Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year C2
Today’s Gospel shows Jesus setting out between two alternatives. On the one hand, the ancient feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. The rejection of Jesus’ advance party by Samaritans was an affront that made the zealous among his company eager for the blood of God’s opponents. Just as in Elijah’s day, when God’s enemies were given no quarter, there could be no peaceful coexistence—only payback, and a new order brought by violence.
But Jesus, who some thought was Elijah back from the dead, makes it clear that he’s a different sort of Messiah—not annihilation for the Samaritans, but hope and another chance. So no fire from heaven; no righteous triumph for the true believers.
On the other hand, there were those well-intentioned people Jesus met along the way who wanted to follow him, but with conditions. Sensing that one was seeking something for himself, Jesus warned him that even animals were better-off than he was pursuing his vocation: ‘foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.
Another wanted to bury his father, but Jesus offers him counsel about the dead burying their own dead, while marching resolutely on. Perhaps Jesus’ would-be follower wants to wait until his father has died and the inheritance is in place and all the affairs are in order, and only then follow. ‘Sorry’, says Jesus—‘those are the priorities of the world that’s coming to an end; you must seek the priorities of God’s Kingdom, of the world to come’.
Another wanted to follow him but, again, everything had to be right at home first. Elijah allowed Elisha his leave-taking in our Old Testament reading this morning, with a farewell to family and friends. But Jesus is not Elijah.
The only way to plough a straight furrow is to keep your eye ahead. If you keep looking backwards, you’ll never plough straight. Hence Jesus’ uncompromising warning to would-be followers that their eyes must be fixed ahead, not behind. Their security and their heritage waits for them in God’s future.
So for us who seek to live the Christian life today, there are hard but important lessons in this morning’s Gospel. The options Jesus rejects on his journey to Jerusalem into confrontation with the powers that be are also options for us today.
The fanaticism of the disciples who wanted fire from heaven in support of their cause is alive and well. You see it wherever the way of God’s kingdom is totally identified with a particular theological understanding. The so-called ‘real Christians’ are zealous for the Lord’s house, but what about the others? ‘How can those wishy-washy Christians get away with watering down the Gospel’? ‘How can those hard-liners so overlook the inclusiveness of Jesus’? ‘How can those stuffy Anglo-Catholics play dress-up while the world around them goes to the devil’?
These are no-holds-barred voices tinged with fanaticism, which we hear from every quarter today. As if we don’t have enough cranky people in the wider society—people who need to be shown a different way by the followers of Jesus.
But as well as a fanatical tinge, we also have a lot of reluctant discipleship in the Church. Like those in today’s Gospel who will only follow Jesus when their priorities have been satisfied. We have been good at fitting the demands of the Gospel into the more important precedence of our lives. But the cross of Jesus Christ is not such a good fit for our consumer lifestyles.
The problem for both the fanatical and the lukewarm is that both groups enlist God in their causes and for their own ends. Jesus invites us to join him in the love and grace of God, so he has no need for fanatical intensity, no need to defend God’s cause with violence. In the same way, Jesus lives in the love and grace of God so he has no need to always be caught up with his own needs. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is unambiguous about how difficult his path will be for those who join him on it. Jesus’ patient, open-minded, generous-hearted, resolute perseverance is the hardest path in life—fanatical intensity or lukewarm commitment would make things easier.
But that is not Jesus’ way. His is the way of the true Messiah, secure enough in God’s love and purpose for him that he can make the journey, and meet the challenges awaiting him at the end. So it was for him, and so can it be for us as we too follow Jesus, facing the challenge of our own life and times.
Paul talks about Christian freedom in our Epistle, from Galatians, and that’s the freedom Jesus summons us to find. The Galatian Church preferred the certainties of its traditions over the bracing call to freedom which Jesus brought, just it preferred its squabbles and factions to the radical opportunity God gave it to really be the body of Christ. But it’s reassuring to know that the intense though not fanatical way of Jesus is also the way of freedom, which Paul describes. We find that the disciplined Christian life is also the free and invigorating Christian life.
So…we worship when others don’t feel they need to, and pray even when we don’t feel like it; we love the ones given to us for our care, and the others life puts us together with, even when inconvenient; we honor the Church despite its follies, and persevere in our Christian vocations even when frustrated and aggrieved.
This is the discipline of the Church in a nutshell—to act like we believe God’s promises, to maintain our hold on the objective assurances of God available again and again in every Eucharist, and so find the resolve to resist the seductions that Jesus resisted on his road to Jerusalem. Not the easy way—in fact, the hardest way, for us as individual Christians and as a Church. But, paradoxically, it is the way of Christian freedom, as Paul knows, and it is the way of Jesus himself—it brings us a life close to him, and a destiny at one with his own.