Revd Dr Colin Dundon
Sunday 26 June 2016—Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The travel industry is one of the big service industries in most western countries. Every day a new deal from Webjet or Wotif turn up in my emails urging me to fly somewhere exotic, stay somewhere expensive. Everyone expects to be able to travel to some of the most obscure locations in the world.
Until the rise of fair wages for all, cheap flights in fast aircraft and accommodation of moderate standard and low cost most folk rarely left their local areas. So it is a privilege. And in today's reading Luke signals to the readers that he is about to take us on a journey. It begins here and climaxes in 19.21-48 with the Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the Temple and his grief over it. This journey normally took about three or four days walking from Galilee. But Jesus' journey seems to take much longer and is not a simple progression from one village to the next.
It is better to describe it as a 'wandering' in which, as in the Exodus, God forms the people of God for the next great events by teaching giving them experience of life on the road.
Discipleship as journey to the cross: to be taken up (51)
The first lesson about discipleship is that the cross and resurrection are central. The cross and resurrection shape discipleship. Jesus has talked about this before but now the links are made clear.
In the Transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah of his 'exodos'. And he now acts like Elijah going to his end and Moses the great prophet. The great 'exodos' and 'taking up' is the event of cross, resurrection and ascension. These are the liberating events. And for disciples that makes all the difference.
So when we talk about loving it has to be love like that displayed on the cross. So you love your enemies, you do good to those who hate you, you bless those who curse you and you pray for those who abuse you. It is not enough to love those who love you.
Cross shaped love is not welfare love (only if they deserve it) or romantic love, it is redemptive love. It sets people free.
And when it comes to justice then discipleship reflects the justice of the cross. Mercy and forgiveness figure highly. It is not enough to apply a blind application of law that is never blind but usually favours those who are in power or can pay or have influence. Reconciliation and transformation loom larger than retribution and revenge. But learning to be disciples is never easy.
Discipleship fraught with conflict: James, John and Samaritans
We have already noted Jesus' desire to break down barriers whether that may be a gentile demoniac, touching the dead, healing a centurion's servant. So it is not an entirely surprising that the starting point for this wandering is a Samaritan village.
It is a bold move. He could have gone to Jerusalem by a more circuitous and safe route through Transjordan. And given the story so far we might expect that he would be heard gladly. Now Samaritans were a religious group who lived in the hill country around Mt Gerizim between Galilee and Judea. They believed themselves to be direct descendants of a faithful nucleus of ancient Israel.
They rejected the Jerusalem-centred narrative of the story of salvation told by Pharisees and Sadducees and had different ideas about what constituted scripture, messianic expectations and authentic faith before God. They were not Gentiles but they were like heretical cousins to Jerusalem elites. And we know what happens when heretical cousins meet; violence can erupt.
To prepare, Jesus sends out disciples as messengers.
The way is never simple or straightforward; the Samaritans are as xenophobic as the Jews and capable of racial hatred, so they reject Jesus' message (51-56) on the grounds that his destination is Jerusalem.
The good news, so far welcomed by gentiles and strangers, finds no home here. The good news can be rejected for all manner of reasons that have little to do with its content. But everything to do with human feelings of resentment, cultural identity, power disputes and so much more.
But it is the reaction of the disciples that is of deep interest. James and John want to resort to holy war, calling down God's chariots of fire to stand with Jesus (see 2Kings 1.9-10). Jesus, they argue, is like Elijah, has as much authority and power as Elijah who called down fire on the servants of Ahaziah, king of Samaria. It seemed like a good idea to let these accursed heretics feel the power.
Jesus has already told them that if they are made unwelcome to shake the dust off their feet and go about their business (9.5). He has also, in Luke's story had the discussion about power that is found in all Gospels centred on the question as to who was the greatest. The answer was 'the least among you' (9.46-48).
However, James and John forget that rubbish; they want to act as persons intoxicated with their own sense of power. And in so doing James and John utterly misconceive the kingdom. The ministry of disciples is not one of judgment but is cross shaped. They do not have Jesus' authority to execute judgment on the opponents of the kingdom and call down fire on their opponents. Such authority is not in their armoury. The only authority they have is to walk the way of the cross.
Jesus rejects holy war absolutely. God is on no one's side but God's. Any Christian use of holy war in the past or present is a direct repudiation of Jesus.
To make that point Jesus rebukes both of them. He rebukes them in exactly the same terms as he rebukes the demonic. Their way of mission and ministry is the mission to and from the abyss.
Paul's letter to the Galatians helps to remind us at this point about the true power and authority that we are given.
If you want a sound bite that expresses Paul's understanding of the gospel based on the cross and resurrection and his passion for it, then 5.1 is your verse.
"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
Learn that and you have learnt Paul. Christ has placed us in free space. We must defend that freedom, hence Paul's passion.
So what is this freedom for? For love (13-15). It is not freedom to indulge in a vicious dogfight (15) (the life of too many churches) but to serve each other in love.
So where does the power to live such freedom come from? The Spirit (16-26).
The Spirit opposes the destructive elements of human nature and human life. Paul portrays those binding, conflict ridden, and destructive elements in 19-22. In verse 13 the NRSV translates Paul's word 'flesh' as self-indulgence. It is Paul's shorthand for the human desire for autonomy from God, for self-generated immortality.
The works of self-indulgence and autonomy are nasty indeed. They are nasty because of their utter destructiveness of community life. They lie behind the destruction of any every societal life humanity has ever constructed.
On the other hand the Spirit breeds all that is great, good and beautiful in human life whether it is love or joy, trustworthiness or gentleness (22-26). The portrayal of the beautiful character of freedom brought about by the Spirit is something unheard of in most morality. Paul's is the most impassioned defence in scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide and transform the community of faith into the freedom of love that anticipates the new heavens and earth. The task of the church and its ministry is to build this community.
But what does that mean for disciples?
Discipleship and the kingdom of the cross: Total commitment
To follow Jesus will cost (57-61, see Matthew 8.18-22). We will find tough words here and that is because discipleship is a wandering, an exodus, and a wandering means some things must be left behind. We cannot follow Jesus and put conditions on our participation.
The first person who speaks to Jesus is a volunteer and one of the very few in the Gospels (57-58). All Jesus will promise this disciple is homelessness and discomfort. No crutches here.
Jesus calls the next person to follow him and suggests that the dead bury their own dead. How can that be? We can interpret this in all sorts of ways. Whichever, he confronts his audience with what seems like disrespect for venerable traditions and respect for family.
The third person offers to follow but places conditions on his discipleship; to say farewell to those at my home. Again Jesus seems to be offensive and disrespectful of kin and family. Both of these prospective disciples call Jesus LORD. They recognise that he is a person who has to be taken with seriousness. They want to delay following in the way. It is the "that sounds great but I've got a lot on so maybe one day…"
Jesus' responses to them are brutal confronting ways of saying, "The kingdom does not conform to your priorities. If you follow me the kingdom of cross and resurrection sets your priorities."
What is primary is the call to follow Jesus and live the good news of the liberating power of the kingdom (Luke 4.16-19). Kinship, material possessions and comfort, even the most holy and binding obligation laid on us by our culture must be secondary (not neglected).
Becoming Jesus' disciple is not a vocational change or a political attachment or even a new spiritual experience. It is to face the eternal decision as to whether Jesus is LORD and whether we will follow him on his way. Any other attachment, familial or religious or economic or political is a substitute master for Jesus.
Only one question for us to answer: Will we go on the wandering Jesus calls us to?