Year C, Pentecost 3 Luke 9:51-62
I’m going to be honest with you. These readings are not my favorite readings, especially for a baptism. I could preach on the psalm. It’s a nice one. It has some very uplifting verses. Or I could pull one line out of the Gospel or Galatians and take it totally out of context. It’s tempting, but I am not going to do it. Sometimes we have to talk about the uncomfortable passages in the Bible, even the ones where Jesus doesn’t act the way we think he should act.
The Gospel starts out in a fairly standard way. Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That means that Jesus was resolved to go to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. We don’t like that he has to be crucified, but we are certainly used to hearing about it at this point and since we know how the story ends, we don’t get overly concerned with Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem. He sent James and John (who he previously nicknamed the “sons of thunder.”) to Samaria to get things ready.
The Samaritans rejected them. We don’t know why. It could have been anything. But James and John were upset about it as they asked Jesus if he would like them to command fire to come down and consume the Samaritans. Now before you label this as an overreaction on the part of James and John, it might be helpful to remember that there was precedent for this reaction. There were a few times in the Old Testament when God rained fire on a city or a group of people.
Fortunately a cooler head prevailed. Jesus rebuked them. There would be no fire raining down on anyone. So far so good. This is classic Jesus. He’s going to be crucified. The disciples say something absurd. Jesus rebukes them and they move on. But this is where things get a little uncomfortable. As Jesus walked along, three different people approached him and either asked to follow him or were asked to follow him. When the first one offered to follow him, Jesus explained (using metaphoric language) that this was not an easy life as he was essentially a homeless man wandering from place to place. He didn’t say no, but he wasn’t very encouraging.
The next person, Jesus asked. That person was willing but had one reasonable request: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said no. You either bury the dead or you proclaim the kingdom. Not a very pastoral or kind response.
The third potential disciple told Jesus he wanted to follow him, but he needed to say goodbye to his family first. Another reasonable request. Jesus was even harsher in his rebuke “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” When it comes to being Jesus’s disciple, there are no “but firsts.” There is no looking back or saying goodbye. You stop what you are doing and you follow. You change your plan. You change the course of your life. This might be why Jesus didn’t have a large band of followers. He had 12, maybe a few more that they didn’t count—but definitely not a large group.
This is a disturbing story because we want Jesus to be kind, compassionate and loving. A kind and loving person would be understanding if someone wanted to bury their father. He would say something like, “Take the time you need. I will be here when you are ready.” But here’s the thing. Jesus was a man on a mission. His mission was to save humanity, to release people from the bondage of sin and death. He was on his way to Jerusalem, which meant he was on his way to his death. He didn’t have time to be patient with people. They either followed him or they didn’t. There was no “but first.” There could be no other priority in their life, not even their family. So no, he wasn’t very kind in these instances. Nothing was more important than what he was doing.
Ok. Maybe we can accept that. We don’t necessarily like what Jesus had to say, but we can accept that was what was required of Jesus’ disciples when he was on his way to his crucifixion. Here’s the tricky part—what does this passage mean for us now? (Is it too late for me to preach on the psalm? I think it is.) The thing is, it is highly unlikely that Jesus will return in the flesh, walk right by you and ask you to follow him. Does that mean that we don’t have to worry about what is required of us as disciples? Of course not. We are still called to follow Jesus. However, we are called to discipleship in more nuanced ways which makes it more challenging and easier at the same time. It is more challenging in that we don’t have Jesus in the flesh telling us exactly what to do. It is easier in the sense that the modern call to discipleship can be ignored or quickly forgotten.
In the end, what Jesus was asking these potential disciples and what he asked all the disciples was, “Will you change your plans and your life for me?” So we might each ask ourselves, would my life be any different if I wasn’t a Christian? How has a relationship with God changed the way I live? Most people I know like to have some kind of plan for their life. Then once that happens, they might try to fit God into that plan. But what Jesus asked his disciples 2000 years ago and what he still asks us now is to let our plans, our dreams, our goals, be secondary to his holy and life giving mission. I understand how hard to that is—how hard it is to follow God’s plan when it is far easier to fit God into a corner of our plan.
One of the final prayers in the baptismal liturgy is: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” We say that prayer for the baptismal candidate, but it’s a prayer that every baptized person shares. And I wonder if it might help us to figure out how to be better disciples. I would encourage us all to find this in the prayer book and read it every day. But pray it for yourself, that you might have the courage to will and persevere and a spirit to know and to love God. Because if you have those things, you will find a way to let God play a bigger part in your life, to lead you in the right direction. It’s never too late to start following God’s plan for you.