Luke 9:51- 62                                                  

A Sermon preached by Lay Reader Eleanor Childs

30 June 2019

What  do you think is the main criticism of practising Christians in the West today? The one criticism I personally have heard over the years is that Christians are hypocrites, holier than thou in attitude, but not in practice. Recently the shocking revelations of abuse within the church have intensified that criticism, and understandably so. So, how not to be a hypocrite?

Which brings me to our gospel passage which is all about discipleship to Jesus and what this involves. The context is Jesus’  journey to Jerusalem where he knows he will be crucified. The direct way from Galilee to Jerusalem, a 3-day journey lies through Samaria. Now there was a long-standing hostility between Jews and Samaritans.  It was both racial and religious. In the past Assyria had carried off many of the inhabitants and re-peopled Samaria with exiles from other parts of its empire.  They mixed and intermarried with the remaining inhabitants of the land and adopted Jewish forms of worship, but set up their own centre of worship on Mt Gerizim. The Jews disdained them and the Samaritans resented this. The hostility persisted and intensified over the centuries.  As I said, it was both racial and religious. A cold war. The Samaritans often hindered or even injured bands of pilgrims who attempted to pass through their territory, so Jews frequently took a roundabout route to Jerusalem on the east side of the Jordan river.  For Jesus to take the direct route was unusual. And to attempt to find hospitality for his entourage in a Samaritan village was still more unusual. By doing this and sending messengers ahead he was extending a hand of friendship to a people who were enemies.  It was rejected. Little did the Samaritans  know he was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by his own Jewish religious authorities and that he was going to die for their redemption, as well as that of his own people. As in most religious and racial hatreds they stereotyped him as  a Jew going up to the religious festivals at Jerusalem and they rejected him on that basis.

His disciples are outraged!  How dare these half-breed foreigners and heretics insult their master! What behaviour!  Especially when Jesus has courteously sent messengers ahead. These Samaritans needed a lesson. ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ And Jesus rebukes them. What a learning opportunity for his disciples in forgiveness and tolerance.

The text of Luke has come down to us in slightly differing forms. Our version omits Jesus’ words that are found in the AV which are ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ !  Rejection, hatred and retaliation are alien to the spirit of Jesus and must be also to his followers. The rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism in our day has brought the enemies of religion, including Christianity, out in force. People like Richard Dawkins lead the crusade against religion in general, arguing that it is responsible for most of the violence in the world throughout history and that it has a corrupting influence on values and ethics. Well, he can’t have read the New Testament.

Tolerance is a much appreciated virtue nowadays but few people realise what deep roots it has in Christianity, in the teaching of Jesus. There is no greater tolerance than in loving your enemy and doing good to those who treat you badly.  If things are not particularly important to us, or do not hurt our feelings or offend our pride, it’s easy to tolerate them, but when we personally are hurt or offended are we ready or willing to forgive?  Over the years I’ve been quite shocked to find how many Christians have fallen out with family members or friends over some hurt or offence. Or fallen out with their leader or their vicar over some hurt, real or imagined. Or over some issue about which they feel passionate. Brexit is said to have divided our country. It certainly has opened a can of worms among us. This teaching of Jesus is easy to assent to, but hard to practice. Yet we must, if we are to follow him and not be the hypocrites which critics of Christianity are quick to spot.

This first section of our gospel reading recounts this steep learning curve for those disciples already in training with Jesus. They do not understand the nature of the war they are in, a war that is won not by force or violence but by humility and love.

The next section in our passage is about Jesus’ response to 3 would be disciples. And he responds differently to each one, because we are all different and only he knows what is in our hearts and minds. It’s interesting that nowhere in the Scripture record does Jesus seek to coax or persuade people to follow him. Nowhere does he offer enticements. He makes no promises of material reward. He wants no-one to follow him under any illusions, with any false hopes or selfish motives. Yes,  He assures people of God’s great love for them and his desire to bless and heal them. He demonstrates this by his welcoming all comers and seeking out and healing the needy.  Yes, he promises peace and joy will be theirs if they follow God’s ways. But he makes clear that it is not a soft option.  He challenges those who wish to respond to count the cost of following him.

I find this section very sobering, really daunting. We know very little about the 3 would-be disciples or how they respond to the challenges Jesus gives them. We know that Jesus attracted crowds by his miracles and teachings and healings. Obviously he was immensely attractive, an inspirational, charismatic figure, known for his compassion and power, but his stern words to those who seem keen to become his disciples, give them – and us -pause for thought. What are they really willing to give up or to do? Do they recognise what is involved in becoming a disciple?.

To the first man who volunteers, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus warns that may involve giving up all known security. ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Is the man really ready for this kind of commitment or is he expecting a miracle a minute and lots of excitement?

The second man is commanded by Jesus to follow him but prevaricates, asking to go and bury his father. This is where a bit of background info helps us. If the man’s father had just died, he would have been already occupied with the demands of an Eastern funeral.  He would not have been there. Commentators agree that his saying most likely meant, ‘I will follow you after my father has died.’  ‘If the father was getting elderly,  the man, with the Jewish sense of religious duty of giving parents an honoured burial, was actually asking Christ for permission to delay until after his father died.  But Jesus doesn’t give it. Essentially he says, no, now is the moment. We all know that in many choices in life there is a crucial moment. If that moment is missed the thing most likely will never get done. This man had stirrings in his heart to get out of his spiritually dead surroundings.  If he missed the moment he would never get out. Often we can get an inner prompt to write a letter, make a phonecall, visit someone, but unless we do it right away we will never do it.  We must act when our hearts are stirred.

The third man  offers to follow Christ, but again it is conditional. ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’ This sounds very reasonable, but commentators point out that according to the social customs of the time this would have meant a succession of farewell dinner parties day after day, with the inevitable attempts of family members to dissuade him.  Jesus replies,” No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” In hand ploughing if you want to plough a straight furrow, you have to keep your eyes riveted  on the marker at the far end of the field. If you look behind you, the plough will go wandering all over the place. In following Jesus, we must keep our eyes on him and not let ourselves be distracted by anything nor must we look back. Letting go of the past can be a huge challenge for some people. This doesn’t mean that we ignore or neglect our families, but following Jesus and keeping our eyes on him has to be our first priority. A good intention about what we will do in the future is not discipleship.

Looking at these 3 would-be disciples, we see the issue at stake is commitment. That is at the root of all Jesus’ challenges. How committed are they?  if they sign up without counting the cost they will become drop outs or hypocrites – people who do not walk their talk.

And what about us?  How committed are we to Jesus Christ?  We see people committed to their families, to their careers, to gaining money and security, committed to hobbies, sports, politics, good causes. Ususally that commitment is visible in how they spend time and money and what they talk about. Is our commitment to Jesus Christ as visible?  Is it our number 1 priority? Does it determine how we spend our time and money and the kind of conversations we have?

Perhaps this is why Christians are often criticised for being hypocrites. There was an article in our parish magazine by Peter entitled. ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ Jesus calls us to walk with him in humility, forgiveness, concern for the poor, for justice, servants of those in need, proclaiming the kingdom of God. He calls us to make his kingdom our number 1 priority. and if it is our number 1 priority it will occupy our thoughts and hearts, our dreams and goals, our leisure time and our financial commitments. Sadly, often our Christian lives are little different from those of people with no faith. Jesus does not want casual followers. What a challenge this passage is to those of us who truly want to be faithful disciples. Have we really counted the cost of following him? Or are we just part of the crowd of spectators who cheered him on his way as a celebrity and then forgot about him and got on with business as usual?  What is Jesus saying in this passage to each of us about our commitment?

And what are we going to do about it? Whether we are already disciples in training or would-be disciples, I suggest we read this passage every day for the next week and ask God what he is saying to us about our commitment. For if we are really serious about following him, He will answer us and show us what we must do. Otherwise we risk drifting along and earning the title of ‘hypocrite.’