a sermon on Luke 9:51-62
preached on June 30, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Are you a Christian, or do you follow Jesus? It seems that more and more people are making a distinction between the two. A lot of people are frustrated with the trappings of Christianity, angry with the way that many Christians are viewed in the world, and exhausted with having to explain that they aren’t that kind of Christian, whatever that kind is. They just want to focus on Jesus and leave behind the baggage that has built up over the years in and through the church.
Earlier this year, a British singer and songwriter named Marcus Mumford stunned some people by saying that he doesn’t call himself a Christian. His music, played by the band he leads called Mumford and Sons, is full of references to God, prayer, and openness to the divine, and he himself is the son of a leader in the evangelical Christian Vineyard movement. Yet when asked if he still considers himself a Christian, he told an interviewer, “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was… I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.”
Jesus would have understood Mumford’s perspective. He himself was not a Christian—he was Jewish by birth and by practice, and his whole ministry pushed back against the religious institutions and practices of his day. He went about his life and ministry inviting people to follow him and join in his proclamation of the kingdom of God, and he really didn’t seem to care about organizing something new.
In our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke, we hear about three people who want to follow Jesus—and his response. The first one was excited to see Jesus and offered to join him without any prompting whatsoever: “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus immediately issued him a warning, for this was not likely to be an easy journey. Just as he himself had faced many obstacles and been at the mercy of those who would or would not offer him hospitality, so anyone who followed him would similarly need to set aside the comforts of this world and be prepared for a very different way of life.
Then Jesus reached out to another person he encountered on the way and said, “Follow me.” This man was clearly intrigued by Jesus’ message, but he also wasn’t quite ready to make a full commitment. So he responded, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” It was a fair excuse, really—proper burial was a requirement of Jewish law. But why would anyone whose father had just died be out on the road to meet Jesus? Many commentators have suspected that this man’s father was alive and well, and that his postponement might be measured in months or years, not days. But all that is beside the point. Jesus didn’t take kindly to this man’s excuse: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” For Jesus, nothing was more important than the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God, and those who chose to follow him needed to share this commitment.
Finally, a third man stepped up to offer to join the journey: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This man also didn’t need any prodding to join the throng following Jesus, but he still felt that he needed to obey the fifth of the Ten Commandments and honor his father and mother by saying farewell. He may have even been remembering the story of the call of the prophet Elisha that we heard in our first reading, where Elisha made a stop at home to kiss his father and mother goodbye before joining Elijah in his prophetic work. But Jesus would have none of this. Those who wanted to follow him needed to make an immediate commitment without conditions, to set aside their worldly attachments—even and perhaps especially to their families!—and place their full and proper focus on the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God. So Jesus turned to this man and responded, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We don’t know what these men did after Jesus spoke to them. There is no record of whether or not they followed Jesus after these strong words. But because they are written here, it is clear that those who did follow him remembered these words and wanted others to hear them, for they set a high standard of how we are to respond to God’s call.
Nowadays, when I hear these words of Jesus, my mind goes in two directions. First, I tend to get frustrated because other people just aren’t living up to Jesus’ standards. Some who follow Jesus seem to miss his point that there is some self-sacrifice involved, that they will not enjoy the full comforts of this world and may have to become dependent upon the hospitality of strangers—and then I realize that I am as guilty of that as the next guy. Then there are others who claim to follow Jesus who back out of church meetings or say that they just can’t do anything more because of family obligations or some other very reasonable excuse, and I want to quote Jesus back to them, insisting that even family must be set aside for the work of the kingdom of God!—before I realize that I do the very same thing sometimes. And still others who want to follow Jesus put conditions on their response to their call, saying that they really intend to do what God wants them to do, but they seem to forget that “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”—and then I realize that I do the very same thing. This is no easy path for me or anyone else!
Then there are other times when I get a little defensive about Jesus’ words here. “Am I really supposed to just drop everything and leave it behind to follow Jesus? That doesn’t seem very reasonable or possible these days! Come on, Jesus, you couldn’t really mean this in our day and age!” These are incredibly high standards that are difficult to meet. It is almost impossible nowadays to obey Jesus and set aside concern for our future and not worry about how we will make ends meet. Most followers of Jesus in this day and age place a very high value on family relationships because of their faith and would recoil at leaving them behind to join Jesus along the way. And I would be lying to you if I said that I have not at times looked back and wondered about the life that I might be living if I were not doing what I am doing.
But the reality is that Jesus still calls us to step out of our comfort zones and join him in his work of proclaiming a very new and very different way of life that he called the kingdom of God. He did exactly this in his own life and ministry. He left his hometown under duress because the people there were expecting a very different kind of message from their hometown boy. When asked to spend a little time with his mother and brothers, Jesus responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” In his journeys of teaching and healing around Galilee, he left behind any wealth that he had and was totally dependent upon the hospitality of those who would receive him. And Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God was not about restoring a world of the past but about bringing in a new creation where all would have the fullness of life that God intended.
So when Jesus calls us to follow him, he speaks from his own heart, his own life, his own experience, inviting us to give up all that we have as we wander the road to new life together with him, trusting that we will gain far more than we have known before. This is no easy feat, and Jesus knew it better than anyone. He never actually condemned those who chose another path, for he knew the incredible challenges that his pathway would entail. He knew that following him would mean leaving behind family and friends, setting aside the comforts of a worldly life, even putting off the proper religious obligations of burying the dead. And most of all, he knew that following him would even require going to his death on the cross, for he trusted that God was doing something new even in death and that God and will continue to break into this world until all things can be made new.
And so from his life, his death, and his resurrection, Jesus invites us and challenges us and calls us to follow him, to set aside all the other things that pull us in so many different directions and make the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God as our first priority, to put even our lives on the line as we look ahead to the new life that can and will be ours as we follow him. So may we know the presence of Jesus Christ, our leader, who challenges us to follow him, not for our own glory but for the transformation of all creation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.