Last week we had our AGM after church. In it we looked back on where we had been, considered where we are at, and began to think about how we might step into God’s future, together. So many of you stayed for that important work and a lot of it was positive and fun, even some of the hard bits were super useful and, as I have said several times this week, I am really grateful to each of you.
At the end of the meeting, we did an activity. One of the questions was ‘what one thing do we want to be known for in our local community’. You came up with some amazing things and, as I typed them up, so I was nodding and amening along, but one phrase has come back to me over and over as I read today’s gospel passage. One of you wrote that they want us to be known for our Faith: they wrote ‘real, modern, change-your-life, sell-all-you-own faith…’ and I think that is what Jesus is calling those early disciples to in those verses we heard today.
This passage is quite well-known, isn’t it: three different followers make bold promises to follow Jesus and he basically responds by sounding pretty mean. And, if you don’t mind me saying, His recruitment drive could do with a bit of work because he comes out with some less than appealing answers.
As always, when preparing for Sundays, I turned to a variety of commentary writers to read their thoughts, and they each said things like, ‘I don’t think Jesus literally meant you’ll have nowhere to lay your head’. And ‘He doesn’t really mean let the dead bury their own dead’, or ‘someone who looks back isn’t fit for the kingdom of God’. One said, ‘he is speaking in metaphor’ and another said, ‘he must be referring to a turn of phrase that the early disciples would have understood…but we don’t’.
But wow. I don’t think I agree with those guys. I think Jesus is being pretty clear. He makes his point three times. I think he really does mean it, even though it is hard stuff. I mean, Jesus does ask hard things of us, so why wouldn’t he mean this?
So, if it isn’t metaphor, or some first century joke, what is he saying?
Well, I think he asks three things of those would-be followers. And I think he is asking the same things of us too, so let’s take them in turn…
The first ‘someone’ 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’.
Following the Son of Man, following Jesus, means being prepared to give up our sense of security. It means being prepared to go when Jesus asks, and go where Jesus asks, even if it feels risky. Even if we aren’t entirely sure where this road leads to.
Then, the next one:
To another he said, ‘follow me’, but he said ‘Lord first let me go and bury my father’, but Jesus said to him, ‘let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God’. Now that really causes the commentary writers to scratch their collective heads, and I don’t know for sure what the dead burying their own dead looks like, but I think we can know for sure that following Jesus means putting him first, above all others – yes, even before our own families. Following where and when Jesus asks, even if it means going alone. Even if it means leaving others behind. It’s no wonder we might prefer to think this is a metaphor.
And then, third, ‘another said, ‘I will follow you Lord but first let me say farewell to those at my home’ and Jesus said to him, ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’. And I wonder if this is hardest of all? Let me just say goodbye Lord? And Jesus says, ‘don’t look back’.
(I remember singing that in Sunday School – it sounded so much more palatable then: ‘no turning back, no turning back’).
But following Jesus, single-mindedly, determinedly, without looking back, well it feels costly, doesn’t it, painful even?
And is it just me or does God, in Jesus, sound really demanding – leave everything, leave your home, leave your family, don’t look back, follow me. I kind of felt like it was a bit needy somehow. But that doesn’t sound like God, at all.
God doesn’t need us, in some celestial crisis of self-confidence. God longs for us because God loves us and because us being together is the very best thing for us, as God’s children. So yes, it is demanding – as the hymn writer says, following Jesus really does demand my soul, my life, my all. But it’s not demanding because God selfishly wants all of us to keep to Gods-self. God asks for all of us – our past, present and future – out of a divine act of great love and as a gift to us. For our good. And because it is best for us.
You know, I once heard this story of a priest who thought she might’ve heard God invite her to leave her home and her family. She thought she heard Jesus ask her to follow Him all the way to the other side of the world, and not look back. And, it felt big and costly and terrifying and like she was giving up everything but, would you look at that, she landed up living in paradise, in a life that was better than she could have imagined!
So perhaps we should hope these invitations of Jesus aren’t metaphors. Perhaps we should dare to believe they are offers of life in abundance. And then maybe we might have the courage and grace to respond with a resounding yes and live a life of true faith: real, modern, change-your-life, sell-all-you-own faith…and be known for it. Amen.