Friday, July 05, 2013

Following Jesus?

Following Jesus?
Luke 9:57-62[1]
  We live in a results-oriented world.  Everything from education to performance reviews at work to government projects are evaluated based on so-called “objective measurement.”  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  We need more accountability these days, and the tools that measure results can help with that.  But we seem to think that everything in life can be measured by objective outcomes.  I fear that if we approach the Christian life from the perspective of looking for results, we may be setting ourselves up for a serious disappointment. 
  The famous Catholic priest, professor, and author Henri Nouwen warns us against that approach.  He insists that our ability to continue to serve others is not based on the results we see, but rather on the hope that is firmly grounded in Christ’s victory over death itself, which demonstrates “that there is light on the other side of darkness.”[2]  On the other hand, Nouwen warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile” to the faith “when years of hard work bear no fruit.”[3]  In fact, I would say that most people who lose their faith were expecting some kind of tangible results from following Jesus in discipleship.
  I think our Gospel lesson for today has a lot to say about our expectations regarding what the decision to follow Christ means for us.  It’s a story about three would-be disciples who encountered Jesus.  The first volunteered, saying  “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Sounds like the ideal candidate.  But Jesus seems to be aware that he doesn’t fully know what “I will follow you wherever you go” means.  It means “not having a place to lay your head,” like Jesus.  It would appear that he had some kind of expectation of a payoff for following Jesus, and Jesus rather bluntly confronts him with the truth that his expectation is unrealistic at best.[4] 
  The second would-be disciple is one whom Jesus invited to follow him.  But he asked Jesus to first be allowed to bury his father.  It would seem to be a reasonable request.  In that day and time, the obligation to see to the proper burial of parents was part of fulfilling the commandment to “honor your father and mother.”[5]  But Jesus responded in a way that seems quite harsh.  He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Although there is significant debate about what Jesus meant, it would seem clear that the commitment to the seek first God’s Kingdom that is inherent in the decision to follow Jesus outweighs all other priorities.[6] 
  The third would-be disciple also volunteered to follow Jesus, but asked permission to first go and say farewell to his family.  Again it seems a reasonable request.  Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say good-bye to his parents when he chose him to be his disciple while he was plowing his field (1 Kings 19:19-21).  But Jesus will have nothing of the sort. Echoing the incident with Elisha, he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[7]  Perhaps this would-be disciple was looking for some kind of recognition from his family for the fact that he was going to be a disciple of the Messiah.  It’s hard to say.  What seems clear is that all three would-be disciples decided not to follow Jesus
  The message of this unusual story is that following Jesus means the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else in your life.[8]  Following Jesus means giving yourself away without thought of reward or recognition.  It means serving the purposes of compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for any payoff.[9]  And to all who approach the task looking for a reward, or a payoff, or recognition, it would seem that Jesus warns them to do themselves a favor and not start something that is going to result in the kind of disillusionment and even bitterness that Nouwen warns us against.[10]
  One reason why I mention Nouwen is because he knows whereof he speaks.[11]  After his ordination as a Catholic priest, Nouwen began to study the connection between pastoral care, psychology, and theology in Holland.  He finished those studies at the prestigious Menninger clinic.  Along the way, his message of acceptance and compassion earned him quite a reputation and a following to match.[12]  For twenty years he taught Pastoral Care at some of the most distinguished universities in the U. S.--Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.[13]  But he left it all behind to become the chaplain at the Daybreak community in Toronto.[14]  It is a part of the world-wide network of L’Arche homes where the mentally handicapped and their caregivers lived together with others in a community. 
  Nouwen’s story illustrates the kind of sacrifice following Jesus demands.  It means that the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else.  It means working for compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it’s the right thing to do.  It means giving yourself away in service to others without looking for a reward.  Giving something away without expecting anything in return isn’t very popular these days.  But it is the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him.[15]  The question is whether we will follow, or simply walk away like all the other would-be disciples

[1] ©2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/30/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 155.
[3] Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality, 156
[4] Cf. the perspective of Karl Barth, Church dogmatics 4.2:535-36, where he insists that this would-be disciple “does not realise what it is that he thinks he can choose. He does not know how terrible is the venture to which he commits himself in the execution of this choice. No one of himself can or will imagine that this is his way, or take this way. What Jesus wills with His 'Follow me' can be chosen only in obedience to His call.”
[5] Cf. John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 544: “In Jewish tradition this obligation was so sacred as to override any other obligations of the OT law. Jesus’ words do not deny the normal claims of the pious duty to bury the dead, but, in a way that is harsh and even shocking, they insist that this man has a more pressing duty.”
[6] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 836; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 542.
[7] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 834: “Plowing for the kingdom means sacrifice; it can tolerate no distractions.” Cf. similarly, Barth, Church dogmatics, 4.2:536, where he says, “It is clear that this man, too, does not really know what he thinks he has chosen. It is certainly not the following of Jesus. This is commanded unconditionally, and therefore it cannot be entered upon except unconditionally.”
[8] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 144; Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 543.
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, where he calls it, “the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus.”  Cf. also Luke Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201 “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity.”
[10] Cf. Søren Kierkegaard Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 89: Christ “never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents.  No, he calls disciples.  It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:218, where he says, “the radical demands of discipleship require that every potential disciple consider the cost, give Jesus the highest priority in one’s life, and, having committed oneself to discipleship, move ahead without looking back.”
[11] Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to Nouwen’s life was written by Carolyn Whitney-Brown, a former member of the Daybreak community.  She said, “When I think of Henri, I think of two ‘books’: one is the book that Henri wrote 40 times, yet couldn’t quite live; the other is the book the Henri lived for almost 65 years, yet couldn’t quite write.”  Cf. Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri Nouwen, xv.
[12] cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 16-17 on Nouwen’s writing career.  Cf. ibid., 100-102, 105 on his growing following.
[13] Cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 95-97, 103-104, 135-36
[14] On his transition from teaching to serving at Daybreak, see Ford, Wounded Prophet, 145, 149-56
[15] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 283, where he puts it more succinctly by saying that following Jesus means that “I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.”


Rev. Susan said...

Enjoyed reading your thoughts in preparation for my sermon. Hello from another Texas PCUSA preacher :)

Alan Brehm said...

Thanks! These days I'm serving a congregation near Lincoln, Nebraska 😊