I think our readings this morning overlap in one really important way: they all are dealing with the issue of what it means to leave behind what Paul refers to as ‘the flesh’ or what we might call, ‘our old lives,’ for one purpose: to follow Jesus Christ. Now of course this really isn’t news right? It’s sort of a central tenet of Christianity: we are followers of ‘the Way,’ followers or disciples or learners of Jesus Christ. It seems as if this is pretty straight forward.
So we hear Jesus put this a few different ways in the Gospel Luke records: ‘when the days drew near for Jesus to go to the Cross, to die, to descend into hell and then to rise and then ascend to his Father’s right hand’, he ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem. Yep, he knew his Father, he love his Father, and so he followed him even though doing so would mean people would kill him by mounting him on a Cross. And of course Jesus’s own words here, and his ascension to being with his Father are foreshadowed or prophesied in our reading about Elijah’s being ‘taken up’ and about Elisha’s having to ‘take up the mantle’ or the mission or the work or the way, in other words, of having to follow Elijah’s way.
We know that prophets like Elisha so often not heard by the Isrealites, just as the many of the villagers in the gospel story from Luke did not receive Jesus. Why? Because he set his face to Jerusalem. Because Elisha, just as had Elijah, as does Jesus, put first the Kingdom of God. They place it above their own personal reputation, their own monetary or property gains, it even gives shape to how they live out their relationships with other people: they all prioritize – even in their closest relationships – their relationship with God. They set the stage for what life will look like as one follows God.
So what does it look like. Does it grant you some great power to control or coerce or threaten others into believing in God. Apparently not. For when the disciples see people not following Jesus and they ask if they should command fire to come down and consume them, Jesus turns and rebukes them. Tough luck Westborough Baptist, Jesus just called out your improper following him there.
Jesus next implies that his mission is not merely of this world, that his mission is bigger than the general concerns for food, shelter, etc, that living things have. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he says. Why? Because he is on a mission to reconcile all things – every created thing – to himself. Until things are, as we hear in Corinthians – all in all, until all time, history and creation is brought to perfection in God, Jesus will work to reconcile us all.
Twice, we hear what at first sounds like a rather harsh response from Jesus. Jesus tells two men, “follow me.” Both say, ‘but I have something I must first do – bury my father, and say farewell to my family.’ Jesus says, ‘let the dead bury their own dead and no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
While this might sound harsh, the point Jesus intends to make is this: there can be nothing that you place before following God; no relationship, no work, no ideology, no hopes, no dreams, no project, no obligation. What is this? It’s simple really. Jesus’s point here is that if we are not first following him, anything and everything else we do will become distorted because it will be formed according to the way of life that we have come from – the flesh, or old way of life – that Paul speaks of. The things of the flesh, rather than the Spirit, the ways of the flesh, the concerns of the flesh.
What are these things? Well, we see them spoken of all over the Scriptures: customs and traditions that are done for their own sake, rather than because they are good witness to God, prayers that are offered for others to hear, a kind of showing off, rather than because we desire relationship with God. Paul has a really particular list. He says, look, when you decide to follow Jesus, when you get baptized and put your hand to the plow that is living your faith out in this world, you commit to loving God first. That’s your first obligation, but when you commit to doing this, you learn what it truly means to love your neighbor, and even your enemy. You learn that love isn’t necessarily consistent with a culture or societies, customs, norms, acceptable ways of life.
Jesus’s and Paul’s points here are that if you stop putting God first – this God who reveals himself to us in Jesus’s own life – then you’re going to so much more easily be led back into the old life by temptations: things like fornication … I mean, hey, who cares who you sleep with. It’s not like God made sex for a specific purpose or anything right? Didn’t he just give it to us for general pleasure? Scripture doesn’t have much to say about sex does it? It’s not like issues of sex and sexual practice have undermined the Church’s witness in the world have they? Why don’t we just follow our culture’s norms here or an individual’s particular proclivities?
OR there’s idolatry … money, possessions, power, it’s not like the power of church going republicans have undermined evangelical witness to God in the United States right? Strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy … not like these things haven’t eroded any Christian foundation in the Western world – say that rather large dissension or factionalism that happened in the 16th century called Church division that seems to have an endless consequence of factionalism. Not like jealousy, gossip, envy, and obnoxiousness haven’t pushed people out of the church never to set foot again into its worship life right? You don’t know anyone who’s been pushed out maybe even away from God because of this do you?
Jesus, echoed by Peter, says, ‘friends, I have come for you. I’ve changed the world and so the meaning of everything. If you want to know what the new meaning is, you’re going to have to follow me, and you’re going to have to put my own Words to you, and the life that I lived, first. I’ve revealed who God is to you. I’ve lived out what it means to be a true human being who loves God and in turn, his neighbor. This is what your life is all about. It is what your neighbor, your enemy and even the non-believer’s life is all about. But you’re only going to see how all of these claims are the case, if you put me first. If you put me first, it will change what you do, it will change how you do it, it will change what you prioritize, it will change what otherwise would have been: the dead burying the dead. You are no longer dead for you no longer live life according to the old life, to the flesh, you live by the Spirit. So allow yourself to be guided by the Spirit who is transforming you into the very Person of Jesus Christ, the one true human being. But him first, and to him you will be led. Don’t fall back isn’t this sort of ‘one time warning.’ After all, Paul has the most famous monologue about how he constantly does. Don’t fall back is rather the continual refrain that should press us onward, to set our own faces to Jerusalem, to carrying our own crosses when we feel the old ways of the flesh rise it us.
The life of faith is cross carrying and so often happens in the midst of other’s own dismissal or doubt about our commitment to God, or our own frustration with the way other Christians behave or deform our collective witness. It is so easy to turn back from our plowing the faith field. It is so easy to turn instead to the temptation to making things idols, or people idols, or to engaging in strife with others because we are jealous, or angry, or envious. It is so much easier to simply react, rather than to do the hard work of figuring out why we have acted or responded in a way that does not fit the life of God revealed to us by Jesus. It is exceptionally difficult – particularly when we live in a diverse world with tremendous complexity – to figure out how to live in accordance with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus came into the world to set us free from the fear that our lives are nothing more than the mere measure of what we accumulate or lose, or the power we attain, or the people we control, or the attention we get, or the battles we win. He set us free so that we could love. He showed us what it means to live out that love by revealing it to us in the Scriptures through his Son. And in his Spirit, God gives us the power to allow ourselves to be reshaped, reformed and reconciled to our Father. Let us take the time to examine just who or what we are following, and to ask God to enable us to follow him. So that when he asks us, are you fit for the Kingdom of God. We can reply: I followed you, as you called, healed, encouraged, taught; as you forgave – including me! – as you were transfigured, stood firm, suffered, died, rose, lifted me up, led me on, empowered me, gave me hope, transformed me. I know. I followed you LORD. AMEN
What deeply rich passages we have this morning when we read them as speaking of God himself and our relationship to him – not as separate passages, but rather as different levels, metaphors, figures – of understanding how God has come to gather and transform us.
Let me start with rereading the gospel lesson to you from John’s testimony: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Jesus has completed his mission – his work of opening the way for us to be reconciled to God our Father in him. Because he and his Father are one, so when we are brought into his own life (which we mark by our baptisms), we can say, ‘yes, I am with my Father, because I am in his Son, my brother, Jesus. He binds me to him in his Spirit.’ The little catch that you and I might miss though, if we’re not careful, is that we don’t always live out our lives, we don’t always seem to realize or be willing to witness to this new reality. We – as Paul puts it – so often fall back into sin, into the things of the flesh. What are these things? Basically an endless, nuanced, and often complex assortment of acts and words that contradict God’s intention for our lives, and that contradict the shape of his own life that he calls us to follow. We know this story. But it’s worth remembering that Jesus acknowledges there is a difference between his relationship to his Father, and our relationship to God in him. Notice Jesus does not say, ‘and now they are one as you and I are one.’ But instead he says, ‘make them one – these ones you have given me now – and those who, following my disciples, will come seeking me. Make as all one.
This is pretty important to recognize that we are not yet one as the Father and Son are one (I’ll leave the ontological distinction aside and only speak about the matter of time and of sin). Jesus doesn’t say, ‘they are one’ for a primary reason: not all yet believe. Not all have seen or acknowledged or known the reality of their creator, and his power and ordering of their lives. And I’m not speaking here simply of non Christians, but of Christians themselves. So instead, what we hear is a plea to the Father, but also, a calling or mission for us: Father make them one. And so it follows that if Jesus asks the Father to make us one, that we ought to be open to being made one. And herein lies one of our great challenges. Do we look as if we are open to responding to Jesus’s plea to the Father? To be made one? Most of our history is replete, in fact, with well, to be really blunt, SIN. The sin of constantly dividing over so many things, where every one of us wants to do what is right in our own eyes, to the point we refuse to actually engage anyone who does not follow us.
And why is this a sin? What is it problematic? Let’s ask Jesus. Why do we need to be open to being made one, Jesus? I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. What is implied in Jesus’s words here? That being open to being made one is essential for mission, for bringing people to God through his body, the Church. Why might this be the case? Can’t we all sort of figure it out for ourselves in our own way? Get to Jesus in a million different ways? Here’s my fundamental problem – and not just mine, but seemingly Scripture’s problem with it – when people do, as Judges tells us, what is ‘right in their own individual eyes,’ we tend to end up worshipping our own idols – whether that’s a false happiness, a false materialistic contentment, a malformed sense of self that ends up in self-hatred, or just a lack of belief that following Jesus isn’t the equivalent of following the ways our culture sets out as good and right without question and examination – and in worshipping these things, we actually too often stop being open to being made one in God. Instead, we might be one small fragment of a thousand different sects, each with its own little limited, partial and self-confirming, never challenged, never transformed, stagnant self, frozen in time like a pillar of salt without taste; without capacity, that is, to witness to the good food or fruit of the Gospel. How can we testify to our one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if we refuse to be open to being transformed, to being made his body, and therefore to embodying his own life of unity with his Father in the world?
If we look at our story in Act – a very concrete story of mission in the world – through this lens of being open to being made one, joined to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, what do we have? Imagine the events of the story in Acts as the Persons of our Triune God. We hear of an Earthquake that blows open the doors of the prison in which Paul and Silas, Jesus’s disciples, have been unfairly detained for speaking the truth. Think for a minute about what that Earthquake represents: this Earthquake is the Father, the waves that follow after the earthquake are the Son sent – as the waves are sent out – into the world, shattering the prison of sin and damnation, opening the doors so that we might be raised from the prison of sin, into the life of God himself if we are willing to stand firm and hold fast to Jesus as the quake reverberates around the world, through our city, our culture, our struggles and triumphs, through time, through history, through all that is. The chains that bound Paul and Silas, like the chains of sin that bound all people everywhere, are broken, unfastened, and even remaining just where we are as Paul and Silas did in the prison, so we are set free by God to take hold of life now and eternally, when we open ourselves to him, allowing him to make us one, allowing him to – whereever we are, whatever our struggles, whatever our disagreements that make us want to run from other Christians – hold fast to him, hold fast to the faith. In him we are being made one. Let us take hold of that reality and live it out, not running away, not lashing out, not building up barricades, or withdrawing, or going ahead with whatever we think is right, but holding fast to engagement with one another where God makes us one in his body. AMEN.