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