By Joan Fanshawe
(Based on Luke 9:51-62; Gal 5:1,13-26)
A recent post on Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr’s daily blog featured guest writer Diana Butler Bass, an American author and explorer of divine spirituality. She says that over recent years she has had to respond many times to the question, “Why do you stay Christian?” She says she knew many fancy answers but in the end “it’s because of Jesus”.
That might seem the perfectly simple answer to some or even many of you. “Of course it’s Jesus,” you might say, and so might I – but I then found myself thinking about who Jesus has been for me over my lifetime of Christian experience, and today.
In her recent book Freeing Jesus, Bass suggests that our relationship with Jesus is a “dynamic opportunity to see God and ourselves perpetually anew”.
Jesus has not stayed the same for her through her whole life’s journey. And, while open to understanding that a verse in Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever”, she herself hasn’t stayed the same yesterday, today, and forever. Neither has the church or the world stayed the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The ‘who Jesus is to me?’ question arises especially in this encounter we have in today’s passage from Luke. It’s a familiar passage but this time my very first reaction on reading it had me wondering if Jesus had got out of bed on the wrong side that day!
Another source just starts: “That Jesus: he can be quite enigmatic.”
When his disciples ask if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume unbelievers, he sternly tells them, “No.”
A village does not welcome him, and he simply moves on to another village.
A convert says she will follow him, “wherever you may go,” and he replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.”
He invites a stranger to follow him, and that one replies, “First let me go and bury my father”— and Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
And another asks simply to say farewell to his loved ones. To this one, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
You have to say it does read rather like a litany of crankiness/grouchiness. Or it could be looked at this way:
Jesus reprimands James and John for wanting to resort to retaliation or violence as a response to inhospitality, and he avoids conflict by simply moving on from an uncomfortable situation. The next three interactions could be picked apart and analysed forever – and no doubt have been – but we can’t deny that Jesus appears to be saying something like: “If you wish to follow me, you must drop everything and everyone in your life. Just give up everything and follow me.”
And just where is he leading?
To Jerusalem, as it says in this passage, “to be taken up.” To his betrayal, crucifixion, and death.
How do we hear this? Can our Jesus be ordering us to put aside our livelihoods, our relationships, and to abandon our property in order to enter into pain, suffering, and the very jaws of death?
That might depend now on whether you see Jesus as someone to worship or someone to follow. Nothing new here, both have their supporters, both are traditional. But, for today, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus is asking us to follow him. Because, if we were only to worship him, we might be expecting him to save us from trials, to rescue us from danger, to keep us from harm. That’s what an omnipotent God should do, right? That’s how the Almighty really ought to treat those he loves and who worship him.
And that’s exactly the problem if we make Jesus a mere religious focus, instead of a journey toward union with God.
Richard Rohr provides an insight here, telling us that the shift over time — from following Jesus to worshipping him — made us become a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.
A religion of belonging and believing is concerned about who’s in and who’s out, about what specific doctrine people subscribe to, and about how they support the institution called the church.
A religion of transformation, on the other hand, focuses on change. Changing ourselves into more and more of whom God is calling each of us to be, and changing the world around us into a more hospitable place for all of God’s creatures.
This way Jesus calls us to is much harder work.
We might be like Elisha and ask for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. We might wait around for the whirlwind to pull us into heaven. And we might hope for divine power to part the waters before us.
Or, we can settle down and do the work given to us: to share love, to spread joy, to wage peace, to foster patience, to nurture kindness, to exhibit generosity, to seek faithfulness, to cultivate gentleness, and to strive for better self-control.
As Paul writes to the churches in Galatia , we are “called to freedom” and this freedom comes by leaving things behind. Maybe not every possession, maybe not every relationship, maybe not every thing and everyone — but certainly we are called to leave behind what Paul calls “the works of the flesh”.
To leave behind anger and quarrels.
To leave behind dissensions and factions.
Jesus’s promise to all of us — that we will be inheritors of the kingdom of heaven: this does not promise us avoiding all difficulties in this life. The spiritual life is not one without pain, without suffering, without challenge.
This is what it is to follow Jesus, rather than just worship him. To accept our baptismal calling to become dead to sin and raised to new life.
To seek, by word and example, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly — following our God on the same path. This path that may lead us directly into whirlwinds or even through the valley of the shadow of death.
But never on our own. “I am with you,” Jesus promises.
This path can and will leave a world behind us a little better, a little kinder, and a little safer.
The path can and will leave us stronger, more spiritually fit, and better able to cope with whatever lies ahead.
If we truly follow Jesus, we have an amazing trailblazer ahead of us.
One who set his face towards Jerusalem.
One who never repaid anyone evil for evil.
One who forgives and expects us to do likewise.
One who requires only love — for others, for God.
This is my Jesus.