I will follow, but… Sermon for 30 June 2013 (Proper 8)

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 30 June 2013: Year C, Proper 8

SERMON
Texts: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

I will follow, but…
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The beginning of our Gospel reading is one of the great turning points of Jesus’ ministry. Luke tells us, ‘As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, he made us his mind and out on his way to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.51). That can be translated also as ‘he fixed his face firmly to go to Jerusalem’ (Barclay, DSB Luke, p129), which hints at a grim determination behind this decision, the determination of man who knows what is right, decides to do what is right, but is well aware that doing what is right will lead to conflict and suffering.

By going to Jerusalem, Jesus will take his message to heart of the political and religious establishment. He has already spoken of what the inevitable conflict will lead to: ‘The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will be raised to life’ (Luke 9.21-22). This was hard for his followers: Matthew tells us that the chief disciple, Peter argued with him, and Jesus had to rebuke him (Matthew 16.21-23). So feelings are running high among the disciple band, as Jesus begins this last journey to Jerusalem. Messengers are sent out ahead, and some of them encounter resistance. They go a village in Samaria, where, we are told, ‘the people there would not receive him, because it was clear that he was on his way to Jerusalem’.

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. The reason that story made such an initial impact was that Jews and Samaritans treated each other as enemies. For Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of a story was shocking to his Jewish contemporaries, because for centuries, Jews and Samaritans had been at loggerheads. They were really two branches of the same religion. But one of the things which divided them was Jerusalem. For orthodox Jews, Jerusalem was the centre of their faith, the site of the great Temple to the God is Israel. But the Samaritans did not recognise Jerusalem as having this significance. So when the messengers from Jesus come to the Samaritan village and say that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, they do not get a warm welcome- far from it! They are sent away with a flea in their ear: ‘Jesus is not welcome here’.

When the disciples James and John hear about this, they are horrified and angry. They are angry because their revered leader is being dishonoured- these villagers won’t receive him and give him hospitality. But their anger is probably also fuelled by the long-standing resentment which Jews like James and John felt for the Samaritans. They are not indignant no just for Jesus, but for reasons that are nothing to do with the Gospel.

So James and John go to Jesus and ask, ‘Do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?’ These are men of great faith- they believe that Jesus can do anything. Why not destroy these Samaritans for failing to welcome the Son of God? However, Jesus, thank goodness, rebukes them. It isn’t in his plans to destroy those who reject him by calling down fire from heaven on them.

Sometimes the Gospel does lead to conflict. We will feel that we have to make a stand. We will experience rejection, just as the disciples did from the Samaritans. And so, like those first disciples, we might be tempted to get angry. Yet Jesus shows us here that that is not God’s way. Our God is patient, long-suffering, and does not send fire down on people. Likewise, Christians are called also to be patient, and never to be angry, at those who seem to reject Christ. And just as James and John’s anger was, probably, fuelled by an ancient hatred, we, too, have to make sure that we don’t get angry at people and try to pretend that we’re angry on behalf of God.

I wonder whether those Samaritan villagers rejected Jesus, or simply got angry because they had heard he was on his way to Jerusalem?. After all, we have stories of Samaritans having civil relationships with Jesus- most notably, in John’s Gospel, the story of the Samaritan women whom Jesus met at a well outside her village (John 4). So perhaps it was not Jesus they rejected, but that abstruse theological point about the importance- or otherwise- of Jerusalem. They could not get beyond that to begin to hear that Jesus, although a Jew, had something new to say to them.

There are many people who reject not Christ, but something else which they mistake for Christ. I wonder if those messengers went about it the right way. Did they go into the village and say, ‘There’s an important teacher on the way, on his way to Jerusalem. You have a duty of hospitality to him. Get ready for him!’ If they were that arrogant, if they hadn’t thought through how to introduce him, then it wouldn’t be surprising that they got such an angry reception. I think Christians often do that. We have no right to be arrogant, and to pretend that we are better than anyone else. But how often, instead of speaking about Christ, do we try to introduce people to the Church instead? How often, instead of speaking about the grace of God, do we try to browbeat people with morality? Saint Paul had it right, for he understood that it’s the Gospel of God’s grace, not a law full of rules and regulations, which has to come first. We might well feel that people ‘out there’, beyond the Church, are getting things all wrong. And so we might be tempted to speak in judgement over them. Yet if we do so, I think we turn people away from Christ. It’s not judgement folks need to hear, but grace- the grace of a God who is not going to punish us with fire from heaven.

So here is a paradox at the heart of the Christian life. We are called to be determinedly faithful to Christ, to show the sort of dogged determination which Christ showed when he took the road to Jerusalem. We are called to face controversy, misunderstanding, perhaps even violence and persecution. No wonder Jesus said that to follow him, we had to take up a cross. And since the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, we are to be prepared to be uncomfortable as we follow him. We might not even have time to bury our parents or say goodbye to families if that is what Christ demands of us. Discipleship- following Christ- demands determination.

But we must not allow our determination to turn into arrogance. Once or twice, we see Christ drive to righteous anger, for example, when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. But he faces his opponents with words, and never with violence. At his final trial, knowing that his death is inevitable, he stand silent before Pontius Pilate. Yet he is as determined as ever, but he is not, and never was, arrogant. If we, too, can pull off the trick of being determined, but not arrogant, then we will be truly following Christ.

For those who follow Christ, the rewards are great. We come to know that God is good, and gracious. We get to participate in proclaiming the Kingdom, telling people that the world can be better, see signs of God at work in the world. And we find real freedom- not freedom to do as you will, but the freedom from all those worldly worries which too often keep us back. It’s the freedom which comes from service. So here’s another Christian paradox- that in doing God’s will we find true freedom.

Plenty of people feel they are free, but many are not, in fact, free. They are slaves to fashion, to money, to all kinds of desires, to pressure of work, to the pressure of their peers. Their freedom is an illusion. But Christians know that it is when we learn to live as God wants us to live that we really find our freedom. St Paul wrote, ‘As for you, my friends, you were called to be free. But do not let this freedom become an excuse for letting your physical desires control you. Instead, let love make you serve one another’. He’s saying that we are called to be free, but we lapse if we don’t let the Spirit of God take control of our lives. For real freedom is to love our neighbours as ourselves. This week I saw a quote from Nelson Mandela, that great icon of human freedom, in which he explains what freedom really is, in words which reflect Paul’s understanding of the freedom of a Christian: ‘For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’ (thanks to the Rev Derek Browning for this quote).

Jesus says to us, ‘Follow me’. And for the journey we are offered his very self, the bread of life. His table is where we celebrate the feast of freedom. It’s not the false freedom of a nightclub or a rock festival. It doesn’t cost anything to get in. No-one is trying to sell you mind-altering substances that will give you a quick high, only for you to be let down again afterwards. When we follow Christ, we discover what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. There is no law against such things as these’.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo