This is the text of the sermon I preached on 6/26 at Zion Lutheran Church New Palestine, IN (one of my favorite places to preach) www.zionnewpal.org The sermon is based on the gospel reading: Luke 9:51-62
In the game of life, there are two kinds of people: some who are followers and some who are leaders. Have you ever heard that phrase before? I believe there are two different ways to hear this phrase: The first is to hear a challenge and motivation to be a leader in life. Blaze a trail that people will want to follow. Seize the day. The second way to hear the phrase is to be content about being a follower. I guess I’m not a leader type, so why should I be so hard on myself about results?
In our gospel lesson we have a picture of the game of life that is more nuanced than the distinction between leaders or followers. We have a picture of discipleship. Discipleship is about being a follower. To be a disciple is nothing other than following Jesus. But discipleship is also to be a leader. To be a disciple is to resolutely follow God’s will, to put our hand on the plow and not look back.
Yes there are two types of people in life, not leaders and followers, but disciples of Jesus, and everyone else. What makes us as disciples different than everyone else? We find in God’s Word the answer to this question of what it means for us to be disciples- that is followers of Jesus.
At the beginning of our gospel reading in Luke chapter 9 we hear how Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. This means that his singular focus was toward his mission to die on the cross for our salvation. Something about this focus made the people of a village in Samaria to not welcome Jesus. Perhaps there focus was on what healing or miracles Jesus could provide, to the point that when the messengers he sent ahead of him arrived, they did not welcome the spirit of determination toward the future in which they perceived to be in Jesus.
The disciples are indignant over this and ask Jesus about if a public retribution is in order. “Shall we ask for fire to come down from heaven to consume them?” Jesus rebukes the disciples for their destruction lust. The disciples were not aligned with the purpose for which Jesus came, not to destroy, but to save.
Even though Jesus did have the power to call down destruction on those who reject him, God does not show his power in this way. Instead as in the case of the Old Testament reading for today, God speaks to us and demonstrates his power over creation not in earthquakes and fires and storms, but in the sound of a low whisper. This low whisper comes to us today in the message of the gospel that Jesus loves us perfectly.
This response of the disciples that Jesus identified as wrong with a strong rebuke tells us something about discipleship. To follow Jesus is to be aligned with the gospel that Jesus embodies. Following Jesus does not mean that we passionately pursue a cause that is hurtful to other people because we assume it is what Jesus would do, or because we want to act a certain way and feel confident that God is on our side.
A song by Bob Dylan called “God on our side” describes wars of the 20th century and contains the phrase “for you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” It can be a tragic thing if people in positions of government leadership claim that God is on their side without actually having a desire to follow Jesus.
But that is not to say that we cannot know whether causes we believe in match with God’s will. As long as the reason for a cause is grounded in God’s Word and not our own personal desires or prejudices, then we can be confident about our participation in following Jesus
We can be confident that supporting an organization like Lutherans for Life is following God’s will. No matter the grey areas about advancing scientific technology and medical care at life’s end, or ethical questions about pregnancy as related to rape we can know with certainty that the voice of Jesus supports the cause of life.
Likewise we can be confident that mission trips that bring the much needed services of food and medical care represent following Jesus. Matthew 25:35 “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
A second way in which we follow Jesus and live as disciples is through our willingness to pay the cost of being disciples. In order to follow Jesus we need to be clear about the nature of discipleship including its difficulties, hard choices, and sacrifices. Today we can expect more than ever to face opposition, derision, or persecution for publicly standing up for the truths of our faith. An easier way of discipleship free of such a cost is always before us as a temptation.
We heard in the gospel lesson today that series of short sayings, representing different exchanges Jesus had with people on the day’s journey “Let me first go and bury my father.” Certainly sounds like a reasonable request, what could be more sacrosanct as seeing to the proper funeral of a family member.
(although most likely what the man meant was that he wanted to wait for however many years it was that his father was still living and then go and follow Jesus).
There is nothing more sacred in the world than following Jesus. When we put other things first we are communicating that we are not ready to follow.
We may have our own versions of I will follow you Lord, but first let me go and… We all have our own ideas of an easier way of discipleship. “Let me first go and get established in life.” Let me first find a spouse. Let me first find my right balance of happiness in life. Let me first get out of credit card debt before I tithe. Let me first have fun while I’m young in life before I commit to being a disciple the way I know I should. Or let me first have fun in life in starting retirement before committing to too many things in the church.
The Greek word for follow in the New Testament, Akoloutheo, brings to mind not just following as in walking behind someone, but also accompanying and assisting. Following Jesus is subscribing to and participating in the work of the kingdom. To simply follow could mean follow from a safe distance and simply watch as a passive observer. In other words we can in our life as Christians have only a passive allegiance to what Jesus stands for without a living faith. But when Jesus says follow, he means for us to follow with all of our heart.
We may struggle with commitment to living in discipleship in ways that are passive. But ultimately in God’s steadfast love toward us we have the blueprint for a discipleship that resolutely follows Him in our lives. We see in the gospel reading that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem to die on the cross because of his unwavering love and commitment to our salvation.
Because he is resolute in his steadfast love towards us, we are able to love him with an undivided heart and are able to follow him without looking back. We see this message throughout the scripture about celebrating God’s steadfast love and then responding in faith: Psalm 85 proclaims “Show us your steadfast love O LORD and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will seek peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back in folly.”
Psalm 16 closes with these words about the steadfast love of Jesus and our response of faith: I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure. 10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. 11 You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Because the Lord is always before us we rejoice and live in peace and safety. From this foundation of joy we know the way to live, In Jesus we find the path of life.
Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him because of his love toward us. We gladly follow him knowing that we are perfectly loved in this way. Through this love we follow him by loving our neighbor. We show the light of Christ to the world around us, we show this love to countless people whose lives are bankrupt without the comfort of the steadfast love of God. We show this love to the very people who long for this perfect love in their lives, even if they do not yet realize what they are missing.
Finally, no exploration of discipleship is complete without emphasis on perseverance and encouragement. The world is filled with forces that want to discourage us from the word of truth. It is a fact that the world becomes a more dangerous place to live every year, and our society becomes more hostile to Christian faith with each passing year. Jesus clearly indicated to us that things will get worse and not better before his return.
To be a disciple is to not give in to discouragement. We are not discouraged because even if we are struck down, through Christ we are not destroyed. His resurrection stands above all sources of discouragement in our world or in our lives. His resurrection gives us a foundation of hope that wells up in us and overflows to our relationship with our neighbors.
In our Old Testament reading we hear about God’s promise to Elijah that during these difficult and trying days when so many in Israel have fallen away to worship baal or other false gods that a faithful remnant will still remain. This was a message to not be discouraged. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Today God also provides to us in the church and in the form of our very own friends and family in the body of Christ a faithful remnant that does not bow down to the false gods of this world. We may feel outnumbered and out of place witnessing our faith as disciples in the world we live in today. Yet we are not alone. God provides us with a boundless treasure of leaders and friends in our faith who walk the walk of discipleship with us, who encourage us, even as we encourage them through our faith.
Through the history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, one phrase has been use to describe the spirit of its organizational purpose: “walk together” To follow Jesus is for us to walk together in faith. Jesus calls us to follow him. Thanks be to God that we have this calling in our lives!