Sermon for 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

  Based on 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Lk. 9:51-62

     By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson











   Discipleship… In both our first lesson and gospel today, we learn the cost of discipleship. In our first lesson, we learn about Elisha’s faithful discipleship, as he follows his spiritual father-teacher-predecessor Elijah. In spite of Elijah’s order to Elisha to stay where he is and follow Elijah no longer; Elisha remains faithful and follows with these words of commitment: “As long as the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”


   So after following Elijah from Gilgal to Bethel; from Bethel to the Jordan; from one side of the Jordan to the other; Elisha’s faithful following is rewarded when he sees Elijah taken up to heaven and is given what he requested—a double share of Elijah’s spirit. We all could learn from this example of Elisha’s faithful following of Elijah. Are you as willing as Elisha was to be faithful disciples? It doesn’t matter where or what or when, Elisha is willing to serve God by being a loyal disciple of Elijah.


   The Reverend Dr. William Willimon tells the following story about an evangelism program in his last congregation:

About six months into the program of visitation and invitation they evaluated their work. A group of them got together and discussed how things were going. By all accounts, things were going quite well. They were growing. A rather amazingly large number of people had responded favorably to the congregation’s invitation to attend their church. Attendance had grown, so had their membership. What more could they ask of a program of evangelism?

   “But something bothers me about all this,” said Gladys. “Here we go knocking on neighbors’ doors, urging them to come to our church, to grow in Christ. But what are we inviting them to? We tell them that we have a great youth program, that we will do this or that for their children. We have great summer activities for all ages, a picnic in the fall. We have pastoral counseling, good music in our services, great preaching. In other words, we have all these services to meet your needs, to entertain you, to fix what’s wrong with your life.”

   What’s wrong with that? Some of the others asked. After all, isn’t the church here to meet their needs?

   “Seems like I remember,” continued Gladys, “somewhere it says, ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’”

   And the others were silent. Remembering that discipleship, Christian discipleship is something else again. How in the world do we call people to Jesus, appealing to their selfishness, their needs, and then end up with the discipleship spoken of in today’s gospel? 1


   I don’t know about you, but I find today’s gospel a hard one to deal with—maybe that’s even why some New Testament scholars refer to this passage as “the hard sayings of Jesus.” Let’s face it, discipleship is not easy; it’s no piece of cake; it’s extremely tough and very, very costly! One thing I love and respect about Jesus in this passage though is the fact that he tells people, quite bluntly, what exactly they are getting into when they follow him. There’s no fine print here, like some rather deceitful insurance policies. Following Jesus IS TOUGH AND COSTLY.


   In the first case, Jesus meets some enthusiastic person, who maybe had some romantic, sentimental, idealistic preconceived notions of what following Jesus would mean, promising Jesus: “I will follow you wherever you go.” I’d love to see the look on that chap’s face when Jesus told him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, Jesus is saying: “If you think that following me is going to get you success, power, fame, wealth, worldly security—think again! It will do nothing of the sort! In fact, it will likely leave you even more insecure than you are now! You may not even have a place to hang your hat at the end of the day—in fact, you may not even have a hat to hang—you yourself might end up hanging somewhere on a cross, just like I am about to do.”


   Did that would-be disciple of Jesus actually follow him? We don’t know, Luke leaves it open-ended by not telling us. If we were in that person’s shoes; if we said that to Jesus and Jesus, in turn, answered us the same way as he did this person; how would we respond? Would we flee off in the opposite direction or follow Jesus? Being a disciple is not easy, it’s very expensive, it may cost us our life.


   In the second encounter, Jesus himself invites, indeed commands a person to: “Follow me.” The man however, has other plans: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Then comes Christ’s seemingly surprising, even harsh, cold, out-of-character words: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Ouch, those words are sharp, they hurt, especially if one is mourning their father’s death. The man was speaking in an ancient near Eastern way, referring to what he thought was his first priority—namely, fulfilling family obligations. His father may not even have been near death yet, nonetheless, in that culture, the expectation of the children was to stay close to home and fulfill family obligations—especially if one wanted a portion of the deceased’s inheritance.


   I personally don’t believe that one can interpret this as meaning that Jesus was anti-family. What he was saying here with the words “let the dead bury their own dead” is: “If I call you to follow me, don’t hide behind other people’s expectations of you, as an excuse not to follow me—especially when you know that those expectations will rule out even the most remote possibility of following me.” It’s sort of like saying: “I cannot follow you today because my parents expect me to wait for the train to come and meet my Grandmother, but I know that the train doesn’t arrive for another five years.” Jesus doesn’t want us to use other people’s expectations of us as a stumbling-block, preventing us from following him. Following Jesus is the highest, number one priority.


   In the third encounter, once again, a person promises Jesus that he will follow him, but not until he says goodbye and takes leave of his family. Now does this seem like such an unreasonable request to make of Jesus? After all, the prophet Elisha, when he was called, was granted such a request. What are we to make of Christ’s words here: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”? Most of us, like people back then, would want to say goodbye and leave with our families’ blessing on us. Jesus was right about looking ahead while plowing a field—if one looks behind, it not only makes for a very crooked plowed field; it also is a waste of land; because there would be gaps in the field without any crop wherever one looked back. Jesus is saying: “When you follow me, don’t keep looking back to the past, otherwise you will fail to make the most of the present and the future. You must live in the present and look ahead into the future to make the most of your life as my disciple. Do not be a slave to the past with all of your regrets, failures, and burdens. Allow me to free you from your slavery and live fully alive in the here-and-now today and in a hopeful future. By looking ahead, you will learn to accept life as one great adventure with me.”


   Discipleship is not easy: conflicts are inevitable, and difficulty is to be expected. I know…You will leave this sweet hour of worship and return to the world with all sorts of tough choices and difficult demands. Jesus knows it is not easy. Thus, in this service, we pray for strength, we ask for forgiveness when we fail, and renew our determination to walk the way with Christ. The good news is, we don’t journey alone, Jesus is with us. 2


   May we grow in our faith, our trust of Jesus, and in so doing, come to accept our discipleship as the most joyful, exciting life adventure of all.

1 Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 2, April, May, June 1998, p. 56.

2 Ibid., pp. 56-57.

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