Discipleship is not about our perfectionism or accomplishments; it is about God’s work in us as the spirit transforms us and equips us to proclaim the Gospel with our words and our lives.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13 C
Texts: Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Gospel text this morning, the “word of God, word of life,” sure contains a lot of words that are rather harsh.
On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples enter a village of Samaritans who are not particularly receptive to Jesus. James and John, in a response that might be considered a bit of an overreaction, suggest calling down deadly fire from heaven in retribution. It is certainly a relief that Jesus refuses to smite those who don’t want to follow him. But Jesus himself has some severe words for others who do want to follow him.
Along their journey, the group encounters some individuals who express a willingness to follow Jesus, but have some concerns they want to attend to first. Now, if these people are making excuses, they’ve found pretty good ones. One wants to say goodbye to loved ones. Another wants to bury a parent. Who could object to caring for one’s home and family? Surely it’s possible to do these things, and then commit wholeheartedly to the mission? But Jesus is unwilling to wait and disinclined to sugarcoat this news. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he says, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These comments are not because Jesus is against funerals or farewells. Elsewhere in the Gospels we see Jesus attend family celebrations and grieve at the tombs of friends; he does not consider these things wrong or unimportant.
Rather, these sobering responses toward those who want to follow him are because Jesus is focused on the destination ahead.
He has “set his face” toward Jerusalem, where betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution await him. Those who say they are willing to follow him anywhere need to be willing to follow him there. To the cross. They must be prepared to lose their homes, their safety, even their lives.
Faithfulness to the Gospel is comprehensive: it cannot be relegated to one part of life and kept out of others. It is not something to be done only after all the ducks of one’s personal life have been put in a row. When commitment to other things– even important things– hinders commitment to proclaiming the Gospel, it is like someone putting their hand to the plow but their attention elsewhere. You can’t do both. Jesus words to those who want to follow him serve as a potent reminder that the Gospel is matter of life and death. His statements express the urgency and priority that Jesus understood.
James and John must have understood, too. They themselves once faced the same choice now facing these people along the road: whether or not to follow Jesus. One day they’d been hard at work, fishing as usual, when Jesus, a man they’d never met before, arrived and said, “Follow me.”
In that moment, something about Jesus’ presence so compelled them that the two dropped everything, and followed him then and there (Luke 5:1-11). They didn’t go home to attend to family or say goodbye. Actually, according to Matthew’s Gospel, they just left their father standing there in the boat, with all those nets to mend and all those fish to clean (Matthew 4:21-22).
James and John couldn’t possibly have understood what they were getting themselves into when they said yes to Jesus and got out of that boat. They couldn’t have known where this journey would take them. Their decisive choice to follow Jesus irrevocably changed the course of their lives. Commitment to the Gospel will do that… it will change things. There is risk involved in saying ‘yes’ to God’s call.
Discipleship redirects lives, reorders priorities, and restructures relationships.
This is what Paul is describing to the Galatians in the passage we heard this morning. He tells them that the way they behaved before is no longer the way they can behave now that they’ve committed to Christ. Things will change. People will change. The Spirit will transform them.
Although Paul describes this process as a liberation, a being set free, he also acknowledges that it involves the loss of some familiar habits that have no place in the Christian life. He enumerates examples, but he knows the Galatians know what kind of behaviors he means: jealousy, anger, pettiness, corruption, bickering… these things have to be left behind. They have to be put to death. So, there’s no going back to them. You can choose that way of being or you can choose the Spirit’s way of being. You can’t do both.
But when the Spirit starts to take root in the community, it’s clear. You can see the change. Joyfulness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness – these things become habitual in the lives of disciples. Those who are living in this life of the Spirit have a different pattern of relationship. They weave together as a family, siblings in Christ. They serve each other out of freedom. They love their neighbors as they love their own selves. Paul articulates such a remarkable vision of Christian life.
Of course, we know from our own lives that those old habits that we meant to leave behind sometimes turn out to be not quite dead yet.
Sometimes, for instance, the most dedicated disciples, the ones willing to leave everything behind for the sake of the Gospel, threaten to burn an entire village in vengeance. Doesn’t really show a lot of patience, gentleness, or self-control. Yet, those were the kind of people that Jesus recruited to his ministry. Those committed-but-imperfect followers of Christ were the kind of people tasked with proclaiming the Gospel in all its life-or-death importance.
It turns out that committed-but-imperfect followers of Christ are still the kind of people being tasked with proclaiming the Gospel. Discipleship is not about the work we can accomplish in the world. It is about the work God can accomplish through us.
This frees us, on the one hand, from any sense of perfectionism. No one does it all, and no one does it alone. On the other hand, it undermines any protests we might make that we’re not the right people to bear the Gospel. We are, each of us, called and equipped to do so – through what we say and how we live.
Sometimes we fail to keep our faces set always toward the cross. Sometimes we make excuses and choose priorities other than Christ. Sometimes we want to call down the fires of heaven on people who frustrate us. Sometimes we look back and see that the furrows in our fields have come out crooked, and we ask, “How can God grow anything here?”
But we trust that God’s Spirit can bring about change in us and around us in ways we would never think possible.
The process of being transformed by the Spirit is lifelong. We go through fruitful seasons and fallow seasons, but we are always being made new.
Indeed, we heard some harsh words from scripture this morning, but we also heard one particularly important word from the mouth of Christ to anyone who would desire to be a disciple. Jesus said, “As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”