June 19, 2016

Don’t Follow Me

            For a long time, I thought that the toughest calls to discipleship involved dropping everything and following Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee meet Jesus while fishing, and when Jesus invites them to become fishers of people, they bring their boats to shore, leave everything, and follow him (Luke 5:11). Later, when Jesus meets Levi working in a tax booth, Levi also gets up, leaves everything, and follows Jesus as soon as he hears the words, “Follow me” (5:27-28).

The gospels give us a sense of how difficult this call is, especially for those who have more possessions than a typical fisherman. Jesus tells a rich ruler to do the following: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22). The rich ruler can’t let go of what he has, and we’re left wondering what is too hard for us to give up in order to follow Jesus. And Jesus lays out for us what it takes to follow him in this way when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23).

            Whenever we hear this call to drop everything, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus, and when we hear about disciples who could drop everything and follow, it’s easy for us to wonder whether we’re up to the challenge. But I think that today’s gospel presents us with a call that seems just as hard, or sometimes even harder. In today’s gospel, we meet a man who has been completely transformed, healed, and set free by Jesus. His new status as a healed and free person frightens the people around him . . . and they don’t really want Jesus around anymore either. But when this person presents himself as an eager follower of Jesus, willing to leave everything behind just to be with him, here’s what Jesus tells him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

            This response of Jesus might have crushed the man who was begging to go with him. Can you imagine wanting to follow Jesus and having him send you back? It seems like Jesus doesn’t want this man to be his companion and follower. Instead, Jesus wants to send him home alone, to tell his story among people who were much more comfortable with this man before his demons left him—people who want nothing to do with Jesus.

Maybe it’s just because I have a high school reunion coming up, but I can’t help thinking about how hard this call is—to go home to all the people who knew us with our demons.

This man didn’t fit into his community at all: He was homeless, and he wasn’t in the habit of getting dressed in the morning. People kept him guarded, shackled, and chained. When his body broke free, the demons drove him into the wilderness. The demons drove him from life in community to isolation and death.

But then again, this man’s health and freedom didn’t help him fit into his community all that much better. Instead, he became a source of fear. The gospel tells us that the people “came out to see what had happened,” and that “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.” They aren’t happy for this man; they don’t rush to reintegrate and accept him. Instead, they’re afraid of him.

            And they’re afraid of Jesus too. This Jesus person has the power to deal with a whole legion of demonic forces, but he isn’t someone they want around. They don’t want someone upsetting the stasis of their region. Before Jesus came, they’d learned to manage their demons more or less, hosting them in one clear, unclean pariah who they could sometimes keep in chains. Now here was Jesus, restoring this man to wellness, granting him deep freedom . . . and disrupting their swineherding business.

            They ask Jesus to leave, and they probably would have been happy to have Jesus take the demoniac with him. Instead, Jesus asks the man to stay behind—to go back to the same place, to live among the same people, as when he was unwell and unfree. And he has to practice wellness and freedom in the same place, and among the same people, who were more comfortable when he contained all their demons.

It’s one thing to drop all of our possessions and follow Jesus. It’s another thing for us to stay behind among all the people who know us only as someone who is possessed. Which do we hear the loudest today: the call to follow Jesus and be with him, or the call to stay where we are, even if it feels like he’s leaving us behind?          

Perhaps it’s sometimes presumptuous of us to listen for our call as disciples, to follow Jesus and to continually enjoy his presence. Maybe we should listen more attentively for our call to return to our homes and to be a sign of how God’s grace works to heal and free us, to disentangle us from the legion of demons that hold us captive.

Jesus extends to us a wholeness and freedom that might disturb or frighten the people around us. On some days, it might seem easier to drop everything and follow him to the ends of the earth—to anywhere but here. But on those days, Jesus challenges us to be ourselves, made whole and made free, and to tell others how much Jesus has done for us.

“Return to your home,” Jesus tells us. Sometimes that’s harder to hear than “Follow me.” But sometimes that’s how Jesus wants to be with us, to work in us and through us, right where we are. Amen