The Call to Follow Jesus
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
28 June 1998
Bible Reading Luke Chapter 9:51-10:3
As the time approached for Jesus to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family." Jesus replied, "No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
Today Glen Hoddle Manager of the England Football Team in the World Cup 1998 is a great football manager. He put Beckham in and got rid of Gazza, played Michael Owen and his team got through to the second round. Yet how easy it would have been to have conceded the match against Columbia and be sent home to disgrace. If he had lost people would have said all sorts of nasty things about him. He had difficult choices to make and so far he has got it right. Of course by the time that you read this the team may have suffered a defeat and he will be hopeless according to those newspapers and commentators who have the benefit of hindsight. Its OK for the critics because hindsight is always 20-20 vision.
When we read the stories of Jesus all of his decisions look right. But if we had been with Jesus when he spoke these words we might have felt differently. Those who followed him then did not have the benefit of hindsight, the future looked dangerous and going to Jerusalem was dangerous, it was a collision course with controversy. Some would have said that he was bloody-minded when he set his face to Jerusalem. His friends would have been of a mixed mind about what he was doing.
The Church of England has had a history of dealing with turbulent priests who say difficult things by putting them in remote parishes away from the centres of debate. Nobody pays much attention when the audience is small and lacking in influence so Vicar of Clophill would be OK for somebody who challenged the status quo, but don't let their voice be heard in the corridors of power. Fortunately the plan has often not worked but it is a good one.
This is the reason why Jesus went to Jerusalem. He recognised that he had a wider ministry a more important role. Jesus could have quite easily lived out in the sticks saying what he said, he could have opened a Jewish school teaching his beliefs and we would never have heard of him. To go to Jerusalem was asking for trouble, it was to put his views and his teaching onto a much wider audience and to challenge the authority of the Jewish leaders. When Jesus was speaking on the shores of Lake Galilee he was not such a problem but when he set his face to Jerusalem and started turning over tables, this meant he was on collision course.
And so this episode today marks the stage of Jesus saying that he is going to take on the danger, recognise his ministry involved sacrifice and there was to be no turning back. Some themes stand out from the passage today. The word resolute is used of Jesus and his mission, then this resolute attitude of Jesus is contrasted with three responses which are less than resolute. And of course the challenge for those who wish to be followers of Jesus—Christians—is that they must recognise the tough decisions which have to be made. If you and I are to be Christians in the world then we will face tough decisions. They may not be life threatening but they will be tough in their own way.
- If I say I am a Christian at work people may think that I am a goody goody, a bit soft and I won't get promotion.
- If I invite that friend to church they may not appreciate it and I may loose that friendship.
Jesus is saying that discipleship involves more than just listening. More than just learning, it is about lifestyle. We as Christian must be prepared to take on difficult choices. Corinne and I were discussing our holidays recently and we said that we like caravanning, but what we miss in the caravan is certain 'creature comforts'. Its nice when you go on holiday to enjoy some things which you don't have at home. Now caravans today are very luxurious, they have electricity and hot water etc. but they can never be as comfortable as the home you have left. Jesus takes up this theme of 'creature comforts' which we all understand and says that creature comforts even basic hole in the ground homes which animals like foxes have is to be denied to Jesus. And so for the followers of Jesus even the most basic of creature comforts had to be second to what was expected. This was not to say that followers would never have homes, it was to reinforce the message that followers of Jesus had to be resolute.
What is it to be resolute?
What words and idea come to you when you think of that word? It is to have a fixed purpose, a constant goal, a determination. The Greek word is sthrizw which means to 'fix firmly' this is a fixedness of purpose, especially in the face of danger. Of course this teaching was going to be really important in the lifetime of many of the people who heard these words they were going to be called upon to make life threatening decisions. The early disciples had to be resolute, fixed in their purpose because a great deal was expected of them. Jesus cannot turn back from this journey and from those who go with him he will require total allegiance. Jesus invites others to travel with him but their following will require singular allegiance and commitment. Willingness to journey with and for Christ, takes precedence over all other priorities and it may involve pain, suffering, and loss.
Jesus used incredibly strong words. Did Jesus really say that somebody could not go and bury their father? This was an expected duty of the son laid down in the Torah, the Jewish law. Some people think that the questioner was saying 'can I wait until my father dies.' We will never know until we can ask Jesus face to face but I think that this is missing the point. The answer is perhaps to see Jesus once again using exaggerated language to make a point. Think of Matthew Chapter 5-27-30
If your right eye causes you to sin pluck it out If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off. It is better to loose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Some great Christian theologians have performed self-castration but I don't think that was in Jesus mind, he was using language to make a point. So I think the same is true for these words used here. Perhaps what Jesus is saying in this dramatic style of delivery is that all things are to be considered as secondary to him, even the Jewish law. He made a point and he made it in a poetic way using foxes have holes etc. and he made it in a startling way—'let the dead'. It is about following Jesus unreservedly. Discipleship in those early days demanded, self-denial, service, suffering and persecution, perhaps death. The call to discipleship is uncompromising.
We have a real challenge as Christians and as a church we must be constantly asking ourselves—
- Are we clear in our calling?
- Are we focused in the right direction?
We are called to mission and yet we are acutely aware that although many people do believe in God their understanding of God is extremely poor. It is mixed up with all manner of superstition and ignorance. A survey was carried out of people who said they were Christian to test their biblical and religious knowledge about the Bible and the church—when asked who was swallowed by the whale over 80% said "Pinocchio!"
There is a tremendous amount of work to do and even if we filled our church every Sunday we would only be scraping the surface of our own community. But perhaps that is why Jesus said that we must not look back. We must have confidence in God even when the mountain seems to great to climb. We are called to a difficult ministry and one that has its frustrations and setbacks. We must not loose heart in the face of disappointments or hardship We may not face death but discipleship even today requires that we are resolute.
A story is told of a Vicar going to a church. When the new Vicar arrived at the church, the churchwarden gave him three sealed envelopes, numbered 1, 2, 3. With a written message from the previous Vicar which read "Open these in order if you run into any difficulties here." Things went fine for 5 years, then big conflict with the PCC, so the Vicar opened the first envelope. One sheet of paper. Two words: "Blame me." So he did—he blamed his predecessor and the conflict died down. Things went fine for another 3 years, another conflict, so the Vicar opened the second envelope. One sheet of paper. Two words: "Blame the Diocese." So he did—he found a way to blame the Diocese for the problem and the conflict died down. Another three years, and now the biggest conflict of all, so the pastor opened the third envelope. One sheet of paper. Three words: "Prepare three envelopes."
We have lots of people in our Partnership at the moment who are either ordained, partly ordained or going to be ordained. Jennie Cappleman, Peter Littleford are going to be ordained, Sam is ordained deacon and soon to be priest and Alan and I are ordained; Alan as a Methodist Minister and I as an Anglican priest. I hope that lots of you will be able to come to the ordination of Sam and have booked your place on the coach. When we are ordained we tend to think that we have the problems of the world on our shoulders maintaining responsibility for the welfare of the church. Part of the training of ministers is to inform people that ministry is sometimes hard and ministers who live in the public eye have to get used to criticism and misunderstanding. None of us is perfect and therefore can live up to the expectations which are made of us. Ministry is full of disappointments. There are the unrealistic complaints and moaning from parishioners, the frustrations, the sense of failure, but also the self-awareness of limitations and frequent recognition of failing at some enterprise.
But you should not be immune from this. As ministers we are sometimes regarded as professional disciples. But we are all disciples; we are all called to be ministers. As ordained ministers we have specific responsibilities in the church, but the church which we come to on a Sunday is not an end in itself, it is a means—a means to empower you for real service in God's world. As a Christian community we sometimes have a focus on how much we like the church services, do we sing nice hymns etc., but in reality our questions should concern how effectively are we as a Christian community being encouraged and empowered for service when we meet together. Are you being taught, trained and equipped to carry out the Christian ministry which God has given to you? These questions do need to become more of feature of our church life.
Christian baptism is a sign which sets us all apart as ministers. Ordination has led many to the unfortunate conclusion that clergy, those who are ordained, are the real ministers of the church and the laity are there just to undergird and support the work of the clergy, this is wrong. As clergy we are there to support the work of the whole of the Christian community called to serve Christ. Now this is made clear in our baptism service listen to the opening words—
Heavenly Father, in your love you have called us to know you, led us to trust you, and bound our life with yours. Surround these children with your love; protect them from evil; fill them with your Holy Spirit and receive them into the family of your church; that they may walk with us in the way of Christ and grow in the knowledge of your love. Amen.
Then the actual baptism takes place which stresses the Christian faith to which we are called
'(Name) I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I sign with the cross, the sign of Christ.'
Then the person who is baptised is reminded of their duty to go out and proclaim the Christian message
'Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified'
Then we recognise the difficult task that this will be and the resolute attitude which must characterise the life of the Christian we say
'Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin,
the world and the devil,
and continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.'
The minister then takes the child and recognises that they are welcomed into the body of Christ and the congregation are invited to say—
'We welcome you into the Lord's family. We are members
together of the Body of Christ:
We are children of the same heavenly Father:
We are inheritors together of the Kingdom of God. We welcome you.'
Now you and I know that some people say these things with more understanding than others. Some people mean them more than others. Some would say that the whole practice of baptising babies is ridiculous anyway. These are another argument, the point is that it is baptism which sets us apart for ministry. Ministry is a gift of God to all the baptised. So the church which had on its noticeboard
St. James Church
Ministers: The Whole Congregation
got it right. It may not have helped those who wanted to ring up and book a wedding but there was an important point which they were making. You are called to be a minister and you and I share that privilege. I sense in a very real way that I did not become a minister when I was ordained in Chester Cathedral in 1987. On that occasion I began a particular type of ministry but I had been a minister in the wider sense for many years.
As ordained clergy we are perhaps beginning to recognise the wideness of ministry developing our understanding of empowering lay people to serve God, it is absolutely essential that we all recognise the service to which we are called. It is you who will be able to encourage people to take the Christian faith seriously as you meet them at your workplace or the retirement societies, bridge clubs etc. It is you who will spread the good news as you go about your normal daily life and you need to recognise that this is what you are called to do. And so all of you are ordained by God to be ministers. Pastors are only here to help you ministers do your ministry, not to do your ministry for you.
Yes, you share in ministry when you share in the life of the church, doing flowers, serving on the worship rotas, whatever. But you minister when you go out and share your faith in different ways using the gifts which God has given you. One reason why you are here in the Church on Sunday is to become more adept at ministry, to gain the skills, insights, and vision needed to be a good minister of the gospel wherever God has planted you. As your Vicar and preacher, I preach and I teach in order that you might "preach" and teach wherever you go in the coming week. You have a right to say to us as clergy we are not being prepared for that service and we can look at ways to give to you the tools which you need. So go on and be a minister! Use the gifts God has given you as a sign of the outbreak of the Kingdom of God. Take on new challenges in your ministry, make the challenges so great, so demanding, that you will have to rely on the Holy Spirit to uphold you be the minister that God has called you, ordained you to be.
So today for Jesus is a momentous day of no turning back and he encourages us to face up to the same kind of commitment. You may remember points of no return in your own life, momentous times. I am sure I could think of a few but one that I remember from last year for us as a family was getting on board 'Big Thunder Mountain' at Disneyland Paris. It's OK talking about it getting on the train , it's OK standing in the line with all the other folks to get on the train. But once you have sat in your seat, buckled in and the engine has started there is no turning back. Not even for Max who wanted to jump off and who at one stage tried to get off. In the course of the Christian life there will be times when we are afraid, times when we wonder what we have done—Jesus got frightened and he wondered what he done and asked God to get him out of it at Gethsemane. And yet we know that there is for us no turning back, nothing which lies before is greater than God's power to take care of it. Each one can know that whatever God has called us to do to serve him, he will empower us to carry it through.
A closing prayer
Lord, help us to be the sort of witnesses you deserve. Enable us to speak up for you, Give us the grace to show forth your power in all that we do, Empower us with your Holy Spirit so that we are given strength and courage, not of our own devising, for the tasks which await us. Amen.