Following Jesus: The Way to Life

June 26, 2016 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 9.51-62

Mark mentioned last Sunday that we are curtailing our series on the prophet Elijah. There’s a lot of slaughter of enemies in the story and given the murder of 49 people in Orlando two Sundays ago, it didn’t feel appropriate to make the story of Elijah our preaching text right now.

So this morning we move into the gospel of Luke which will be our companion through Ordinary Time for the rest of the summer.

The gospel of Luke is divided roughly into three big sections: the first section is Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; the second section is Jesus on his way to Jerusalem; and the third section is Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem. This morning’s gospel reading begins the second section: Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

READ: Luke 9.51-62

For the writer of Luke, Jesus is a prophet who is greater than all the other prophets. So as Luke writes the story there are many allusions in Jesus’ actions to what the other prophets did but in the story of Jesus we see one who fulfills the prophets and is greater than all of them.[1]

You might remember that Elijah is taken up into heaven—he ascends in a whirlwind. Now we hear about the days drawing near when Jesus will be “taken up”; and Mark preached a few weeks ago from the story in Acts of Jesus’ ascension.

Luke uses the language of Jesus “setting his face” toward Jerusalem. In the Suffering Servant section of Isaiah, we hear the prophet say, “I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”[2]

Theologian and scholar Justo González says Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem “to confront the powers of oppression;…to challenge the authorities that held power of life and death over him and over his nation.”[3]

This journey begins with rejection in the country of the Samaritans. When the Samaritans block Jesus from staying in their village, his disciples, furious, ask to rain down fire on the village. They probably remember the prophet Elijah who commanded fire from heaven to burn up people who rejected his message.[4] But Jesus says this is not his way. Earlier, Jesus told the disciples if a town rejected them, “shake the dust off your feet”[5] and move on. Some of the ancient manuscripts of Luke expand what Jesus says to the disciples in verse 56 to include: Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, for the [Human One] has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’”[6] Scholars don’t think those words are the most authentic words of Luke’s gospel but they expand the commentary on why Jesus forbid the disciples from destroying the village. Later in Acts, which is part two of Luke’s writing, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[7] Jesus does not reject or destroy those who reject him. The whole story of Jesus, as Luke tells is, it one of expansion and inclusion. The way of Jesus is life, not violence and death.

– – –

            After torrential wind and rain and hot temperatures this week that our air conditioner couldn’t keep up with; when the headlines of the New York Times on Friday (and all through the weekend) were emblazoned with the news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union, when comparisons were made between the anti-immigrant sentiment in British politics and in our own country; when the markets tumbled and I was still reeling from the murder of 49 people in Orlando, I thought, “Maybe it is time to buy a generator.” You know the kind that will keep your house running when the electrical grid crashes or a colossal storm knocks trees down on transformers and it takes months for the infrastructure to be restored or when people hijack the political system and there’s total dysfunction at every level. I was also thinking about the roving bands of outlaws that rule the country in the dytopia novels I’ve read. I was feeling afraid. Afraid of climate chaos. Afraid of political chaos. Afraid of what feels some days like the world is going insane.

We’re afraid of mass shootings and terrorism. We’re afraid of the outcome of the presidential election. We’re afraid of getting sick and afraid of vaccines. We’re afraid of school shootings and bullying. We’re afraid of losing our jobs and not finding a job. We’re afraid of people we don’t know and people we assume we know. We’re afraid of globalization and we’re afraid of isolation. We’re afraid of guns and we’re afraid not to have a gun. Fear is having a hey-day in our country. It is big business and it is political capital.

But fear makes our hearts small. It makes us turn in on ourselves. It shrinks our world and our neighborhood.

The gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus who keeps reaching out. Who keeps proclaiming the good news to new communities of people—people who are familiar, people who are unfamiliar; people who are perceived as safe, people who are perceived as strangers and enemies.

Those who fear look ahead and see doom and invite others to be fearful. I think it’s easy to be fearful because there are a lot of unknowns in the world. There are a lot of possibilities for danger. On the other hand, those who hope look ahead and see possibility and invite others to be hopeful.

– – –

            The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) concluded its work yesterday. I see a lot to be hopeful about in the decisions the assembly made together. For the first time, the PC(USA) elected co-moderators (instead of a moderator and vice-moderator)—both women. One a middle-aged white woman, Jan Edmiston, and one a younger African American woman, Denise Anderson.

Another sign of hope: The assembly confirmed the Belhar Confession to be included in our Book of Confessions. Belhar was written in South Africa in the 1980s, comes out of the experience of apartheid, and addresses the sin of racism, calling the church to “strive against any form of injustice…and witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”[8]

A third sign of hope happened last year when Tony De La Rosa, a married, gay, Latino man was hired to be the interim director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency—that’s the major program arm of the Presbyterian Church.

And finally, from the General Assembly this week, commissioners elected J. Herbert Nelson to be the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church. Stated Clerk is our highest ecclesiastical and constitutional officer who represents the church in interfaith and ecumenical settings.[9] J. Herbert is an African American, a pastor who has served among a community of the poor and who has been the director of our denomination’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C., bearing testimony to the gospel and acting for justice in the halls of Congress.

Speaking to the General Assembly, in a time where we are often fearful about the church’s future, J. Herbert spoke words of hope: “We are not dying,” he said, “we are reforming.”[10] Which is exactly what the church is called to be.

Just like the writer of Luke’s gospel who looks ahead and sees hope, we are invited to live in hope and be part of all the good that God is doing in the world.

A few verses back in chapter 9 Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”[11] Justo González says taking up one’s cross “is a path of opposition to all that is evil, even though that evil may appear respectable and even legal. It is a path of [suffering] with all those who suffer under the present order of the world.”[12]And now in the passage we hear this morning, Jesus has three brief conversations about following him.

None of which are particularly comforting or easy. Jesus doesn’t offer a beginners course with baby steps. In this passage, everyone starts in the deep end. Which could, itself, be a source of fear.

But I keep thinking about what Jesus says in the version of verse 56 that doesn’t make it into the bible: “I have not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” And I always like to say that the word “to save” has a big meaning. It is related to words that we translate as well-being and wholeness. The way of Jesus, as uncertain as it might seem, it also the most certain way because it is the way of life.

So Jesus says to be a follower of his invites us to depend on the hospitality of others—to depend on them, to let our lives be linked to theirs, to let our wholeness be bound up in their wholeness—and to look with hope for the hospitality that will be offered. Sometimes this is what we call the kindness of strangers. Sometimes it is accepting the generosity of others. Jesus says to us, “Look for it and depend upon it.”

And Jesus says to be a follower of his is an invitation to have a really big family. A family that surpasses blood and genetics; that isn’t limited by religion or nationality or sect. Which always means there will be people we wish weren’t part of the family. And even people we are afraid of and those we are sure should not be part of the family. Jesus says, “Expect that. It is the way to life.”

Jesus also says that to be a follower of his (and this is reaching outside this particular text to Acts which I’ve already mentioned)—to be a follower of Jesus is to be his witness. Telling what we have seen and heard. Telling about the hospitality we have discovered and shared. Telling about the family that keeps getting bigger and bigger; a family that includes people we never would have expected. Telling about the way to life that we have found, that drives away fear.

We Presbyterians, especially, I think we liberal Presbyterians, are not very good at the telling part. As a follower of Jesus, where have you found life? Life that drives away fear?

How have you experienced the hospitality of others?

Who in the family of followers of Jesus has surprised you?

And how will you tell someone else about that?

* * *

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 15.

[2] Isaiah 50.7

[3] Justo González, Luke, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 131-132.

[4] 2 Kings 1.9-12

[5] Luke 9.5

[6] The Access Bible, NRSV, Luke 9.56 note b, 101

[7] Acts 1.8

[8] https://www.pcusa.org/resource/belhar-confession/, accessed 26 June 2016

[9] https://pres-outlook.org/2016/06/j-herbert-nelson-new-pcusa-stated-clerk/, accessed 26 June 2016

[10] Ibid.

[11] Luke 9.23

[12] González, 122.

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