Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 26, 2022
Galatians 5:1, 13-29, Luke 9:51-62
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The beloved Lutheran theologian and pastor Mark Allan Powell tells the story of a young man he met who was passionate about following Jesus. This young man did not, however, attend church. He read the Bible. He listened to Christian music. He loved Jesus and wanted to tell others about him. But he did not come to worship. So Powell asked him, “Why don’t you go to worship?” And the young man said, “It’s boring.”
So Powell pushed him a bit. He said, “Would you leave your family to travel to far off lands for Jesus?” And the young man enthusiastically said, “Yes, I would! I’d love to be a missionary someday!” Powell asked him another question: “Would you be willing to suffer ridicule for Jesus’ sake? Are you willing to lose friends over him?” And again the young man said, “Yes, in fact I already have.” Powell then asked him, “Would you be willing to give your life for Jesus?” The young man thought seriously for a moment, giving the question the weight it was due, and then resolutely said, “If it came to that, yes I would.”
Powell then said, “So let me get this straight. You would leave your family to travel to far off lands for Jesus. You are willing to suffer ridicule and lose friends for Jesus. You are even willing to die for Jesus. But you aren’t willing to be bored for Jesus? Not even for one hour on a Sunday morning so you can gather with God’s people to worship Jesus?” (It reminds me of the time someone complained to the pastor, saying “I didn’t care for those hymns today!” To which the pastor replied, “That’s OK, we weren’t worshipping you!”)
We all have our deal-breakers, don’t we? We all have our conditions, our limits, when it comes to following Jesus. We all have our moments where we say, “Well, yes, I’m a Christian, but let’s not get all crazy about it.”
In our gospel reading for today we see Jesus interacting with three would-be followers. In the first encounter an enthusiastic man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go!” These are big words! This is a bold promise! But does he have any idea what he’s getting himself into? Jesus says to him, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus seems to be challenging his self-confidence. He’s saying, “Oh really? You’ll follow me anywhere? I can’t offer you a place to lay your head. It won’t always be easy. There will be sacrifices to make. You won’t always be comfortable or happy. Are you still interested in following me? Anywhere?
Jesus didn’t even need to mention where he was currently headed – to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to the Mount of Skulls, to the cross. Just mentioning the lack of sleeping arrangements was enough to bring this man to a very telling silence.
Next up we have Jesus inviting someone to become a disciple. “Follow me,” Jesus says. But the man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” This sounds like a reasonable request. It even sounds like a righteous request! We don’t know if the man’s father was already deceased or simply elderly and in need of care, but he wanted to take a raincheck on following Jesus in order to tend to these family obligations first. But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Another came to Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my home.” This too seemed like a reasonable request. The lectionary reminds us this morning that there is Biblical precedent for this. When the prophet Elijah called Elisha to follow him, Elisha asked if he could go home and kiss his mother and father, and Elijah allowed it! Is Jesus more demanding than Elijah? It sure sounds like it! Jesus replied to this request saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These three would-be followers each had deal-breakers of their own, didn’t they? The first was unwilling to give up his comforts. The second two were unwilling to put Jesus above their family obligations. And Jesus told all three of them in no uncertain terms that when it comes to following him there are to be no deal-breakers. They don’t get to set the conditions for following him, he does! And when it comes to following Jesus, there is to be no looking back.
When the Spanish explorer Cortez landed on the east coast of Mexico after traveling hundreds of miles across the ocean, he famously burned his ships on the beach. His men had to watch as their only means of ever going home went up in smoke. It was clear – there was no going back! That’s what Jesus is doing here with his own verbal fire. He’s telling these would-be disciples that if they want to follow him, they would need to burn their ships – and none of the three seemed willing to do that.
What are your deal-breakers? We have some of our own, don’t we? Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as my schedule allows!” Some say, “I will follow you, as long as I like the music.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as everything I hear at church lines up with my political commitments.” This is common among both Christian nationalists on one side and woke progressives on the other. Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, insofar as it fits with the cultural trends of the moment.” Some say, “I will follow you as long as we can keep this private – just between you and me.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, until somebody at church rubs me the wrong way or annoys me.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I don’t have to care about your friends – especially the poor ones.” Some say, “I will follow you, Lord, as long as I’m not bored.”
Sometimes we are like those Christians in Galatia Paul is writing to who have somehow gotten the idea that Christian freedom means freedom to think and do whatever the heck you want, to mold and shape Christ’s call to fit your own thoughts and desires. Not only does Paul say otherwise – Jesus does too! And he does so in the strongest terms possible! Jesus tells these would-be disciples that following him will involve a radical reordering of their priorities and our values. He tells them, and us, that he sets the terms, not us. If we are going to follow him, we need to put him above everything else – even those things we cherish the most.
Does this mean we should neglect our families for the sake of the gospel? Absolutely not. The Lord God established the family and cares about it deeply. Two of the Ten Commandments concern the family: The fourth seeks to protect and preserve the family by honoring mothers and fathers, while the sixth seeks to protect and preserve the estate of marriage. The issue here is the first commandment – not letting anything else, even the good things, become more important than God. Jesus is making a first commandment claim about himself here, demanding that we have no other gods before him. This is actually for our benefit. It is actually for the good of our families! We serve our families best when we put Christ first.
If you have ever been on a plane with kids, you know that the flight attendant tells everyone that if the plane loses cabin pressure, the adults should secure their oxygen masks first before putting one on their child. This is not a selfish act. It is simply the case that you are no help to your child if you are slumped over in your seat from lack of oxygen! In the same way, we need to breath Christ in first before we can be of true help to our loved ones, before we can love and serve them in the strength of Christ.
The truth is, none of us puts Christ first consistently enough to be worthy of him. The truth is, we all have our deal-breakers, our conditions, our limits. If we had to pass this litmus test Jesus is putting in front of these three would-be disciples, none of us would make the cut. There are just too many things we are not willing to give up.
Thankfully, Jesus did for us what we never seem to be able to do ourselves. He gave up everything. He gave himself without conditions. He gave himself for us without limits, even giving his life.
St. Luke tells us in this gospel reading that “Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.” Luke tells us this twice in three verses! Luke is telling us that Jesus was headed to the cross. Although in the end NO ONE was willing to follow him there, Jesus went there for these three would-be disciples. He went there for all who have failed to follow him. He went there for you and for me. And in dying and rising for us, Jesus has established a new covenant with us. He has established a relationship with us that cannot be broken. We now belong to him!
And because we belong to him, we no longer live “by the flesh,” as the Apostle Paul puts it. “The flesh” is New Testament shorthand for our human nature, our standard operating system as fallen human begins. We no longer live according to the flesh. We no longer live by our own arrogant attitudes and selfish desires. Instead we live by the Spirit. As Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
Left to ourselves we will never follow Jesus. There will always be a deal-breaker. But when Christ’s Spirit goes to work on us, we begin to set aside those conditions and joyfully give ourselves over to a life of discipleship. When the Spirit gets hold of us, there is nothing we won’t endure to follow him. When the Spirit gets hold of us, there is no ship we aren’t willing to burn in order to go follow him into the new life he gives to us. When Christ’s Spirit goes to work on us, we find ourselves breathing him in, and then pouring ourselves out in loving service to others. We begin to forgive like he forgives. We begin to humble ourselves as he humbled himself. We begin to love sacrificially, as he did. We begin to proclaim the kingdom of God with our words and with our actions.
Christ’s Spirit is doing all this work in us here and now as we gather as God’s people to worship him. This is all happening here and now as Christ comes to us in Word and Sacrament.
How anyone could be bored by this is beyond me!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church