Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
A couple of weeks ago at Annual Conference, an invitation was issued to join the bishop in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January. I am envious of those who will be making that journey. I would love to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, see the places that he saw, to imagine the biblical stories in a new way. I had some friends who went to Israel one summer during seminary, and I always eagerly awaited their photoblog so I could see pictures of the places they had been. A trip to the Holy Land: every seminary student and every pastor’s dream. One of these days I will get over there. One of these days I will get over to Jerusalem to see the Temple mount, and the wailing wall. One of these days I will get to walk where Jesus walked, on his way to Jerusalem. For me, it would be a fun and educational trip. But what does it actually mean to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem?
The gospel lesson starts out with a significant statement: Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. He had been hanging around the Sea of Galilee, preaching, doing miracles, and ministering among the people. But now, there is a rather dramatic shift within Luke’s gospel. Today’s gospel lesson marks a transition from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his journey southward to Jerusalem, where he will stand trial and go to his crucifixion. It marks not only a geographical shift, but a theological shift also, and we are called to experience and understand the magnitude and commitment of true discipleship.
Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. He is looking ahead toward the road of trial and suffering. He is gearing up, preparing, exhibiting determination. In other words, he’s made up his mind and is committed to going where the Father is calling him. Jesus was obedient to the Father in all things, even when the road got tricky, even when his human nature felt like it might have been over-riding his divine nature. Jesus knew where he had to go. He knew what he had to do. The road to Jerusalem was one of suffering. It was a road that championed non-violent resistance over the forces of evil. It was a road that went against the natural human inclinations to places the self above all others. This road to Jerusalem is no easy road to take. And yet, if we are to call ourselves Christians, then that is the road that we must take. Today, we hear the story of several unnamed characters who are unwilling to walk the path of discipleship that Jesus invites them to.
Let’s start by looking at the response of the Samaritans. Jesus sends his disciples on ahead of his way to let them know that he is coming. Yet when Jesus gets to Samaria, he finds that no one is willing to receive him. Why? “Because they saw that he had his face set to Jerusalem.” Perhaps they would have been willing to receive him just weeks before, when he was traveling around, doing miracles, and preaching. Perhaps they would have flocked to see him. After all, it isn’t too hard to follow Jesus when things are good. In this segment of the story, Luke is making the theological statement that the Samaritans know what Jerusalem holds for Jesus, and they do not want to share in any part of that. They don’t want any aspect of discipleship that would be difficult, or inconvenient. James and John get angry that the Samaritans aren’t even willing to receive Jesus and want to call down retribution against them, but Jesus rebukes them. There is no punishment for them, but they still miss out on the journey.
Jesus continues on down the road from Samaria, and a person came up to him, with these eager words: “I will follow you wherever you go!” This response is a familiar one to many of us. We see the way Jesus has been working, we hear the words he preached, and we think, yeah, we can get on board with this! We get excited and enthusiastic, and we may feel bold enough to say to Jesus, yeah, I’ll go wherever you want me to! But we fail to recognize the weight of those words, and the challenge they prompt us to. This first would-be follower had no shortage of enthusiasm. He walked right up to Jesus, completely unprompted and initiated the conversation, thinking Jesus would be totally gung-ho about having this new follower come along with him. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been thrilled if this person did decide to follow. But Jesus asks him a question to test his mettle, to see if he is really prepared to be a disciple. Jesus basically replies, “this is a difficult path you would be going down: I am a homeless wanderer. You can’t follow me from the comfort of your living room. You will have to give up your luxury, and leave what you know. Are you ready for that?” We get no answer from this first would-be disciple. His enthusiasm quickly turns to silence when he hears Jesus’ response. He didn’t know following Jesus would mean all of that! Maybe it would be best to just back away quietly and pretend like the conversation never happened.
Jesus then meets the second would-be follower. Jesus invites him: Follow me. The second would-be disciple seems willing enough, but only after he can go and bury his dead father. Back in this time, the proper burial of a loved one was an extremely important priority. This was no trivial request. It was totally legitimate of this would-be follower to ask Jesus if he could go and take care of burying his father properly. I have always felt that this response of Jesus is rather harsh. “Let the dead bury the dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Why won’t Jesus let him bury his father? This encounter relays a couple of different things. First of all, it highlights the priority of discipleship over all other priorities. Following Jesus is not mutually exclusive over other priorities in our lives, but as Christians, our primary task is discipleship, of journeying with Christ and learning from him, being transformed by him. Second, this story reminds us of the eternal life that God promises us. This would-be follower has failed to see the promise of resurrection and the privilege of being able to proclaim the kingdom of God, the kingdom that gives life to those who are dying. This would-be disciple has his priorities flip-flopped. His excuse for not following is, as far as excuses go, perhaps one of the most legitimate excuses. He has to care for his family and give his father the honor due him. Family is a priority, Jesus agrees. And yet, the call to discipleship in this story reminds us that Jesus’ command to follow him can go even beyond family boundaries. Sometimes this one still just blows my mind. How on earth could we respond in any way other than that of this would-be disciple in this case? And yet, Jesus still says to us, “Follow me.”
He encounters a third would-be disciple, who says to Jesus, “I’ll come with you, just let me go home and say goodbye to my family and friends.” Again, Jesus’ response seems very harsh. He says, “No, we need to go now. You can’t look both backwards and forwards in the kingdom of God. We need to move ahead. This is urgent.” It seems like a natural response to me for this would-be follower to want to at least be able to say bye to his family and friends, rather than just run off with Jesus without saying anything. But here, Jesus probably knows that if this would-be disciple goes home to his own familiar territory, he will never be able to break out of it. He will never be able to leave. In many ways, it is a now or never situation. It’s hard for us to leave what is comfortable, what is familiar, what may even be loved. Contrast this would-be follower’s response to that of the calling of the first disciples in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus calls out to Peter, and Andrew saying” Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It then says, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him Later that day, Jesus says the same thing to James and John. They respond by leaving the boat and their father in order to follow Jesus. These disciples don’t hesitate, they don’t find excuses. They leave their livelihood, their families, and their obligations in order to follow Jesus. Don’t mistake me for saying that God is calling us to abandon our families or our responsibilities. God does not ask us to be irresponsible of neglectful of that which we have been given. Nonetheless, this story points out the priority of discipleship, and the power of the call to follow Jesus. These first disciples hear the call, and they follow, without excuse, without hesitation. They see their moment, and they take it before it is gone.
This past week at SYC, one of the preachers who happens to be a second degree blackbelt was demonstrating some self-defense techniques as a way of illustrating how we protect ourselves from sin and evil. She had called one girl up to demonstrate how attackers will often attack by grabbing long hair or a ponytail. It is very hard to break away from someone who has you by your hair, and she said this statement which stuck with me: “If they have your head, they have you.” If something has a hold of your mind, it has you. In the case of these would-be disciples, something other than Jesus has their heads. This is not to say that what occupies their mind holds no importance, but it is to say that following Jesus is not their ultimate priority.
In the gospel lesson, we have seen four snapshots of those who could never really be called true disciples of Jesus. Sure, they had met Jesus, they liked him just fine, but they were not prepared to walk the road that Jesus walked. While the circumstances of these would-be followers may not be universal or apply to each of us, the obstacles to following still often block our way, and the call to discipleship seldom takes priority in our lives over the many obligations and desires that pull us this way and that. So what does it look like to follow him? If this is the story of the would-be disciples, what does a real disciple look like?
We live just down the road from St. Albans. Have you ever heard the story of the saint who the town was named after? Saint Alban lived in the 3rd century in England. He is known as the first British martyr of the Christian faith. Saint Alban was not a Christian when a Christian priest seeking refuge from persecution came to him. Alban took him in, and eventually he was converted and baptized by this priest. However, one day, soldiers came to Alban’s house looking for the priest. Rather than hand over the priest, Alban actually traded clothes and put on the garb of the priest. Alban allowed himself to be arrested in the priest’s place. He was taken before the magistrate, who was furious when he discovered the deception and ordered that Alban receive the punishment intended for the priest, if, in fact Alban had become a Christian. According to tradition, Alban responded by saying, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” He was then led out and up a hill, where he was beheaded. We may live in a different time and place, and in different circumstances, but Alban was one who was not afraid to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. He wasn’t afraid to set his face to Jerusalem.
When I hear stories like this one of Saint Alban, I can’t help but wonder how I would be in the same situation. Would I have the courage to do what he did? Would I have the conviction of faith to be that kind of witness, to be the kind of disciple who is willing and able to follow Jesus to Jerusalem? On my own, absolutely not. On my own, I would be a coward, I would be selfish, I would be unwilling. The good news is that with God’s grace, we may walk down the road with Jesus. With God’s grace, we too, can set our faces to Jerusalem. But we have to be willing to allow God to transform us. We have to at least be able to say to God, I know I can’t do this on my own. I need you to lead me. I need you to break through those things that hold me back. But even getting to that point can be a challenge.
One of the biggest issues we face in the church today is a watered-down gospel: a gospel that invites us to meet Christ, but doesn’t actually ask us to follow after him. It’s a gospel that says all you need to do is accept Christ as your Savior and show up to church on Sundays without compelling us to go down the deeper path of discipleship. It’s a gospel that maybe gets people in the doors of the church, but then fails to form them into people who actually are Christ-like. We, the modern day church, are a church that is full of would-be disciples.
We may say, Jesus, I want to follow you, I really do. But can’t I just take care of these other things first? Can’t I just deal with my other priorities so I am completely free to follow you? Sure, I’ll follow you wherever you go. But wait, what’s that you say? No, I can’t possibly do that. Maybe I spoke too soon.
We don’t get to put the conditions on our discipleship. We don’t get to say to God, yes, I’ll be your true disciple, but only if I can still have this, this, and this. These would-be disciples never get beyond the hypothetical. So I ask you, are they really disciples? Do you ever get beyond the hypothetical? Do you ever find yourself saying, well, once I retire, I can give my time to God? Or, once my kids get off to college I can commit myself 100% to being a disciple? Or, as soon as I finish high school or college and really become an adult, then I can get serious about following Christ? We are a church full of would-be disciples: you, me, all of us. We are all would-be disciples or one point or another. But we don’t have to be! Jesus gives the command to follow him now. Are we prepared to hear and obey?
This gospel story today is not a story about salvation: it is a story about discipleship. The text does not say that these would-be followers of Jesus were not saved, that they did not receive the grace of God. It is instead a story of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t call down punishment on those who do not receive him. But they miss out on the journey. We never hear about these particular Samaritans or would-be followers again. They have a small cameo in God’s story, but we never even know their names. Do you want to make nameless cameo in God’s story, or do you want to be credited as a main character? It’s up to you. But if there is to be meaning in being a part of this community, the only true meaning comes through going on the journey with Christ together. A church is not a social club, a community center, a social institution. While the church may have aspects to it that remind us of these other things, the church, the Body of Christ in the world, is something entirely unique, and if it is not filled with people who are willing to seek out true discipleship, then it is not really being the church. God will not strike you down because you don’t go on this journey with him. But you miss out on the journey with God. You may be stuck in the village and Jesus has moved on. So I ask you today, are you ready to follow Jesus? Are you ready to walk along side him as his face is set to Jerusalem? It is no easy task, but with the grace of God and with a willing heart, we can walk with him, and the greatest gift of the journey is the company of our Savior.
This last week at SYC I helped out with a covenant group for the days that I was there, and one day, we all worked on writing our life story in six words or less. I had several different ones that I came up with, but my favorite and perhaps most fitting one was this simple prayer that has captured the central struggle of my life: Wherever, whenever, however: help me follow. May this be our prayer to God today. Wherever, whenever, however. Help us follow.