An Unwelcome Gospel

 

Scripture: Luke 9:51-62

 

An Unwelcome Gospel

Today’s text is an uncomfortable one. We see a village reject Jesus and his disciples. We see the disciples retaliate with an urge toward violence, and a disturbingly casual one at that. And then we have three teachings about discipleship where it appears Jesus dissuades would-be disciples from joining the cause. Something tells me that this is not a popular text at evangelism conferences.

That’s too bad, though. This is a text that communicates a far more honest picture of being a follower of Jesus than many of the more popular options. While we too often suggest an easy path by emphasizing a walk down a church aisle and a prayer of repentance, this picture of following Jesus indicates that discipleship is costly, it usurps all other relationships and cultural norms, and it requires an absolute commitment. No wonder Jesus’ gospel makes him unwelcome in the Samaritan village, and in our lives today.

An Honest Gospel

This is one of those places where the Bible is brutally honest about who we are as human beings. Much like today, it was thought in Jesus’ day that religious people are supposed to be good, kind, ever-flowing founts of forgiveness. But much like today, religious people in Jesus’ day were more often judgmental, self-centered, and vindictive.

So we see with Jesus’ disciples here. They are offended by the cool reception offered by this Samaritan village. Sure, they paint it as though they are “righteously indignant” on Jesus’ behalf, but their willingness to lash out with such violence just proves how far from Jesus their minds truly are.

The Samaritans are not really Jews—nor are they properly Gentiles. The Samaritans are those Jews who were not carted off to exile. While the educated, rich, and powerful were off in Babylon struggling to redefine the Israelite religion, those who would become Samaritans were left behind and struggled to continue the old ways of worship. When the Exile came to an end, returning Jews harbored animosity for those who were left behind—and the religious gulf that had sprung up between them was a barrier too great to overcome.

All that means that there is nothing really surprising that this Samaritan village wouldn’t accept a Jewish rabbi and his disciples, especially one on his way to Jerusalem. And that—to me—makes the disciples’ response even more horrific.

There have always been faithful people who thought that their faith entitled them to certain rights, accommodations, and benefits. While certainly present in our world today, such attitudes are not unique to our world today. Jesus’ gospel—we will see in a minute—is unwelcome because it is hard, but the Gospel of Jesus will always be unwelcome when we try to impose our convictions on others.

Our Baptist forbearers knew this better than most. They were born into a world where it was illegal to believe the wrong things, where one could be put to death for varying from standard doctrine. Many of them paid with their lives because they were convinced that a person could not be coerced to faith.

Thomas Helwys, one of the very first Baptists, argued that “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertaines not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure,” because “mens religion to God is betwixt God and themselves” (in Baptist Identity, 47). He is advocating—in the 1600’s no less!!—that a government should protect the religious rights of Muslims, Atheists, Jews, Pagans, “or whatsoever,” to worship and practice their religious convictions without interference.

A hundred or so years later, the Baptist pastor John Leland will use the full weight of his influence and friendships with folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to make certain that the fledgling United States ensures the protection of religious liberty. In one of his writings (called Right of Conscience Inalienable), Leland argues: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”

When we follow the example Jesus sets for us, we will find ourselves walking the path of our Baptist ancestors as well. When we follow the example of the disciples in this text, not so much.

Honesty—>proves the Bible is true for me

Before we go on, I have to offer an aside. I get asked regularly how to respond to a friend, family member, or coworker who identifies as an atheist or agnostic. There’s an example in our text today of what not to do—do not call down fire from heaven and threaten them with hell. That is not the way of Jesus. In fact, I’m not sure you can find anywhere in the Bible where Jesus threatens someone with hell. That’s just not the way Jesus works; that’s not the way love works. Jesus loves people enough to give them space, to trust God with the work of salvation, and to prove that love through his actions.

It would have been easy enough for the writers of the NT to “clean up” these stories. You know what I mean—to make sure the disciples did the right things, responded the right way, understood everything Jesus taught…… It would have been easy enough, and other ancient texts about other religious persons do exactly that. The Bible, I find, is more honest—and those inclusions of people’s rough edges and failures are pieces that prove it is trustworthy. Don’t hear me wrong—someone who doesn’t already believe the Bible probably isn’t going to be swayed by this. We don’t get proof—we must have faith. But these honest depictions of failure and the struggle to live faithfully certainly build confidence as I read and grow.

Three Would-Be Disciples

Anyway, as Jesus and his disciples make their way to another village, they encounter three would-be disciples. These are people who have a real desire to follow Christ, but find it requires too much of them—or so we have historically read these verses (they actually do not say the people rejected Jesus, as we see in other places, cf. Rich Young Ruler in Matt 19:22).

The first person vows to follow Jesus anywhere he might go. Now I don’t know, but maybe this is the kind of follower that expects Jesus to be going places. He sees something special in this Christ, and he wants to make sure he cashes in too. But instead of making discipleship easy for the man, Jesus offers a wake-up call—to be my disciple means you have to give up your place in the world.

Another fellow insists on burying his father before following Jesus. He thinks he can obey the conventions and customs of the world and those of God’s Kingdom. But Jesus shoots back that our calling to proclaim God’s Kingdom should be our sole allegiance.

The third fellow—presumably okay with the requirements imposed on the first two—vows allegiance to Jesus, insisting only that he be allowed to tell his family goodbye. Those of us familiar with the stories of the gospels may well remember the passage in Mark 3 where Jesus dismisses his biological family, expressing that his “true family” is “whoever does the will of God” (Mk 3:35). So it is not altogether surprising to us when Jesus issues his most scathing response to this third man: “If your hand is on the plow but your eyes are looking backward, then you’re not fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60, VOICE).

Cost & Convenience

These are hard teachings—as it is a difficult call that Christ issues to us. This, too, is what makes Jesus’ gospel unwelcome—it is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “costly.”

We live in a day and time that worships convenience. We want it easy, we want it our way, and we want it now. A lot of Christianity has tried to bend evangelism to this drive-thru mentality, feeding the rampant individualism, selfishness, and impatience of our world. We have tried to pave expressways to heaven, removing anything and everything we think might be a hinderance to faith.

Is it any wonder that churches have so many members that never darken its doors?

Is it any wonder that so many never progress from the milk of spiritual infancy to the meat of spiritual maturity?

We have made discipleship so easy that it requires nothing of us. Nothing! And the discipleship we offer looks nothing like the discipleship to which Jesus called folks. Jesus himself said in Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Temptation vs. Discipleship

A few chapters ago (Luke 4), the gospel told of Jesus’ temptation. In that story, Jesus works out the kind of Messiah he is called to be:

Will he be a social reformer?…… “No, people need more than bread to live” (Lk 4:4, VOICE).

Will he be a political leader?…… No, only “the Lord your God” can accept our allegiance (Lk 4:8).

Will he be a wonder-working miracle man?…… No, no one can force God’s action (Lk 4:12).

In a similar way, today’s verses help us define what kind of disciple Christ calls us to be:

We must give up our place in this world, including our rights.

We must offer allegiance only to God’s kingdom, and not the kingdoms and cultures of this world.

We must privilege our identity as the Body of Christ above all others, including our family identity, our national identity, and our ethnic identity.

Discipleship will cost us dearly. The radical gospel of Jesus makes him unwelcome, and it does not help recruit new disciples.

This radical gospel of Jesus is just as unwelcome today, especially among religious folks who want an easy path to eternal life. It requires we turn away from revenge, instead embracing humility and love. And that, as we see in the lesson and in our world today, is simply too much for most to accept. 

But for those who are willing to accept the cost of discipleship—to follow Jesus down the narrow path, entering by the narrow gate—we encounter the deepest well of love, acceptance, and grace that could ever be experienced. We find purpose, and life makes sense as it is lived according to the designs of our very creation. We discover hope, peace, and joy that overwhelms our very being. We become, you might say, fully human.

What cost, would you say, you would be willing to pay for that?

 

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A Legion of Fears

 

Scripture: Luke 8:26-39

 

Sermon: A Legion of Fears

But before I really begin today, I need to make something clear. The task of preaching involves proclaiming the alternate reality of the Gospel—proclaiming (as did Jesus) the now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. Part of that Gospel, as many of you well know, involves the story of how God conquered death itself through the power of love, resurrecting our Savior Jesus, and promising to do the same for his followers.

In proclaiming this alternate reality of the Gospel, I aim to speak the truth of God—even if that truth is one that I struggle to live out myself. You see, I don’t stand before you each week as an expert in righteous living; I stand here as “chief of sinners,” to borrow from the apostle Paul. In proclaiming God’s truth, I inevitably confess my own weakness; each Sunday I urge you to live in a way that I struggle to live out too.

This week’s sermon is particularly challenging in that regard, for this is a sermon about fear. It is challenging because I am a husband. I am a parent. I am a child. I am a Christian. I am an American. And I am afraid. Each of these identities contribute to my fear.

Luke Text

In our scripture reading, Jesus encounters the kind of person who elicits fear. Let’s be honest—if you pulled up to a stoplight and this dude was on the corner, most of us would make sure our doors were locked.

Now, it doesn’t matter too much to me what the man’s modern diagnosis might be. It’s interesting research, but I suppose I am comfortable taking a simpler reading: This is a man who is unwell. To be honest, what makes him unwell is not as important to me as the fact that Jesus makes him well. This story is not a psychological treatise on mental illness; it is a proclamation of the Gospel—in it we see that the love of God, as displayed through Jesus Christ, is able to resurrect/redeem/transform even death into life again.

Jesus desires to heal the man, but chooses to allow healing to be negotiated—it will not be forced. But even when healing takes place, it is tainted by the powers of darkness, who bring about death and retaliation because of economic loss. Even though Jesus did a good thing, everyone’s fear drives him away, and it is only the healed man—and the testimony he shares—that proclaims God’s Kingdom purposes.

Afraid of those who are different

While this story contains the miracle of healing, its dominant theme is fear.

Those in the town fear the man. He has been driven out of populated spaces, pushed to the margins of civilization, forced to make his bed among corpses, stripped naked, and exposed like an animal. They have tried to control him—even with guards and chains—but he will not comply; he will not fit into their box; he will not play by their rules. They are afraid of him because he is different, because they don’t understand him.

This is one of the fears that seems most present in our American life. It seems a tragedy to me that so many are afraid of those who look differently, speak differently, worship differently, and love differently. We are a country founded by immigrants, a country whose “national story” is that a person could come from anywhere and any circumstances and make a successful life here. And yet we are so afraid of the “other” in each other that this fear becomes big business and (in turn) influences politics in ways that denigrate our proud national heritage.

For those of us who are Christian, the call of the biblical witness is clear. Speaking of who we would call “immigrants,” God in Exodus 22 instructs:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod 22:21, ESV).

This instruction even goes so far as to contain a threat:

“If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exod 22:23-24, ESV).

In other words (as Jesus declared in Matt 7:2): “With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

In his NT letter, James defines pure and undefiled religion as this: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27, ESV). What he is saying is that pure religion is to be the presence of God and to enact God’s love upon the marginalized people of the world. In doing so, we live fully as citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Afraid of healing

But we’ve just started identifying fear in this text. The man himself is afraid too: afraid of Jesus and the healing he brings. When Jesus tries to exorcise the spirit, the man (not the spirit, according to the text), is afraid and cries out “I beg you, don’t torture me!” (Lk 8:28).

We tend to prefer the “devil we know to the one we don’t.” There are many in our world, I believe, who want to believe in Jesus, who want the healing love of Christ to wash over them and renew them. But they are afraid.

Will I know how to be?
What will others think?

Or more to the point:

What if I can’t be healed?
What if I can’t be redeemed?
What if it doesn’t take?

To quote the late, great Marvin Gaye:

Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough,
Ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep God from redeeming you.

(I took a little artistic license with that last line)

“What,” the apostle Paul proclaims, “shall separate us from the love of Christ?

“Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37–39 ESV)

Afraid of death

If we read a little further, we encounter yet more fear, seeing that the “many demons” which possessed the man are afraid of the Abyss. Now remember: This is not a story intended to instruct us about the afterlife; it is meant to retell the Gospel story through Jesus’s intervention in this man’s life. It is meant to reveal something about the nature of fear and how it stands opposed to the Gospel.

It seems pretty clear to me that “the Abyss” represents death to the powers possessing the man. Death, it has been said, is the most basic of human fears—the fear from which all other fears stem. It is, to frame it in theological terms, the greatest weapon the Enemy has to wield against us.

And yet it is death itself that has been conquered through the resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus reminds us in Matt 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (ESV).

When we Christians are driven by the fear of death, we forget that we have been “crucified with Christ”… that “it is not [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]” (Gal 2:20). If we have truly been reborn, then we should remember that it is not our life that animates us any longer—this is precisely the reality that enables us to “take up our cross and follow [Jesus].”

Afraid of Change/What not understood

But we’re not done yet identifing those who are afraid. When the townsfolk investigate the swinekeeps’ strange story, we are told directly that “they were afraid” at what they saw (Lk 8:35). Remember now: There’s nothing violent about the man, not anymore. There’s nothing disturbing about him, not really. He’s even clothed, now. He sits peacefully at Jesus’ feet. So what are they afraid of?

They are afraid of what they do not understand. They are afraid of someone who has changed.

Here’s a difficult reality to accept: Our God is a God who wants and requires change. God is a transforming God, whose intents for creation are pretty darn different than our present experience. We catch glimpses of God’s desires for us and creation in Isaiah and Revelation and other places, and we see God’s desires for humanity lived out in Jesus.

But in order for those images to come to pass, this world is going to have to change a lot. In order for those images to come to pass, you and I are going to have to change a lot.

If we try to hold on to what we know, we will miss the new things God is doing. If we fight change, there will be only one set of footprints in the sand, but it will be because we will not be walking with God any longer.

[PAUSE]

Fear paralyzes us; separates us from Jesus

Fear has a compounding effect, as we see in our scripture text. Those witnessing the result of this healing are so very afraid that they are “overcome with fear,” as we read in v.37—”seized with great fear” as another translation phrases it (ESV). Fear has driven a wedge between them and Jesus, between their brokenness and the healing he offers, between their present and God’s future.

When 1John 4:18 proclaims that “perfect love casts out fear,” it reveals to us that fear and love are opposites. When driven by fear, one cannot love; when driven by love, one has no fear. 

But fear and love are not just opposites—love is also the antidote to fear—it is the weapon by which every fear is defeated, every enemy is overcome, every wound healed.

Free to reject love

What then is Jesus’ response to their fear? They plead with him to take his healing and go somewhere else, and what does Jesus do?

He leaves as requested. He doesn’t protest his rights. He doesn’t make a defense of himself. He doesn’t insist an injustice is being done to him. He doesn’t claim religious persecution. He just leaves.

You see, Jesus won’t force his redemptive love on any of us. Our free will—our ability to both choose and reject, and to participate or not in God’s work in the world—is an intentional part of us that God loves.

So if we follow Jesus’ example, we realize we cannot force others to accept God’s grace either. We cannot accomplish the mission of the light of the world by utilizing the weapons of the powers of darkness. We cannot. It undermines our mission, and it turns people away from the salvation they so desperately need.

But as Jesus and the early Church demonstrate, this mission of God is accomplished by leaps and bounds when we follow the path of light instead of darkness, when we offer grace instead of judgment, when we share instead of protect, and when we serve instead of rule.

This world is swarming with a legion of fears, whipped into a frenzy by the powers that profit from them. But we who have been redeemed have nothing to fear; we are able to speak peace into the storms of this world: “in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:4, NRSV).

Prayer (adapted from here)

Thank you, Lord, that You are our strength. We rejoice that You have given us a spirit of love, power, and a sound mind. We give You now our fears

  • Fear of harm
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of humiliation
  • Fear of instability
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of fear
  • Fear of those who are different
  • Fear of losing our health
  • Fear of economic ruin
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of being wrong
  • Fear of being right
  • Fear of change
  • Fear we are irrelevant
  • Fear of violence

Lord, we commit all these things to You, laying them at the foot of the cross of our Savior. Change our hearts; mold us toward love.

We thank you that Jesus shows us the way out of anxious thoughts and gives us courage. Thank you that as we make our requests known to You with thanksgiving, You give us peace in our hearts and minds. You are our strength and our power.

In the strong name of Jesus, Amen.

Benediction: Prayer of St. Francis de Sales

Have no fear for what tomorrow may bring,
The same loving God who cares for you today
Will take care of you tomorrow and everyday.

God will either shield you from suffering or
give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace, then, and put aside all
Anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Amen.