Scripture - Luke 9:51-62
The most famous work of early English literature is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As we read it today, we get a sudden & vivid picture of life in the 14th century, & of the rich & diverse human characters of the time, with their joys
& sorrows, their sins & saintliness. It is almost as if we knew them for ourselves.
For those who didn’t read the book in school, it is a collection of 24 stories written by Chaucer sometime between 1387 & 1400. The tales are presented as part of a story telling contest between a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit a shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize of the contest is a free meal at Tabard Inn.
There is one thing about the book which Chaucer’s own contemporaries would have found fascinating but which is commonplace for us. They seldom if ever travelled anywhere; the pilgrims were doing something almost as unusual, for their time, as flying to the moon is for us. Travel used to be a rare luxury. As recently as the 19th century, only the idle rich could afford the time & money to visit foreign countries. In Chaucer’s world, as in most of the world for most of human history, most people did not travel at all. Those rich enough to afford horses could go some distance, but often wouldn’t, because of all sorts of dangers. They stayed in their local community all of their lives.
This was true for most people in Jesus’ world, too, with one major exception. Jews in Galilee regularly made one journey: the pilgrimage to Jerusalem – which for most was a 3 or 4 day walk. And all Jews, wherever they were, would tell the story of the great journey of the Exodus, when their ancestors travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land. As they did so, they would tell other biblical stories as well – stories about kings & prophets, & about God’s dealings with Israel in days of yore.
Luke has all of this in mind as he tells us about Jesus’ plans to go to Jerusalem, where – as Luke has pointed out earlier in his gospel – Jesus was to achieve his departure. It wasn’t the moment yet for an official pilgrimage, & the journey which begins with our reading will continue – providing the framework for most of Luke’s gospel; but from now on Jerusalem is the goal, & Jesus is constantly on the move. Luke’s other great book, the Acts of the Apostles, also includes a long travel sequence – the journeys of Paul, eventually arriving in Rome. Travelling in obedience to God’s call is one of Luke’s central pictures for what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus is what our faith is all about.
The first thing Luke makes clear about following Jesus is that it is not easy. Before they even set off, the disciples are having a private disagreement about which of them is the greatest. Whenever any project is launched, people discover that their own ambitions get mixed up in it. That has to be dealt with before you can start; the problem will likely recur, but limits must be put down right away. Then the disciples have to learn that God’s kingdom might be going forward through people they don’t know, who are not part of their group. No, following Jesus is not always straightforward.
When they start, Jesus sent messengers (the word can be translated ‘angels’) on ahead of him. Luke wants to remind us that this is indeed an Exodus journey. In the book of Exodus we read that God sent his angel before the Israelites to guide the people into the land. But this is also a new Exodus journey. The prophet Malachi declares that God will send his angel, or messenger, before him, so that when he arrives to judge & save, the people will be ready. All of this is built into Jesus’ strange new journey. This is the road to the real Promised Land. It is also the road by which God himself is returning to his people.
But all James & John can think of is that now they are in the same position as Elijah in the Old Testament. If they meet opposition, they want to call down fire from heaven. But that is not what Jesus’ journey is like. It is not a triumphant march, sweeping all resistance aside. It is the progress of the gospel of God’s kingdom, & as we know from Luke 4 that means the message of love – of a grace so strong, so wide-ranging, & so surprising, that many will find it shocking.
Including, it seems, many who see Jesus & think it might be a fun thing to follow him. The people who speak to Jesus on the road are like the seed sown on rocky ground, or among thorns, in Luke 8. They want to follow, but have conditions attached. Are they ready to drop what they are doing & come right away? The obligation to bury one’s father was regarded by many Jews of the time as the most holy & binding duty of a son; but Jesus says that is secondary to the call to follow him & announce God’s kingdom.
The challenge to move forward, to journey on with Jesus, comes over loud & clear in the last line. Many us don’t farm the land, & perhaps don’t appreciate what happens if you are trying to plough a straight furrow & then look back to see how you did. Even if what you see is a straight line, the act of looking back will mean that the next bit will become crooked. – Man tilling his garden walking backwards -
Think of other images. If you are singing a song, it is no good wondering whether you sang the previous line correctly. You have to concentrate on the next line. Or if you are on a trip, the directions you need are the ones which tell you where to go to next, not the ones for the road you just travelled.
Just about a year ago, shots rang out in a Baltimore neighborhood. Instantly, a nearby police officer ran toward the sound of the gunfire. A landlord-tenant dispute had turned ugly, & two men lay bleeding on the ground. The officer encountered the suspect, ordering him to put his gun away & lie on the ground. The suspect complied, & the arrest was made. Body-cam footage captured the heroic action that saved lives. Baltimore Police spokesperson TJ Smith commended the fast-acting patrolman: “The officer didn’t hesitate at all to run into danger…His performance was exemplary and his decisiveness ended an immediate threat.”
Like that police officer, Jesus ran toward the danger. Our Lord had no delusions about what he would be facing in Jerusalem; he knew what was at stake. Matthew & Mark record Jesus predicting his own death not once, but twice. In Luke’s Gospel, the single warning of his impending doom comes just before our passage. His disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about, but Jesus knew all too well what lay ahead. Despite the shadow of the cross, Jesus ran toward the gunfire. He determined to go to Jerusalem.
Discipleship requires running toward, not running away. For the believer who has perceived that behind every call to follow Jesus lies a cross, a point of decision is at hand. Will we journey with Jesus all the way to Golgotha – running toward the danger – or will we run away, simply offering excuses? The decision is ours.