July 1, 2007
Text: Luke 9: 51-62 NRSV (w/Codex Bezae additional text [note b at v. 56])
At first glance, one might think that the two sections of this morning’s reading have little to do with each other.
In the first half, we find ourselves at a major turning point in Luke’s gospel. Up to this point Jesus has been traveling around the countryside and villages of Judea and Galilee, teaching and healing and forming disciples. But now, the time has come to confront the challenges awaiting him in Jerusalem. And so he “sets his face” towards that city, a phrase which blatantly echoes a phrase from Isaiah, in which the prophet “sets his face like flint,” demonstrating his obedience to God’s call to speak boldly for justice and righteousness. Thus we are clued in to Jesus’ own obedience in turning to Jerusalem and what likely awaits him there.
Another clue showing Jesus’ commitment and determination is the route he takes. This might not be so obvious to us now, so here’s a little geographical and historical lesson. The last location of Jesus and his followers Luke mentions before today’s text is Bethsaida, a town on the north coast of the Sea of Galilee – up here. It is safe to assume that Jesus is still up north when this text opens because it tells us that he goes through the region of Samaria on his way to Jerusalem.
So, again, here’s Bethsaida – and here’s Jerusalem in the south. Samaria is in the middle. So essentially, Jesus is making a beeline straight from Bethsaida to Jerusalem. To some extent his dogged, straight-ahead journey does show us Jesus’ intent to get to Jerusalem – the shortest distance between two points being a straight line – but there is more here than simply choosing the shortest route between point A and point B.
You might remember from sermons about the “Good Samaritan” or the Samaritan woman at the well that Jews and Samaritans were not exactly friends. In fact, although they shared a common ancestry, the two groups hated each other, a situation that at that time had been going on about 800 years. The historical roots of the split and resulting hatred are not entirely clear...and not particularly necessary to go into today. What is important to note is that Jews of Jesus’ time would have rigorously avoided traveling through Samaria, even though that might make for a longer trip. And yet Jesus heads right through enemy territory.
So it’s not just that Jesus chooses the shortest route. He chooses a dangerous route, as well. And he even plans a rest stop while in Samaria. The Samaritans do not welcome this band of Jews, which is not really a surprise. The disciples suggest destroying the Samaritan village but Jesus fiercely reprimands them. The additional text provides the content of that reprimand and gives us a hint at what upset Jesus so much about the disciples’ plans for revenge. “You do not know what spirit you are of,” he says, pointing out that the disciples have forgotten who they are – children of God, followers of the way of Christ, a way which offers love even to one’s enemies. The “Son of Man” – referring not only to Jesus but also to anyone called to the prophetic work of God, including the disciples...including us – is not to destroy life, but – as we saw a few weeks ago – to choose life. Jesus reminds them of their holy task, and they move on their way.
Both Jesus’ determined route to Jerusalem and the content of his rebuke of the disciples teach us something crucial about what Jesus considers essential for one called to the prophetic work of God, and it’s this: Nothing else is more important. You set your face like flint towards where you are called to go and what you are called to do, and you go and do it. Even if there are enemies on the way. Even when you are not welcomed. Even when you are tempted to choose destruction rather than life.
There is no half-way. There is no turning away. You either follow the way of the Holy One...or you don’t.
That’s where I find the connection between the two halves of this reading. In effect, in the first half Jesus models with his own life and choices what he then demands of his followers in the second. The three exchanges between would-be followers and Jesus show just how seriously Jesus takes the call to do God’s work of bringing in the beloved community.
The first exchange involves a declaration that the person will follow Jesus wherever he goes; Jesus’ well-known response is essentially asking, “Really? Are you sure? Because there are very real consequences if you choose this path.”
The second and third exchanges are similar in both content and tone. Jesus sounds pretty harsh, telling one person to leave their dead and the other to essentially *not* say good-bye his family. But if we imagine that these two are among the crowd of followers accompanying Jesus on this journey, then supposedly they have *already* left home and family and those responsibilities. They have supposedly *already* chosen to follow...are their statements, then, excuses to get out of the hard road ahead?
Jesus’ response is consistent with his own practice as he models in the first part of today’s reading: You either follow the way of the Holy One, or you don’t. Looking at the text in this way, I hear Jesus’s response to the would-be followers not so much as harshness, but more like a plea. You’ve already started on the way, don’t turn back now!
Once you say yes to being a follower of the Holy One, once you say yes to doing God’s work of bringing in the beloved community, there is no turning back. Nothing else is more important. You set your face like flint and do the work you are called to do, no matter what. There is no half-way, no in-between, no coming and going, no turning back. No matter what. No matter how hard it is. No matter how people may treat you. No matter what you’ve left behind. No matter what may lie ahead. No matter how tempting it may be to choose destruction rather than to choose life. To say yes to this way is to give a 100% commitment of your whole self, and your whole time. To say yes is to head for Jerusalem straight through the heart of what is most difficult, and most unexpected.
Just to be clear, I don’t think that saying yes means trudging around with one’s brow furrowed in utter, unmovable seriousness checking good deeds off a task list; no, there is plenty of gospel evidence that Jesus’ ministry was full of joy and laughter and friendship as much as pain and struggle. What saying yes does mean is that you do your best to fully embody in every moment the fullness of God’s beloved community, whether that moment be a dinner with a friend, a protest on the street, or a committee meeting.
In a moment we are going to sing a hymn – “Lord I want to be a Christian” – that comes from the African-American spirituals tradition, songs that were born from the deep struggle of pain and the deep knowledge of hope that was the slave experience.
The note in the hymnal says that “Many of the enslaved...did not want to become Christians because they did not want to adopt the religion of their captors. But this spiritual attests that the Christian faith was an internal strength and aim for many.”
While helpful, what this comment misses is that this spiritual also attests to a Christian faith that was quite unlike that of their captors. The slaves saw their captors singing pious hymns on Sundays and then coming back to the farms and plantations to beat and rape and kill them, to sell away their family members, and to leave them to live in dehumanizing conditions. The slaves saw a vast disconnect between what they read in the Bible regarding how Jesus urged his followers to act, and how the slaveholders actually lived their lives the other six days of the week.
The slaveholders claimed to be followers, but theirs was a half-way, in-between, come and go kind of following. A half-hearted following that avoided the difficult territory, that desired a comfortable place to lay one’s head and time off to go back and tend to apparently more important responsibilities.
And so the slaves sang of a different way of being a Christian, a way that goes all the way down, that requires total commitment. They sang of wanting to be a Christian all the way into their heart, the whole of their selves and their being. They knew that choosing to follow the way of the Holy One meant more than just once-a-week piety; it meant to commit to that way with their whole lives. And so this spiritual testifies to that deep desire to be a true follower, to follow the way not of their captors, but of Jesus Christ himself.
There is no half-way, no in-between, no coming and going, no turning back, when you are a follower of the Holy One, prophetically called to bring in the beloved community. What does it mean for us, then, to set our face like flint and go and do the holy work we are called to do? Each of us must answer that question for ourselves, and give thanks for the grace of God which forgives us when we stray from the path, when our heart is less than 100% committed. I know this is surely true for me.
As we sing this hymn, let us each prayerfully consider what it means for us – as individuals, and even as a church – to be a Christian, to be more loving, to be more holy, to be like Jesus, in our heart, all the way down. Our whole self. Our whole life. No turning back. Choosing life the whole way.