Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 27, 2010
Text: Luke 9:51-62
“Lord, I’ll follow You, but only if it’s on my own terms. Lord, I’ll follow You, but only if it’s convenient. Lord, I’ll follow You, but only if I don’t have to sacrifice anything, only if it doesn’t lead to conflict with my family and friends, only if I can still do the things that I want, when I want, and how I want to do them. Lord, I will follow You, but only if You conform to the whims of the culture, or to science, or to our enlightened understanding of what is and is not moral. Lord, I will follow You, but following You better not make me depressed, or convict me of my sin, or bring suffering or persecution. I’ll follow You, but following You had better make me feel inspired, uplifted, on an emotional and spiritual high. And I’d better see results in the growth of the Church and in my personal successes… after all, I’m following You, and You’re supposed to make everything successful. Oh, and if I’m going to follow You, Lord, you had better accept me for who I am and affirm what I’m doing whether the Bible says it’s sinful or not.”
Everyone is enthusiastic about following Jesus as long as discipleship doesn’t carry a cost. No one wants to follow Jesus where He’s actually going: to Jerusalem, to the cross, to die. “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51; ESV). He set His face. He was determined to reach His goal. And His goal is the cross, where He dies for the sins of all humanity. To be His disciple is to follow Him there.
The Samaritans did not want to follow Jesus. They did not even want to receive Him, for His face was set toward Jerusalem (v. 53). The Samaritans were a mixed group from Northern Israel who had left the Jews, who only accepted part of the Bible, and refused to worship in Jerusalem at the temple. They believed their worship in their own cities was purer. And so in rejecting the faith of God’s Old Testament people, they rejected the Messiah and the New Testament in Jesus' blood. To follow Jesus would mean to turn their backs on their own man-made religion. It would mean strife with family members who disapproved of their following Jesus. It would mean acceptance of all of God’s Word, even the parts they didn’t like. It would mean worship neither in Jerusalem nor Samaria, but in Spirit and Truth in the true Temple of God, the body of Jesus Christ.
Upon this rejection of their Lord and Master, James and John, the Sons of the Thunder, who are already disciples, already following Jesus, want to call down fire upon the Samaritan village. They want to be like the prophet Elijah, who called down fire upon 100 of wicked King Ahaziah’s men (2 Kings 1:9-12). There is an apparent pride here that every disciple of Jesus must guard against, a pride that considers itself righteous by virtue of simply being a disciple. A Christian must never consider himself better or more righteous in and of himself than an unbeliever. We are all beggars before God, eternally lost, were it not for the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. And we have done nothing to merit or deserve that mercy. James and John fail to understand the cost of discipleship. A disciple of Christ must resolutely set his face toward the cross and die to self, bear the insult, turn the other cheek, and cover over a multitude of sins with Christian love. Jesus rightly rebukes the sons of Zebedee. The Christian Church converts no one by force, and must never respond with force to rejection of the Gospel. Jesus rather promises that the disciple and the Church will be rejected and persecuted for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel. And He calls the persecuted disciple “Blessed” (Matt. 5:10-12)! James and John would come to know this very vividly and personally in the years to come.
Then there are these three aspiring disciples in the concluding verses of the Gospel lesson. The first offers to follow Jesus: “I will follow you wherever you go,” he says (v. 57). But he has not counted the cost of discipleship. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (v. 58). Are you ready to give up your comfortable home and your very pillow to follow me? Are you ready to give up even more than this? It is interesting that in all of the Gospels, whenever anyone offers to follow Jesus, makes his personal decision to be a disciple, Jesus refuses him. Jesus chooses His disciples. It is not an act of the will, but a gift of grace. But neither does Jesus force discipleship on anyone. There is a second man whom Jesus personally calls, “Follow me.” But the man responds, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (v. 59). Now, it is not that the father is already dead and simply needs to be buried. What the man is saying is, “First let me live out my life with my father. Once Dad is gone, then perhaps I’ll be your disciple. I have other things I need to do first.” The man puts off following Jesus, much like the person who thinks there is plenty of time to be a Christian and a faithful Church member later. “Right now, I’m just too busy.” But when Jesus calls, the time is now. “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60). Unbelievers can continue to live in this world of death. You have been chosen out of it. You have been chosen to bring life to the dead by proclaiming the Kingdom of God in the person of Christ. Ironically, if this second man had followed Jesus, Jesus would have sent him back to his father with the Word of Life! Then there is this third man, another who offers to follow Jesus on his own terms. “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (v. 61). It is not that Jesus is against family. Remember, when Elijah calls Elisha, he gives him permission to go and say farewell to his family. But this man has his priorities mixed up. “Family first, Lord. You come in a close second.” It sounds good. Family values and all that. But beloved in the Lord, this is precisely backward. Jesus comes first. Then family. When you put Jesus first, then family and everything else falls into place. But if family comes between you and the Lord Jesus, then the cost of discipleship is family. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62). In Palestine, if you don’t pay attention to where the plow is headed, you will run into a rock and mangle the expensive plow! Jesus sets His face forward, toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, for our salvation. If you are to follow Him, your face, too, must be set toward the cross.
And of course, the point of all of this is that not one of us, not one person in this congregation, is fit for the Kingdom of God outside of Christ. Not one of us doesn’t fit the descriptions above. Every one of us wants to follow Jesus on his or her own terms. I’ll follow you, Lord, but it better not take too much of my time. It better not come between me and my family. I better not hear about giving money to the Church. I better not be asked to serve on a committee. I better not be told to give up and repent of my favorite sins. And if I ever have to suffer persecution, mockery, imprisonment, beatings, death on account of Christ and the Gospel? Beloved, if a couple hours on Sunday morning is too much for you, how will you answer this last question? Repent. Like the prophet Elijah in our Old Testament lesson, we don’t want to have to suffer for the Kingdom (1 Kings 19:9b-21). We get depressed. We don’t like the holy cross. We don’t like this talk about crucifying the sinful nature. But this is precisely why we need to follow Jesus. Repent and believe the Good News. And the Good News is this: Our Lord Jesus stepped into the fire of God’s wrath coming down from heaven. He stepped into the fire in our place. He was consumed by God’s righteous anger for our sakes, as punishment for our sins. In His faithfulness, He took all of our unfaithfulness into Himself. All of our sins, all of our rejection of Jesus and His Father and the terms of discipleship, all of our hard heartedness, all of our self-centeredness, our confusion of priorities, our self-righteousness, our lack of love for the neighbor, all of this our Lord bore in His body on the tree of the cross. He went through hell for us, literally, in the forsakenness of His Father. All so that our faithlessness might not be counted against us. Our Lord set His face toward Jerusalem to die for us. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). And this is all given to us freely, here, in the Word of God and in the Sacraments. It is gift. It is grace. You don’t earn it. It is yours in Christ Jesus.
But while grace is free, discipleship is hard. And that is why even Christians struggle to crucify the sinful flesh. For freedom, Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1). He has set us free from sin, death, and the devil, by His innocent suffering and death. But it is so tempting to submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery. Beloved, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (vv. 24-25). The disciple of Christ Jesus follows Jesus on Jesus’ terms, and not his own. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23-25). “[L]et us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2). Indeed, beloved, Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and the cross for you. Those are His terms, the death of the Son of God. He has already won your salvation. He gives it to you here freely. Now follow Him. Serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. He redeemed you for this very purpose. And as you count the cost of discipleship, remember His sure and certain promise: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). God keep you steadfast in your faith and life as you follow Him, beloved. For I am convinced that He who began this good work in you at your Baptism, will bring it to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.