On June 23rd, 2013, FPC welcomed Reverend Matt Morse to lead us in worship. His sermon, titled “Don’t Look Back” is a challenging and engaging look at what it means to be Christ’s disciples. The text for the sermon, Luke 9:51-62, can be found here.
Don’t Look Back
It was once overheard by the pastor in an exchange between Sunday school and the worshiping hour – “Dad, is it true that people used to have to go to church?”
It’s true. Our present generation of “church folk” has not generally been raised on a strong diet of discipleship. Attendance in worship and engagement with the great theological issues of faith have become electives rather than required content in the curriculum of Christian living. We wax wistfully of “the good ol’ days” when everyone and their Aunt Susie would fill the pews week after week.
No, main street doesn’t shut down before noon on Sundays anymore. Nor do the soccer leagues or pee wee leagues take a day off. Maybe things were better when people had to go to church. In fact, there was even a time not too long ago when many Roman Catholics were taught that missing Sunday mass was a mortal sin.
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In Luke’s gospel, today we encounter quite dedicated disciples. On their way to Jerusalem, they entered a Samaritan village, but the disciples were not made welcome there. When James and John see this they ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Maybe these guys have the right idea: accept Jesus into your town, or we’ll burn it down. Come to church or we’ll shun you. Follow our way of thinking, or reject it at your own peril.
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There is an old Peanuts comic strip where Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she would make a good evangelist. “And why do you think that?” he asks. “Well,” Lucy replies, “I convinced the boy who sits behind me in school that my religion is better than his religion. To which Charlie Brown wants to know, “How did you do that?” To which Lucy replies, “I hit him over the head with my lunch box!”
Her approach is not unlike that of James and John. It is a good thing these two followers did not have access to flame throwers and napalm!
Jesus was preparing to make his last journey to Jerusalem, where he would be arrested, tried, and crucified. He sent messengers ahead of him into a Samaritan village to make preparations for a short stay along the trip. The people of the village however want nothing to do with Jesus. One reason was simply that Jews and Samaritans were not exactly on friendly terms with one another. A perhaps more compelling reason is cited in the text – the Samaritans do not recognized Jerusalem as a legitimately “holy city” and thereby want nothing to do with housing visitors on such a pilgrimage. They reject the invitation. They do not want to receive Jesus or his way.
James and John react angrily. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They were from the “hit you over the head with a lunch box” school of evangelism, it seems. If they smote a Samaritan village because they would not receive Christ—well, you can be sure that their appearance elsewhere among the Samaritans may result in lots of folks “receiving Christ” – don’t you think?
This “overpower them” method of evangelism, calls to mind the very rapid growth of the church in the years following the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Think about it. Hey there. The Emperor and his generals are really excited to tell you about his religion. We suggest – er, think – you’ll be on board with it. And the message spread. And most people were very anxious to get on board, and of course, to keep the emperor pleased.
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The Baptist preacher Matthew Henry once noted that “it’s easy for us to say, ‘Come, see our zeal for the Lord!’ and to think we are very faithful in his cause, when we are seeking our own objects, and even doing harm instead of good to others.”
Lunch box evangelism may seem to on the surface produce converts, but it is highly ineffective in producing authentic Christians – folks who really love God with all their heart, mind, and strength.
What follows in Luke is the story of three converts, each swept up in the fervor of activity that surrounded Jesus. As Jesus is on the move toward Jerusalem, crowds attend the way. His ministry has drawn attention from religious officials and from ordinary people who come to him in droves for hope and healing. Now as the outliers of his final confrontation with priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Roman officials begin to emerge in the background, a sense of urgency to his earthly ministry arises.
Whether caught up in the excitement of the moment or motivated by deeper convictions, three individuals encounter Jesus. Two say they want to follow, and another is called. All three are strongly cautioned though – discipleship is costly. It doesn’t come cheap. It requires something. Jesus might not have be invited to serve on many church’s evangelism teams today. While not as in-your-face as some of his disciples may have wished it, he certainly does set the bar high.
We remember the story of the rich young man. “Go, sell everything. Then follow.” He wanted to follow, but as we see in our reading today, not everyone who wants to follow, follows through, or is fit for the demands of faithful discipleship. In fact, in the church today, I want to challenge that for many folks the church has become a revolving door because we don’t set the bar high enough when it comes to talking about what it is that Jesus truly demands of those who would follow, and how Christian life is lived out in community.
If the church today asks nothing difficult of us, where is the true joy of discipleship? It’s not unlike a sailor signing up for a long voyage at sea, never to emerge from below deck because the winds are too strong or the conditions too demanding. Surely enough, the rich young ruler could have bankrolled the entire church, but what would he have gained if never challenged to let go of his worldly belongings!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “the gulf between a voluntary offer to follow and genuine discipleship is clear. If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation, makes discipleship impossible. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God.”
Consider again the sequence of call and response in this small snippet of Luke’s ninth chapter. The first prospective disciple offers to follow Jesus absolutely and the second two say, in effect, “I will follow… but.” Jesus’ responses indicate that the first prospect was not sufficiently aware of what he was promising to do. The second two were trying to make discipleship secondary to other demands on their lives.
The dynamics at play in all three exchanges are clear: To be a follower of Christ,  count the cost. “I will follow you,” says the first, “wherever you go.” He is moved by what he sees in Jesus and the disciples, as today we might imagine a visitor encountering this church – and this community of believers – and, knowing some of us from around town, maybe having heard some good things about us, decides to draw closer and see what the church is all about.
And after some time, some searching, interest is peaked further eliciting the response: “Where do I sign up? I want to get on board!” Yet to hear Jesus, it can’t stop there. Jesus pushes the commitment level of these would-be followers. There will be times, he says, no rest, no welcoming table, and for him, in fact, death – death on a cross. Still interested?
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From our Book of Order: “The church is called to be Christ’s faithful evangelist. The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves and to the new reality in Christ.”
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Following Christ means taking a risk. Jesus warned his disciples that they could encounter great hostility and certainly some challenging and even uncomfortable moments, if they truly followed him. He was clear to explain the difference between following him absolutely, and shaping discipleship based upon one’s own needs and expectations. You know, what am I getting out of this?
To understand what it means to follow Christ, is to understand that there is a cost to discipleship. Sometimes it is as basic as letting go of control, seeking to follow, but not on our own terms. It means giving up one way of living for another; living for greater purpose and not for oneself. And if our way of living means calling the shots, or doing it my way, we are a long way from truly following Christ. Can you imagine such a community of believers, where the call of Christ comes first, and ego is set aside so as to accomplish the purpose and mission of Christ here on earth?
When we say I will follow you wherever you go, we may be somewhat like the person in the crowd who was excited to follow Jesus, but had not thought through the costs. (It may interest you to know that the majority of members of the PC (USA) are those who have joined the church either in the past five years, or have been members fifteen years or longer. Think about that missing link.
Discipleship means the renunciation of everything contrary to the will and ways of Christ, and an embracing of his message and ministry. You might ask yourself the question, “What is my Christian faith and life costing me?” If the answer is “nothing” then we may be sure that whatever it is we are practicing, it is not discipleship in any sense of the kind Jesus expects.
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Count the cost. Then,  make the commitment.
The next two potential disciples point to the commitment for which Jesus calls. A commitment to follow Christ is made in light of a tremendous urgency. Here Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will be condemned to death. There is no time for those lengthy farewell parties with family and friends, or even time to go through the lengthy funeral rites of the day.
The words may sound harsh, “Let the dead bury the dead,” but the mission of Christ is a matter of life and death. Not always necessarily in the physical sense, but always in a spiritual one, for as he tells us, there is no life without the life God gives us in Christ. That is why he, in another visit through Samaria, is quick to offer a potential follower a Living water that need be drawn only once.
Combined with the issue of counting the cost of being a follower of Christ, the sense of urgency has strong implications for our own time. Most of us operate as though we have all the time in the world to attend to the important issues of our lives. When I have been able to get ahead in work, I will spend more time with my family. When I get some time in the schedule, I plan to become more involved with my community. If I didn’t have so many other things going on, I would give more time to the church….
There is no less urgency in following Christ today than there was in Jesus’ day. The world is broken, and it won’t fix itself. People are hungry for a word of hope in their lives, and those who carry the light of Christ must do so readily and as a priority. Christ invites disciples who can be such light-bearers, in the way we prioritize our commitments, and by living Christ’s example.
Jesus calls. Come, follow me. The invitation is to crowds attending his caravan into Jerusalem, and to you, and to me, the ones who fill churches today. Understanding faithful discipleship is to hear the call, count the costs, and make the commitment. Jesus needs such disciples today and is ready to have them follow. There is no time like the present.
No looking back. Jesus calls, saying follow me. Count the costs. Risk a commitment. Offer good for a limited time only. Act now.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit