Catapulted rather than Graduated
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:51-62 ESV)
One of the tired and jaded church jokes you sometimes hears is about the minister who had problems with bats in the church. He tried everything to dislodge them but nothing worked. Noise, animals, trapping them and releasing them far away had no effect. Then they were gone. And his parishioners were surprised and enquired what he’d done. ‘Oh, I baptised and confirmed them!’
Now if people check for you, Peyton and Riley, in a few weeks, they might wonder similarly because you won’t be here. A PCS will do that to you – move you to another place – but I’m confident that should they find you in Washington, DC, they will find you in a church there because your confirmation is a catapulting into discipleship rather than a graduation from church). What will happen shortly in Confirmation is a church tradition that has numerous backgrounds – there’s the awareness of what God did for you in Baptism, there’s a growing in the content of the faith, there’s the personal point of promises whereby you reply, as it were, to God’s promises made in Baptism, there’s even ‘I’m a Lutheran Christian’ because Confirmation since the Reformation also has the dimension of highlighting what is unique about a denomination. All this and more can be found in Confirmation programmes these days.
For us today it is a process and a blessing on the path of discipleship. And when, a few weeks ago, I realised what the Gospel for today was I smiled because today in Luke we heard four versions of discipleship. Christian discipleship is simply following Jesus. That can be difficult today because (a) we don’t see Jesus and (b) most people today think of Jesus as a sort of painkiller or a ‘get out of gaol’ card – only needed when you’re in trouble. People know about Jesus but don’t know him. People know about discipleship but aren’t disciples – people who use their brains, hearts, hands, and mouths to follow Jesus. Ah there’s the Small Catechism!
What we’ve learnt in Confirmation is that discipleship isn’t easy because we sin. Yet God is gracious and rescues us – not to do our own thing – but to follow him. And that’s where it gets awkward because the world gets uneasy and our sinful self protests – follow Jesus? All the time? Him and no one else? Not family? Not country? Not personal plans? Hmmm, I’ll have to think about that.
And while we do that, let’s recall the four discipleship scenes in today’s Gospel account.
There’s the hot-head discipleship. The Samaritans who usually like having travellers come through their land for the money they brought for some reason – we’re not sure exactly what is meant by Jesus’ face ‘turned towards Jerusalem’ – don’t want Jesus around and two disciples take offence. James and John seem to have a bit of a rep – they’re called ‘sons of thunder’ in Mark (3:17) and they ask Jesus whether they can call in the heavenly Air Force to napalm the Samaritans. That’ll fix ‘em! Instead Jesus’ rebukes them. Discipleship is following Jesus not defending his honour or exercising power to destroy by playing ‘big man’ over against everyone else. Christian discipleship will always be under the shadow of the cross – opposition will be met with grace and love. (I think it is interesting to consider that church tradition has John – the last of the apostles – a very old man in Ephesus being asked to preach and he’d shuffle down and just say ‘Little children, love one another’!
A wiser disciple now.
Then there’s the comfortable discipleship. Someone says that he wants to follow Jesus wherever he goes and Jesus points out that they don’t have a home here. No territory. No home base. No fortifications. No place to rest. Coming?
Then there’s the ‘you can’t be serious’ discipleship. Jesus calls a person to follow him but the would-be disciple wants time to ‘go and bury my father’. Seems reasonable because we presume the father’s dead but the culture and idiom actually suggest that the father is still alive – and yes he might be ill or still healthy – because what the disciple was actually saying was ‘I’ll follow you after I’ve attended to my family responsibilities’.
The last discipleship vignette is the ‘checking things with others’ discipleship – or family first discipleship. This is being a disciple if others approve, say it’s ok, even join in. The third person offers to follow Jesus but wants to be able to go and say ‘farewell to those at my home’ which is phrasing related to taking leave of someone – asking permission of those staying whether you can leave. This person will follow Jesus if his family – probably his parents – permit it.
4 vignettes on discipleship – each of them showing a wrong understanding from the human side. Now how would you describe Jesus’ responses and reactions from his side? Tough? Blunt? Uncompromising?
Discipleship isn’t arrogance. Discipleship means you’ll always be displaced in the world – the odd one out – not an easy fit – who won’t go along with the crowd but who isn’t haughty and painful in response.
‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’ catches our attention. It seems so callous. But maybe Jesus is pointing out that whomever we follow – and we all follow people and things – lead us to life or death. Perhaps Jesus was bluntly saying if you don’t follow me, you are dead – spiritually dead but living in this world until you die – the dead burying their own dead! Jesus called this fellow – the man replied with conditions which seem reasonable – we all have responsibilities – and Jesus says ‘Rubbish’. The message is clear. Jesus comes first.
Culturally, I think, we find this reply the harshest but I wonder whether people of Jesus’ time and those in the Middle East today mightn’t be more wide eyed and shocked by the third encounter and the request to say ‘farewell to those at home’. We underestimate the father – son bond in Jesus’ society at our loss – and the importance of family and proper family relationships, order, duty, responsibility, and obedience. As he would for any other life event, the man seeks family support and blessing as he goes, and what does Jesus do? He steps between the person and his family and says in effect, ‘look at me not them and follow me’ – hence Jesus’ picture of ploughing makes sense – keep your eyes on the task – on me.
In our world where we are encouraged to be independent thinkers, to be our own man or woman, our own person, to weigh things up carefully and be sensitive to media manipulation, political spin, advertising hype this picture of Jesus is simply a ‘hard sell’. Unless we explain away the text, Jesus made it clear – follow me above all else and follow me my way. If Jesus was just a teacher – even a good one – such claims surely should dent that assessment of him. Our society today senses that Jesus doesn’t fit neatly into our definitions of him – especially if he is alive still as Christians keep saying – why would he have changed? In fact the logic would suggest an intensity or urgency towards us. The world keeps Jesus at arm’s length because any getting to know Jesus sends messages that Jesus is someone to be reckoned with.
Does that scare you? It shouldn’t because you know the end of the story, what happened in Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb and Jesus’ commitment and dedication is summed up in two words – you might have been thinking three! Jesus’ life – his words and actions – are all ‘for you’. He is here ‘for you’. Everything in the Small Catechism is ‘for you’. And he sends us back into our daily lives – our relationships, our families, our friendships, our work and play – with the task of serving the people we meet there – being guided by the Commandments, praying for them but always on Jesus’ terms not theirs.
Can Jesus be trusted? That’s the issue! God confirms this every time we look at the cross – hear the gospel, see water, bread and wine used in Jesus’ name. We confirm it by saying ‘Thank you’ and following Jesus each day. There’s no better way to live.
- Luke 9:51 - 62