Who Will Follow?

Who Will Follow?

Grace, mercy, and peace
to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.

In today’s Gospel
account, we hear the account of Jesus at a pivotal moment in His earthly
ministry. Here He begins His journey toward Jerusalem where He will suffer and die. He
knows, even now, what will happen to Him there. Jesus is not a victim of
circumstance in Jerusalem
that year; He went on purpose. Here in chapter 9, He begins His journey to the
cross. He starts His own exodus.

On this pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus meets a
number of people. Luke writes in his usual, thorough way. He records events
based on his investigations and interviews of those who were around Jesus
during His life and ministry.

One of the techniques
Luke often employs is that he takes care to tell us just who Jesus is talking
to. To the crowds, Jesus will issue words of warning and calls to conversion.
In chapter 12, He gives them the warning to beware the leaven of the Pharisees
(12:1-3). To those in chapter 14 who convert and begin to follow Him, He gives
positive instructions on the way of discipleship and its great cost, such as
the brief parable about salt and saltiness (14:25-35). And to others in
chapter 14—those who reject Him—Jesus tells parables of rejection
like that of the wedding banquet (14:16-24).

The connection between
Jesus’ rejection there and Elijah’s rejection in the Old Testament
lesson for today is clear. Jesus is the new and greater Elijah, sent by God to
be anointed as Prophet and King over Israel. This time, however, the
King is the one who is anointed in blood, crowned on the cross, and enthroned
in heaven.

The first group of people
Jesus meets in today’s Gospel are those in a Samaritan village. These
Samaritan folks did not want to host a traveling Jewish prophet and teacher.
When James and John see how Jesus is rejected, they ask whether they should
call down fire from heaven to burn the place up. I don’t think this is
an idle threat on their part. Jesus has already sent out the Twelve to preach
the kingdom of God and heal. They know the protocol. “Take nothing for your
journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.
And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever
they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your
feet as a testimony against them.”
Not only have they
been rejected, but their Teacher has, too. It’s time for judgment,
they’ve heard from Jesus. They want to bring it on. And yet, it is not
quite that time just now. Jesus rebuked them and they moved on.

As they travel, they meet
three would-be disciples along the way. Ever moving toward Jerusalem, Jesus meets each one. Taken
together, they are a stark picture of Jesus’ radical call to discipleship.
This is the way of the cross, the way of rejection. This is not the wide, easy
way. This is the narrow, hard way. The goal of the journey is the cross where
Jesus will be lifted up. It’s a trip to death and burial with Jesus on
Friday and to resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. It’s a journey
headed finally toward the ascension where Jesus will be lifted to the right
hand of the Father in glory.

The ultimate goal, of
course, is to reach a high point
of affirmation and eternal life. But the path is one that will pass through a
valley of self-denial and death. To travel on this path, we must not hesitate
to break all ties that bind, even those of family obligation. The family that
matters is the family of God.

Still, these men want to
set their own timetables and conditions for following Jesus: “Lord, let me first go and
bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury
their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Yet another 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.”

These are hard sayings because the way of discipleship is hard.

Luke does not record the
responses of any of these three would-be disciples to Jesus’ words. The
question of whether they followed Jesus is not nearly as important as whether
you will hear the call of Jesus and follow him, and whether you will persevere
by faith in Jesus along the journey you have started.

A few years ago, there
was a widely circulated media report that originated with the Associated Press.
At that time, it was announced that Finland’s
Evangelical Lutheran
Church had chosen a new leader for the
diocese of Helsinki.
Left out of that report—whether out of the reporter’s ignorance or
perhaps conveniently because of the reporter’s own religious
view—is the sad news that this new bishop doesn’t even believe the
Nicene Creed to be true. The bishop had promised to
follow Jesus wherever He goes. You have to say such things if you want to be a
bishop in the church.

But this is the worst
kind of self-serving hypocrisy—wanting to lead the Church but refusing to
uphold its beliefs. This bishop will not bow and submit to the teachings of
the Lord. This is just a sign of the times.

Not all that many years
ago, it used to be that children followed their parents in the faith. Parents
brought their children to the font, and then faithfully to worship and Sunday
School. Then, when the right time came, they were brought to confirmation
class. Sometimes, there was an outcry: “Dad,
when are you going to stop making me go to church? Why do we need to go every
And the father would say, “When you know enough to stop asking those questions.”
But something changed in recent decades. It wasn’t long before the sports
practices on Sunday weren’t just optional but had somehow taken over the
day, and become games.

Coinciding with that change
in societal priorities came the idea that children ought to be allowed to grow
up and make a choice about the faith for themselves. This is not just a case
of wanton neglect of our parental responsibilities in the Lord’s book.

Sadly, this idea has become
prevalent among us even in the Church. We are quickly leaving the age when
children followed their parents’ leadership on the path of pilgrimage to
the cross of being bound to Jesus.

We pray that sometime in
their futures, these same children we’ve brought to the font will hear
the invitation to follow our Lord. If they don’t renounce and reject
their baptism, one day they will indeed hear and follow, according to
God’s promise. Nevertheless, we can no longer rely on parents to do
their God-given job of bringing up their children in the way they should go. We
can only hope that such children, those who were made new creations in Christ
by the Spirit but then were cast adrift by careless, lazy, or apathetic
parents, will hear the voice of the one who preaches the kingdom of God.
We hope that when this day comes, they will not be forced to reject mother and
father, sister and brother, those who themselves were once in the ark of
salvation, but jumped overboard.

Our ancient fathers in
the faith preached like this. Cyril of Alexandria said that the first would-be
disciple who claims to be willing to follow Jesus anywhere is presumptuous,
attempting to grab for himself apostolic honor without realizing that to follow
Jesus means to take up his cross. For the Son of Man to have a place to lay
his head, the devil must be cast out.

Similarly, Basil the
Great noted that disciples of Jesus must learn that God’s way takes
precedence over our way and that human obligations cannot stand in the way of
Christian discipleship. Finally, the early church father Cyprian is puzzled
that anyone who had escaped the world filled with the devil would want to
return to it. Why is it that, in the early church, these sayings, while hard,
contained the essence of the faith, and in our day, they are seem as extremist,
absolute, or at least hyperbolic rhetoric from Jesus, which we attempt to
soften or explain away altogether?

Fellow pilgrims on the
journey and disciples of Him who walked the hard, narrow road to Jerusalem and its cross: Jesus’
words to us this day are as clear now as they were on the day He spoke them to
those individuals in the Gospel lesson. He specifically said, “Follow me.”
We know the path. We know the end of the journey. We know there is no other
way that leads to life except to follow Him. We follow Him who goes before us.
We follow Him who leads us by His own suffering and death on the cross through
all our sufferings, all our crosses, to resurrection and life everlasting
together. “Lord,
to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.”

In His (X) holy name, Amen.