Staying the course

Pentecost 6 – 2013

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free 

In the name of God who asks nothing less than all that we are and all that we have. Amen.

When reading the gospels it is often important to see the pattern that is developing. Luke, like the other gospel writers, carefully crafts his account of Jesus’ life. Some stories are clustered together for maximum impact, the whole gospel is framed by Jerusalem and Jesus’ travels are recorded in such a way as to point the reader or listeners to certain conclusions.

Today’s gospel sets the scene for Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus undertakes this journey with a certain amount of foreboding, he is well aware that entering that city is filled with risk, that his very life is at stake. Luke builds the tension through the way he organises his story and by his use of language. The narrative leading up to this point includes Peter’s recognition of Jesus and Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day he will rise” (9:22, 44).

The readers know then that the words “taken up” refer to the crucifixion and understand that Jesus is turning towards Jerusalem even though he knows the likely consequence. They will recognise that Jesus does not take this journey lightly. The language: “He set his face” makes this clear that for Jesus the decision to go to Jerusalem is an act of will, not a whim. Against his inclination to turn back, Jesus none the less resolves to complete his mission, to go to Jerusalem whatever the outcome might be.

Jesus’ courage and determination to finish what he started may well determine his responses to the three would-be disciples – not one of whom seems to recognise or share Jesus’ utmost commitment to the task ahead. The situation now is different from that when Jesus began his mission – when people like Peter and Andrew, left everything without a thought for the future. As Jesus nears the end of his journey and his time on earth, he realises that those who wish to follow him must understand the costs involved before they join him otherwise they will not last the distance.

At first glance, Jesus’ response to the three would-be disciples is harsh and uncompromising – not to mention ungrateful. However, he knows that what lies ahead for him (and for those who follow) will take great courage and fortitude – it is not for the faint-hearted or for those who will waver in the face of difficulty. Those who would be his disciples must “take up their cross, lose their life in order to follow.” (9:23ff). Discipleship is more than a grand adventure, more than healing and miracles and it will not lead to earthly glory or recognition. Following Jesus will require fortitude and commitment, a willingness to cope with difficult circumstances and an acceptance that discipleship might cause a re-alignment of loyalties. Discipleship is something that should only be undertaken if the would-be follower is determined to see it through to the end.

On the way to Jerusalem three different people engage with Jesus. Two say that they will follow him and the third is asked by Jesus to follow. Jesus’ response provides an idea of what he believes discipleship to entail. In the first instance someone offers to follow him wherever he may go. Instead of welcoming the offer Jesus responds that in fact he has nowhere to go. Following him means leaving behind all security, no longer belonging anywhere.

A second person when asked by Jesus to follow him, responds that first he would like to bury his father. Jesus’ reaction is not one of compassion as we might expect, but the rather cold: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There can be no prevarication, no half-hearted measures. What lies ahead will demand the full attention and commitment of those who follow. They must be prepared to leave behind those things that would hold them back.

Finally, a third person says that he will follow Jesus – after he has said “good-bye” to those at home. Again we are surprised by Jesus’ response. Instead of commending the man, he implies that he implies that he does not have the steadfastness to complete what he begins. The journey of discipleship requires persistence. There is no point starting if one does not intend to finish, if one is always going to be looking back to what one left behind.

While it is true that these definitions of discipleship are contextual, it would not be true to draw the conclusion that they do not apply to us. Being a disciple of Jesus is not something that we can do with only part of us, not something to which we can commit only a portion of ourselves. We are followers of Jesus or we are not. It is not possible to be a partial follower. That being said, it is important to recognise that discipleship has consequences – it means accepting that there may be times when we feel that we do not fit in, that we cannot tie ourselves to the past and that those to whom we belong will be re-defined.

Jesus’ willingness to see the task through to the end led to the cross. Without the cross, there would have been no resurrection. He asks only that as followers we demonstrate the same commitment to the task at hand and the same willingness to follow it through to the end. If at times the cost seems more than we can bear, we need only to look to Jesus to be reminded that if  we stay the course, we will come out the other side richer, stronger and transformed into the likeness of Christ.

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