I find myself being reminded frequently that there are many passages of scripture that we are not to “pick to pieces.” Our Gospel lesson is one of those. Is Jesus telling us that we are not to attend to our loved ones who are dying; we are not to take time to say our farewells to those we may never see again? I don’t think so, and most commentators agree. God created us in relationship and he expects us to serve him in and through one another.
In this case, perhaps Jesus is simply and rightfully calling our bluff on our rationalizations and procrastinations that inhibit us in answering our call to ministry. We are not to be distracted by rituals, even religious rituals, that stand in the way of true discipleship.
Definitely and more importantly, Jesus is being brutally honest about the cost of following him. Being a disciple of Christ is about miraculous healing and the salvation of sinners, but those are not window dressings; experiencing true healing and salvation in this world comes only at the cost of following Jesus to the Cross. We all have a call to ministry. God grants us the freedom to reject our call as did these Samaritans who rejected Jesus in our lesson. Jesus came to live and die as one of us; he wanted to be certain we knew that in accepting his call we accepted the true cost of discipleship.
It seems we’ve barely begun our Year C walk through Luke’s Gospel – Jesus’ birth, baptism, and ministry. In today’s lesson, Jesus is carrying out his ministry in this northern area of Galilee where he was reared as the carpenter’s son and where his ministry began. As we have read over the past number of weeks, he has restored life to marginalized Gentile non-believers; he has brought salvation to the sinful; and he has cast out the legion of demons from one so utterly possessed by them.
But, already, so early in his ministry, our Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that the days are drawing near when his ministry of healing the physically and spiritually sick and the calling of disciples to share that ministry will culminate in his being taken up in Jerusalem – taken up on the Cross, taken up from the grave, taken up into heaven 40 days later as he ascends to be with the Father. Already, Jesus has begun to warn his disciples of the journey to which he is called and the hardships that will beset them. From the start, Jesus wants us to know that following him means following him to Jerusalem – life lived under the shadow of the Cross. True discipleship is not cheap.
Jesus gives us the freedom to reject him or to fall in step with him on the journey to Jerusalem. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian and martyr, tells us that the “cross is laid on every Christian;” and our first call is to “abandon the attachments of this world.” Bonhoeffer offers the analogy of the small child who is sent to bed by his father. The child, in his own “wisdom,” presumes that his father sends him to bed because he is tired and the father doesn’t want him to be tired. However, the child rationalizes, he can overcome his tiredness just as well by going out to play rather than to sleep. Thus, he determines that he will go out to play and, in so doing, better fulfill his father’s desires for his wellbeing. We laugh at this childish conjecture, but we too often do the similar thing in response to God’s commands for our calls to ministry and mission. So often, we second guess God; we rationalize a call that meets our own comfort level rather than Jesus’.
It is our single-minded encounter with Christ that brings about the death of these old selves that are fueled by rationalization and procrastination and attachments to this world. The Apostle Paul alludes to our old selves in speaking of our yoke of slavery to the desires of the flesh – our shallow worldly obsessions and distractions. And, our going down and our being taken up out of the waters of baptism speak of the death of our old selves. In the prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water, we thank God for the water of baptism in which “we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” [BCP 306]
Regarding this cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes on to say,
Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls (us), he bids (us) come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him or it may be a death like (Martin) Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer is speaking of the death of our old selves, the death of our need for the shallow worldly powers and comforts that distract our single-minded focus on Christ Jesus our Lord.
United with Jesus, we set our face to go to Jerusalem. It is not an easy road; even the original disciples who shared Jesus’ physical presence did not find it easy; they stumbled and bumbled in spite of Jesus’ tireless efforts to prepare them.
United with Christ and one another, we come together in Holy Communion. So graciously, as we come to the Table, Jesus offers himself for us and to us. So graciously, as we come to the Table, he prepares us for the road to Jerusalem. So graciously, as we come to the Table, he guides our focus away from our worldly cares, toward trust in him. And, then, we pray the prayer of thanksgiving; the Rite II prayer expresses it most clearly, asking of our heavenly Father: “grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” [BCP p. 365] Gladness and singleness of heart – our face set on Jesus and the road to Jerusalem – without looking back, without succumbing to worldly distractions and rationalizations and attachments.
We read in our Old Testament lesson of Elijah casting his mantle on Elisha who will take his place among the great prophets. Later in the narrative, Elijah will be taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. Perhaps our being taken up will not be with the earthly fanfare and whirlwind of Elijah’s horse-drawn chariot of fire, but it will be equally sensational for each of us.
Jesus will know us and we will know him, because, together we have journeyed to Jerusalem.