Friday, October 25, 2013

Would be Followers

Sundays after Pentecost, Proper 8 [13] Year C

Sometimes I am intrigued by the way in which we know that Jesus’ public ministry lasted 3 years.  In Luke 3:23 we read that he was about 30 years old when he began his ministry.  The calculations of the year in which he died are in inexact science, but most agree on a period of about three years – and now it is what most of us accept.

The reason I raise this is that in all of the Gospels you get no sense of the passage of time.  No reference to seasons, no repeated references to the same festival that would give a clear sense of a year passing and so on. 

But here at the end of the ninth chapter, just six chapters after the beginning of his public ministry, Luke gets right down to the focus of his Gospel.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go towards Jerusalem.”

Our reading today marks a change in the narrative.  There is a change in tempo as well as a change in direction. 

Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem in a very single-minded way and he now seems to be in a bit of a hurry – no time for niceties. 

Some of you may remember the Jesus Video that Campus Crusades for Christ put out years ago.  In it they tried to keep the script as close as possible to Luke’s Gospel as they could and I certainly got the impression from that as a viewer of the single-mindedness of Jesus once he had set his face towards Jerusalem.


I think this sets the scene for us to begin to understand what Jesus says and does – things that might otherwise be quite outrageous – even offensive.

So, first of all we have this very brief vignette of the Samaritan Village – people who weren’t ready to accept him.  Jesus’ disciples were a bit indignant on behalf of Jesus and they encouraged him to behave a bit like Elijah by calling down fire from heaven to consume them.

I wonder if the original readers were really surprised by Jesus’ response here – where he simply told them off and then left.  There wasn’t even a hint of a “Woe” or a curse.

With the benefit we have of 2000 years of thinking about Jesus, and our awareness of John’s Gospel in which he has Jesus talking about JUDGEMENT in terms of it being something that is in a sense self-evident and self-inflicted – we could say Jesus was simply leaving them to the consequences of their choice.  But I don’t think this is what Luke has in mind.

We could suggest that Jesus understood the nature of God’s grace in such a way, as we read so eloquently in much of Paul’s work, that he could leave them for now knowing that the story was not yet over and they might change their mind later.

Or we could say that Jesus would soon be telling us that Jesus would be sending his disciples out, first to Judea, then Samaria and then to the ends of the earth as we will read in Acts 1:8, written of course by Luke. 

This I think is more likely and so we see the disciples urged to move on, to not be distracted, because they would be able to come back to this place, with power, and a real story to tell – which might just lead to a different response.

The rest happens “as they were going along” and it is fantastic to watch this in the Jesus Video  -they have really captured the sense of this as a very active thing.  And there are three stories – each with somewhat unexpected responses from Jesus.

1.      “I will follow you wherever you go!”

Someone just comes up to Jesus and enthusiastically pledges loyalty to Jesus No matter what. 

How would you expect Jesus to respond?

I would expect him to welcome new recruits, but what does he say? (and these are my words)  “Hold on buddy!  Are you sure you know what you are committing yourself to?  Foxes might have holes to sleep in and birds have their nests, but I have nowhere to call my own.”

This is the reference point for the little picture, bottom right, by Stanley Spencer, of Jesus and the foxes.  You can actually see this in the WA Art Gallery at the moment – we own it.

In other words he could be saying: “Before you gush into protestations of loyalty to me, consider the consequences. On my path, there is no security, no comfort, no pretty ending to the story.”

2.      “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

The next person is picked out of the crowd by Jesus who asks (or should that be commands?) him to “follow me!”

Maybe this person picked up the cue from Jesus’ earlier encounter and thought, “Before I follow him, I need to bury my dad.”

And in response to this, Jesus says: “Let the dead bury the dead.  Instead get out there and proclaim the good news.”

I have read and heard various suggestions of what this is all about.  Bruce Prewer, a Uniting Church Minister, has the following comments which I think are worth thinking about:

The Bible has a radical way of speaking of death. Death is not merely the absence of life.  Death is an active, invading power.  It is inextricably bound up with the evil forces of darkness.

Death contaminates and ruins all life.  No human being can escape its hungry power.  Death infests all our human knowledge, all our social structures and institutions.  It gets its infected claws into our politics, philosophies, creeds, education and religious organisations.  Nothing escapes death; everything is in danger of its corruption.

Therefore if we put our faith in such things, we are doomed.  If we put our trust in political parties, democracy, a church denomination, Rotary, Lions, economic theories, social reform programmes, even our family, then we are trusting something that is already invaded by death.  None of these things can last; they cannot transcend death.  Trust them and we will be buried with them.

Only God is unaffected by death.  God’s kingdom, that new world about which Jesus spoke in parables, that is where the only death-proofed life is found.  Trust God and live.  What is more, anything we do out of love for God shall never be lost.

So, while Jesus’ words may have been almost insulting he was saying that we need to keep our eyes on the things that give us life.

3.      “I will follow you Lord, but let me first say farewell to my family.”

Now the next guy fell into the same trap.  He was weighing up the consequences and seemed to be saying   “Yeh, yeh,yeh!! But just wait a minute while I tell my folks what I am doing.”

Again, Jesus remonstrates with him with the lovely little saying that has been taken up into general parlance when we want to encourage someone not to look back – just go for it!  “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back (presumably to see if they have dug a straight row) is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

My goodness.  That is a hard saying.

So what can these three little scenarios tell us in the here and now? 

I think the message is pretty simple and it begins with “God must come first.”  This means that not even the most sacred obligations as understood by our culture or religion can be allowed to wedge themselves between a Christian and their Lord.  Everything else is subject to the power of death. Choose life. Choose real life.

Let me finish with a story that was told by Bruce Prewer:  A career woman, while negotiating a terminal disease with all of her robust Christian faith, had much time for reflection. 

Once when I was with her, she remarked sadly on the priorities of her family of origin.  Her family still lived on a farm close to a large country town.

They were power figures in their local church. However, their sacred priorities as she had assessed them were: 

1. Family.     
2. The local sport teams.    
3. Church.

With utmost kindness, they wanted her to go home and be nursed by them until she died. 
Although she loved them, she would not spend her last weeks in that environment where, as she saw it, God came third.  They were offended and angry.  But she was at peace with herself and her God in a Christian hospice.

I think she was saying: “Let the dead bury their dead.  Even in my dying, I must continue to proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Let us pray:
Most loving God, we who are drawn together by the Gospel that is open-armed pray that we may withstand any pressures that might push us apart and away from you and the life you offer.

Encourage us, especially when we are feeling edgy, to trust you more than our fears, and love each person more than we love our own opinions.

Stabilise us in the truth of saving grace, and help us to express a similar grace in all our dealings.

Through Christ Jesus our Master.  Amen!

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