The Second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 8C)
A Sermon Preached at Saint Saviour Pimlico, London, 30 June 2019
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Today’s Gospel marks a turning point in Luke’s narrative, putting us on the path to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection with a new sense of awareness. Indeed, Luke makes that perfectly clear when he tells us, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” More than that, this announcement of the quickening of time comes on the heels of two important moments in the life of Jesus’ community of disciples that establish firmly, at least for those of us who know the whole story, both Jesus’ true identity and destiny and what it means to follow him.
Shortly before the events of today’s Gospel, Jesus had put a question to his disciples: “who do the people say that I am?” and they responded variously with the common wisdom that he was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets of old. Jesus then asked them pointedly who they believe him to be and Peter pipes up with the confession that he is the “Christ of God,” the anointed one, the messiah. Jesus, knowing Peter to have a different conception of messianic identity than the one Jesus embodies, clarifies that this Son of man “must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Here, in Luke’s account, Peter does not immediately object and Jesus continues by adding words about what it means to be a follower of this messiah: “if any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me” and that “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Jesus is the messiah who will suffer and whose suffering will be vindicated. Jesus is the messiah whose followers will also be called to suffer and struggle. Jesus is the messiah who will in these days usher in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.
To demonstrate this even more pointedly, Jesus then took three of the disciples up the mountain. There, as they were praying, “[Jesus’] countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white” and there with him were suddenly Moses and Elijah. Before Peter and James and John, these two figures from the Hebrew Bible “appeared in glory and spoke of [Jesus’] departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” We all know how Peter wanted to preserve this moment, keep them all there in this instant of glory, but Jesus was clear that events needed to unfold and that they must come down from the mountain and get on with their work.
The disciples, therefore, have in the immediately preceding period learnt more about Jesus, his identity, and his destiny. They have heard Jesus proclaim that events will take place at Jerusalem that will inaugurate the Kingdom of God, that they are called to participate in these unfolding events, and that such participation is at a cost. At the same time, up on that mountain, three of them were given a vision, a preview, if you will, of what this new resurrection life will look like and how the hardships to come will be as nothing in the face of this new and glorious reality.
So here we are, Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, having already talked of his suffering and death, his departure, literally his exodus, which will happen there, and knowing that the days were growing near for him to be lifted up. Jesus’ determination that this will happen at Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish cultic worship, is highlighted by Israel’s religious rivals, the Samaritan’s, refusal to receive him. More than that, however, Luke wants us here to examine more carefully Jesus’ identity in relationship to the older heroes of Israel whom Jesus encountered on the mountain and what that means for us. Is Jesus really a prophet or Elijah, or even John the Baptist? Elijah was likewise lifted up (2 Kings 2:1), and Moses sent messengers before him (Ex 23:20). The passage is full of references to these earlier figures, but Jesus shows he is more than either of those men and that he asks more of us than they had.
When, for example, James and John saw Jesus’ rejection by the Samaritan and said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” they were referring to the passage in Second Kings (1:10) “when Elijah threatens fire to fall on his enemies and then delivers on the promise.”1 Indeed, as one commentator points out, this reference was so obvious to the early Christian readers, that “some ancient scribes recognised the allusion, and their gloss ‘as Elijah’ did, found its way into some manuscripts.”2 Jesus, however, “turned and rebuked them [for this suggestion] and they went on to another village.” This Son of man, this Messiah the Christ does not work this way. Enemies are not to be smitten. Those who will choose to follow will do so, others will be left alone. Something new is happening.
This sense of a new understanding of discipleship, of who will follow and who will not, and what the consequences are, become increasingly evident. We already know that discipleship comes at a price. Now we hear three accounts of people who seem drawn to Jesus. In the first instance, “as they were going along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.’” This man’s offer is remarkable. It is spontaneous and unconditional, and yet, even in the face of this enthusiasm, Jesus says it will be a hard and wandering existence.
The next two pledges of discipleship, one in response to Jesus’ invitation, the other spontaneous, are a little different, as the potential followers put conditions on their offer. After Jesus says to the first of these, “Follow me,” the man shows his willingness to come with Jesus, but also says that before he goes he must fulfil a real family obligation: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Here, Jesus seems to be saying that his invitation is to share in the work of the coming Kingdom of God, work that will bring new, real life and that, perhaps, those who do not respond are themselves dead and should be left to deal with their own affairs.
The next one said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This exchange, with a sense of call tempered by a traditional notion of obligation to family, is another recognisable reference to the story of Elijah, the one we just heard for our Old Testament reading, when Elisha, inspired by the passing shadow of Elijah, feels called to follow him, but wishes first to say good bye to his mother and father. Elisha did, of course, return to Elijah after fulfilling this filial duty, but Jesus seems to be demanding something more rigorous from his followers.
Jesus invites people into his ministry. He does this through both the example he sets when we see him at work or experience his presence, in a way similar to the power of Elijah’s shadow. Jesus also does this by actively asking us to follow him. Jesus casts his net widely. He does not pre-judge what sort of person is either fit or likely to follow him. There is no single type of disciple. There is no easy mould into which a person must fit. What Jesus is clear about, however, is that what lies ahead is not all kittens, rainbows, and unicorns.
He, himself, will suffer. The disciples are to take up their own cross and follow him and “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whosoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” He says that unlike the creatures of nature, like the foxes and birds, the Son of man, and by extension his followers, will have no place to rest. There will not be time to exercise the old pieties. Yet he also tells us that it is worth it: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits his life.” All the riches in the world, all the success, and all the ease, are for nothing if we are not true to our best nature, participating with God in the works of love, in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, the inauguration of which is near, which comes at the Resurrection, and into which we are welcomed.
Today’s Gospel is not easy and on the face of it it seems like Jesus is being very harsh. It is telling us that some will hear Jesus’ message and respond to it and others will not. It also says that it is not for us to condemn or punish those others, but to move along while keeping up our work. If we continue Jesus’ work of calling people into the life of the Kingdom of God, both by issuing explicit invitations and simply by being inspiring in our actions and drawing people to us and our work, then we are doing our part. Seeds sown now without immediate results always have the potential to germinate and grow later. We never know, so we leave people be without shaming or blaming them for how they choose to react.
We do know, however, who Jesus is. We do know what kind of messiah he is. We do know that he is going to Jerusalem and how that changes the world. And we know that he is inviting us, always and everywhere, to be on that journey with him, and that it is worth the price.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 19 June 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume