Sunday. But I grew up Evangelical, and they do not.
There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it: Evangelicals subscribe to a version of theology (called Dispensationalism) that teaches this: The reason Jesus “came” was to offer the kingdom of God to the Jews. So he taught a lot about the kingdom, its values, and its ethics. But the Jews rejected the kingdom and rejected Jesus as their Messiah. So, God had to implement plan B, which is the church.
When Jesus returns to earth after the tribulation, the teaching goes, he will set up his 1,000-year kingdom, based in Jerusalem. So all of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and its values are for that future millennium, not for now, in the church age. In the church in which I grew up, besides Christmas and Easter, I almost never heard preaching from the gospels.
I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in now, in this country. Huge numbers of Evangelical Christians think that Christianity is just about having faith that Jesus will save you from hell, and that is what the gospel is about; period. All that teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself is for another time. Friends, that is, in my understanding, about as wrong as it can get.
Jesus called people to follow him and that is what he meant. The way we Reformed Christians look at it, we respond to God’s gracious love for us — in spite of our frequent failures — with gratitude. Gratitude is expressed in concrete acts of love, compassion, welcome, mercy, and service to all the people God loves — which is exactly what Jesus modeled and taught.
Who Owns the Name?
But now, we have a problem. The Evangelicals get a lot of media attention. They have their schools and colleges, magazines and television shows all across this country, and in the countries where their missionaries have gone. Most Americans think that to be a Christian is to be an Evangelical.
So what does that mean for us who take such a different view? We tend to be quiet about being Christians. We do our ministries of feeding people, of responding to disasters, of working for a better climate, of all kinds of advocacy, and we do them under the radar.
We do not want to be identified with the Christians who are okay with separating children from families at the border and keeping them in inhumane conditions. We do not want to be identified with the crazy conspiracy theories that they keep coming up with. So we keep our faith quiet. We are closeted Christians.
Learning from the Gay Community
Well, this is the last day of Gay Pride month, and I think the church needs to learn a lesson from the LGBTQ community. They have shown us what courage means. They have shown us what it means to risk shaming and humiliation in order to be known for who they are. They know how to come out of the closet. We have to admire them; they are models for us. They can teach us how to come out.
I believe it is time for us to come out as Christians. It is time to reclaim the narrative and the name. It is time to let the country know that there is an alternative way of being a Christian that actually takes Jesus seriously.
It is time to come out against racism and racist policies, including racist immigration policies, specifically because we are followers of Jesus.
It is time to be public allies with the LGBTQ community because Jesus welcomed everyone, and we are his followers.
It is time to work hard against climate change specifically because Jesus taught us to love, not just to love flowers and birds, but to love people — like our grandchildren, that will have to live on the planet we leave to them.
It is time to come out as Christians when we feed the hungry and work to eliminate poverty; we are not just humanists, we are Christians on a journey, following Jesus.
Yes, we fail. Yes, we get it wrong. We freely admit that. But we serve a God of Grace who does not shame us for our failures, but whose Spirit is working in us at every moment to empower us to keep on the journey with Jesus as our guide.
We will come out as Christians; not obnoxiously, not arrogantly, but humbly and unabashedly being public followers of Jesus.