Sermon: “The Freest Person on Earth”
Text: Luke 9:57-62
Many of you will recall a worship service in which I quoted a pastor who said, “The Word of God should comfort us when we are troubled, and trouble us when we are comfortable.” All of us experience times when we read scripture and think, “Gee, I thought this was supposed to be the good news!” There are plenty of times that scripture seems like not-so-good news, and you may already have realized that our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning is one of those troubling passages. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Jesus tell that poor man that he can’t even go bury his father before joining him, I think it sounds a bit harsh. I find myself pleading on the man’s behalf, saying, “Come on, Jesus, give the guy a break!” What’s wrong with wanting to go bury your father before meeting up with Jesus somewhere down the road? Likewise, the first person that comes up to Jesus seems very enthusiastic about following him. You would think that Jesus would be happy to have some more company on his way to Jerusalem, but instead he says, “Wait a minute! You should know that following me is no picnic! Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but I don’t have any place to lay my head.” Lastly, there is the man who wants to follow Jesus, but also wants to go say goodbye to his family first. Jesus finds this unacceptable, essentially telling the man that it is now or never. Once you decide to follow Jesus, there is no looking back.
It’s been said that Jesus wouldn’t last two weeks as the pastor of a church. If that’s true, then this scripture reading must be a very good example of why Jesus would be out on the street instead of living in the manse. His words to these three would-be disciples are less than welcoming. Instead of greeting them he warns them. Instead of welcoming them into the number of disciples who follow him, he seems content to turn them away. Instead of promising security and happiness, he promises uncertainty, and the opportunity to persevere. This isn’t exactly a model that would be called ‘successful’ in today’s growth-oriented churches.
In so many churches today, there is such a great emphasis on increasing membership, and that’s not a bad thing. We want to share the love of Christ with as many people as possible through the church. Sometimes, however, this is accomplished by presenting a version of Christian faith that is sterile and non-invasive. It is a faith that fits nicely into our schedules. It doesn’t threaten us or challenge our daily obligations. It doesn’t intrude where it isn’t wanted. It comes in easily-managed bite-sized pieces that are secure and comfortable. As we all know, people are more likely to go where they are comfortable (or, in churches that serve breakfast, where there are eggs and bacon). It seems in many cases that if you want to increase membership in a church, you do the exact opposite of what Jesus does to these three potential disciples.
One pastor once wrote in an article: “I often visit newcomers in town and find them to be church shopping. They want to know what they can get out of church. Churches are one more consumer commodity. Worship services are not a place for us to serve God and neighbor but a place where people expect to purchase the best: Inspiring worship, good music, moving sermons, quality child care. As if we buy God and not vice versa.”
Why are we here this morning? What is it that brought us to church in the first place? Are we here to be inspired by the music? Are we here to hear a good sermon? Are we here to be entertained? Are we here for the child care, or the breakfast, or something else? Why are we here? In light of our troubling scripture this morning, we might answer that we are all here to follow Christ, just like those three would-be disciples. “Jesus!” we say, “We will follow you wherever you go!” However, as our reading shows, following Christ is easier said than done. It would be easier just to come here for the eggs and bacon.
Jesus says, “You want to be a disciple? Let me tell you what that means. It won’t be comfortable. It won’t be easy. Security is not guaranteed. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but if you follow me, we very well may not have any place to stay.”
Jesus says, “You want to be a disciple? Let me tell you what that means. If you follow me, you will do what I say to do, not what society says is proper.” The man who wants to go bury his father is concerned with fulfilling the obligations of the societal law. At the time, it was the obligation of the family to bury anyone who dies. In this instance, the law gets in the way of his following Jesus. Jesus certainly wouldn’t think there is anything wrong with the man burying his father. The trouble is that his obligation to this law gets in the way of his following Christ. True discipleship isn’t convenient, nor does it operate according to the convention of society’s laws.
Jesus says, “You want to be a disciple? Let me tell you what that means. Discipleship does not come on your terms. It comes on my terms.” The third would-be disciple wants to follow Jesus, but he insists on his own terms. He wants to follow, but on the condition that he be allowed to say goodbye to his family. Once again, Jesus wouldn’t think there is anything wrong with saying goodbye to one’s family, but in this case it gets in the way of following Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who opposed Hitler and was put to death at the concentration camp in Flossenburg, Germany, wrote:
“The trouble about this third would-be disciple is that at the very moment he expresses his willingness to follow, he ceases to want to follow at all. By making his offer on his own terms, he alters the whole position, for discipleship can tolerate no conditions which might come between Jesus and our obedience to him.” Jesus never told us that we should choose between him and the devil… that would be too easy! Instead, Jesus says that we must choose between him and those we love. If the ones you love get in the way of following Christ, choose Christ instead.
Have we really come here this morning to choose Christ? Do we truly come here to be disciples, or do things get in the way? Are we really going to walk with Jesus step by step towards Jerusalem? Or do we want faith on our own terms? Are we here to be completely claimed by God, and follow where the Lord leads us? Or are we here to buy God, and insist upon our own way?
The reverend Fred Craddock, in an address to other ministers, spoke about discipleship in our ‘instant’ society. “To give my life for Christ appears glorious,” he said. “To pour myself out for others. . . to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom — I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $l,000 bill and laying it on the table– ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $l,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.” (Leadership, Fall 1984)
It’s harder to live Christian life little by little over the long haul, but that is precisely the kind of Christian life that following Christ will mean. Jesus does not want disciples who think discipleship is like throwing down a one-thousand dollar bill in a blaze of glory. To them he says, “You better know what you are getting yourself into. Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but life with me won’t be so luxurious.”
Jesus does not want disciples who insist on their own way. That isn’t discipleship; it is self-righteousness. Jesus wants disciples who will follow where he leads, spending twenty-five cents here and fifty cents there in service to others. Jesus wants to set us free from our self-sufficiency. He wants to set us free from all the things that get in the way of following him. He wants to set us free from our insistence on our own way, and instead follow him on his way. At first glance, it might appear that Jesus is turning away disciples right and left with harsh words, but in reality he is telling them how they can be free.
That is what keeps this passage from being so troubling and terrifying that we close our Bibles and never open them again. In this passage we hear the good news: It is the call of Christ: Come, and follow me! Don’t let anything get in your way!
Maybe Jesus knows what he is doing after all. Maybe what draws us here together time and time again is not entertainment, or good sermons, or inspiring music, or even eggs and bacon. Maybe we are here because following Jesus gives us the promise of a new life of freedom. Little by little – twenty-five cents here, fifty cents there – we can cultivate a life of faithful service over the long haul, and be part of something much bigger than ourselves. Maybe we are here to be set free from everything that would stand in the way of following Jesus, and living a life of discipleship. We may recall here the words of the apostle Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free. You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one-another.”
Eugene Peterson, author of a translation of the Bible known as The Message also wrote a book on discipleship called, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. In it, he writes that in Christian life, we all live a transition from oppression, to freedom, to a new servitude. By following Christ we use our freedom most appropriately, by living under the lordship of a merciful God, and by giving ourselves completely in God’s service. Peterson writes, “I have never yet heard a servant Christian complain about the oppressiveness of his servitude. I have never yet heard a servant Christian rail against the restrictions of her service. A servant Christian is the freest person on earth.”
Now that is good news!
May God bless Christian disciples all over the world with the freedom of service.
Thanks be to God.
* * * * *
This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz.