Sermon delivered on Trinity 5C, Sunday, June 26, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62.
In a few moments we are going to baptize a brand new member into God’s family in Jesus. But given what Jesus said to those who wanted to follow him, why would we do this? Why would any of us be willing to be Jesus’ disciples? This is what I want us to look at today.
In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has some surprisingly harsh and uncomfortable things to say to would-be followers of his. Luke sets the broader context for us by reminding us that Jesus has resolutely decided to go to Jerusalem where he will be rejected, tortured, and killed in one of the most brutal ways imaginable. In other words, Luke is reminding us that in Jesus we are looking at a rejected leader. Jesus’ rejection in the Samaritan village is but a preview of what will happen to him in Jerusalem. And implicit in this warning is an attendant one. Those who follow rejected leaders will often find themselves rejected. So in telling this story, Luke is forcing us to answer this question: Are we willing to follow a rejected leader?
We see this fleshed out in the three would-be followers of Jesus. The first comes to him and volunteers to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus responds by telling him that even the animals have it better than Jesus. They have homes with their relative stability and comfort. But those who choose to follow Jesus? He tells us that we must make him our first and only priority. All other things that can prevent us from following him must go, if necessary. You know, for example, our desire for stability, our cozy homes, our insistence on economic security, our desire for power and prestige, our love of all kinds of material stuff. All these things have the power to distract us and siphon off our loyalty to Jesus, who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. As Bonhoeffer famously put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And sometimes Jesus asks us to ditch these things for him. If we choose to follow Jesus, we must not let our love for material possessions get in the way of following him. Jesus turns around to see who is following him and notices the line has gotten much shorter.
Likewise for the other two would-be followers. All the social things we consider to be important, even burying our dead loved ones, must not take priority over following Jesus. There is an urgency in his warnings. You can’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of taking up your cross and following me, including those responsibilities you honor most. Jesus looks again at the line of folks following him and it is desperately short now (are you still in it?). We are being reminded of the cost of discipleship. It is a wonder anyone shows up to worship on Sunday.
So why would we want to follow Jesus with all of his stern demands for our ultimate love and loyalty? Why would Aiden’s parents want to have him baptized? Are we all deluded masochists who want to lead miserable and severely austere lives for Jesus’ sake? Well, some of us might be like that, but the answer is no. We are willing to follow Jesus for one reason: Freedom. But freedom in what sense?
To answer this question, we have to look briefly at the overarching story of the Bible to be reminded what it is all about. Scripture is not God’s rulebook chocked full of eternal timeless truths, although such truths can be found throughout Scripture. No, the Bible is the story of how God is rescuing his good world gone bad. Integral to that story is why God created humans in his image in the first place. God created us to be his good stewards to run God’s world on his behalf by reflecting God’s goodness out into creation as wise and benevolent rulers, and reflecting creation’s praise back to the Creator. And as Genesis 1-2 make clear, when we were faithful to that charge, we lived in paradise and things were wonderfully whole and good and healthy and beautiful. But we didn’t want to rule God’s world on God’s behalf. We wanted to rule it on our behalf, even though we were never equipped to do so. Instead of God’s goodness being reflected out into his world through humans to sustain its goodness, our sin caused evil and chaos and disorder and sickness to spread out into God’s world to corrupt it, and our rebellion got us kicked out of paradise. But God, being faithful to his creation and especially to his image-bearing creatures, set out to right the wrongs we introduced, to overcome our sins, and to defeat the evil and death that resulted. Thanks be to God!
Now most of us, when we think about how God operates, think like the psalmist in our psalm lesson today. We know God is all powerful so we expect God to use that power and zap all that is wrong with the world. The problem with that, however, is that if God did that, we would be zapped along with everything else because we are part of the problem. We all have sinned and we all have the potential for evil, and God cannot ultimately countenance either sin or evil. But if God zapped us, then his creation would be a failure and God would have to start over. But Scripture makes it very clear God never intended to do that (see, e.g., Genesis 6.9-9.17) because God created us for relationship and life and goodness and health and happiness.
To put it differently, people matter to God because God has chosen to run his world through human agency. This doesn’t mean God cannot act in extraordinary and jaw-dropping ways to demonstrate he is worthy of our worship and loyalty. Scripture is full of examples like this, our OT lesson included. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. God in his unsearchable wisdom has chosen to run his world though us. That is why he called his people Israel—to bring his healing love and blessing to the world. And that is why God became human in Jesus—to fulfill Israel’s role to be a blessing to the world, to be the one true and faithful Israelite. As Luke reminds us, Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die for us so that God could deal adequately with our sin and the death and evil it causes without destroying us. In other words, God was doing the impossible work of bringing healing and life and his blessing back to his world in the manner he always intended so that we could be his true image-bearing and wise stewards. That is what Jesus’ resurrection points to. Jesus’ resurrection points us to the day when the new heavens and earth are ushered in fully at his Second Coming. The new heavens and earth will be ruled by—us on God’s behalf, because in Jesus’ death, our sin and the evil it has produced have been dealt with decisively. Not yet in full to be sure, but that day’s a’coming.
And what do we need for us to be those wise stewards? Freedom. Not freedom to follow our own fallen desires that Paul lists in our epistle lesson. Those things cause death and will be excluded in God’s new world, and for our good. Who wants to deal for all eternity with strife and enmity and fear and the suffering that such behavior causes? No, in Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed to be the truly human beings God calls us to be, i.e., we are made free to love so that we will once again live like God’s image-bearing creatures because God is love.
This was the problem in the churches at Galatia. Agitators had infiltrated the church and had convinced some that to be followers of Jesus, they had to follow works of the law, i.e., they had to become Jews. They had to be circumcised and eat only kosher foods. They couldn’t eat with Christians who refused to do so. And the result? Dissension, factions, strife, anger. We all know how this game is played. Imagine what would happen if I insisted that any of you who weren’t baptized by full immersion weren’t legitimately baptized and therefore not eligible to receive communion. What do you think would happen to our parish family? By insisting that mode of baptism is more important than the spiritual reality of new birth it symbolizes, I would effectively be insisting that human practices and teachings are more important than God’s. Being Jewish could not heal and transform people. Neither can modes of baptism. Only faith in Jesus who is present and available to his people in the power of the Spirit can do that, so that instead of doing the things that come naturally to us and cause death, we learn to do the things that produce the fruit of real life.
If we read the two contrasting lists of behaviors simply as lists of dos and don’ts we must follow and avoid to get our ticket punched, we misunderstand what Paul is telling us. Paul isn’t telling us that we have to follow the rules or otherwise we’re toast. If that were the case, nobody would be in God’s new world, i.e., God’s kingdom, because we’ve all done most of those things on the naughty list. It’s our first nature, and behaviors like anger, idolatry, and strife come naturally and ultimately dehumanize us so that we are not free to love. As we have just seen, trying to emphasize human works like circumcision or modes of baptism won’t do anything to fix the problem. It will only make our problems worse! That’s not the way it should be, Paul warns, because focusing on those things plays right into our natural, corrupted desires and needs (remember, Paul is talking about patterns of living, not occasional behaviors). And when that happens, we cannot love in the way God created us to love, in the way Christ loved us and gave himself for us by dying for our sins so that we could live. This way of loving doesn’t come naturally and we need the help of the Spirit to become such people. This doesn’t mean we sit back, act snotty, and wait for the Spirit to magically transform us. It means we resolve to rely on his power and presence to help us learn to love as the fully human beings we are created to be.
And when that happens, we discover a surprising thing. Instead of being joyless, we become joyful. Instead of strife, we become patient with each other. Instead of focusing on following the rules which only feeds our pride, we focus on loving each other well and bearing with one another in our joys and sorrows, even when we don’t always agree with each other. This is what it means to live as God’s people. We eat and drink together. We play and work together. We love each other sacrificially. We pray for each other and weep for each other. We celebrate with each other and are each other’s cheerleader because we want the best for each other as God intends for us, which is the very definition of real love. I think overall we do this pretty well as a parish family and there is real power in this because people are starved for this kind of community and connection that can only be lived out when we are truly free people.
And only when we are truly free will we learn what it is like to be God’s image-bearers so that we can live accordingly as rulers on God’s behalf in God’s new world. This is why we risk following Jesus, our rejected leader. This is why we baptize Aiden. To be sure, it is a hard thing to follow Jesus. Life is enormously messy and so are we. But there is no greater prize in the world than to become truly human by becoming like Jesus in the power of the Spirit. When we decide to risk it all and follow our Lord, we will find not only life and health, we will discover the joy of being truly human. We have a taste of what that looks like here at St. Augustine’s and I hope you all understand that. Because if you do, you know that you not only have Good News, but are living it, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.