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Following a Hard-to-Get Jesus: The Third Sunday after Pentecost

It’s a tough reading, the one we just heard. Jesus’s words are harsh, and twice we are reminded that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, meaning his death. The people sidling up to him are not catching him at the most approachable, casual moment. And the message, it seems, is that there is nothing casual about following Jesus. A few weeks ago we had a baptism, and behind the celebration are heavy words: about renouncing spiritual forces, evil powers, and sinful desires. And then turning to Jesus, trusting him, and obeying him. In one of the forms of blessing the water we talk about it as “being buried with Christ in his death.” It’s a way of life that all should reverence, and none should lightly undertake. Here I’m citing another part of the service book: the wedding service! But maybe marriage is a helpful image: there are blessings unimaginable, but also demands, and responsibilities, and sacrifices.)

We might walk away from today’s gospel thinking that the message is that following Jesus with real seriousness means turning into an extremist. I recall a friend of mine — someone who has basically rejected faith — once made a comment that he had respect for the people bellowing into megaphones on the street corner… because they really believed it. (“If you really think I’m going to hell, then at least make a stink about it.”) And I get the rationale, but at the same time, most of us would probably not lionize and aggrandize the 9/11 high-jackers, or people who bomb places of worship, just because they take their faith seriously (more seriously than they love their neighbour).

I recall a few years ago I had a bit of an odd experience when I learned that one of my favourite theologians, a philosopher and social critic named Jacques Ellul — someone respected, but not terribly popular right now — well, it turns out that there is someone famous that, like me, really reveres him, and it’s a guy named Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Who from the late ’70s to mid ’90s killed three people and injured dozens, by sending bombs in the mail. Kaczynski’s probably read more Ellul than I have, but I can’t help but think that he’s understood the critique of technological bureaucracy, but missed everything about the Gospel.

And note how the disciples, James and John, suggest a sort of terrorism, or at least vengeful violence, to get back at the Samaritans that were inhospitable to Jesus and his message. “But he refused, and rebuked them.” (One of many examples of Jesus’s closest followers not understanding the Way of the Cross, even as they walk alongside Jesus, toward it.)

And then the story moves on, and from the unwelcoming crowd, we find three open, inquiring would-be followers. The passage doesn’t actually say whether or not he let them join up, but his response appears to be that he was playing hard-to-get. Even the first inquirer, the one who says “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” gets the odd response of “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. (Maybe you do.) I think it might have something to do with how the would-be follower can’t get too certain or specific about where the journey of discipleship will end up. It’s not about going to a particular place, where the grass is greener. (Again, maybe the marriage metaphor is a good one: it’s not all about the moment after you exchange rings and a kiss, nor about your 25th or 50th or 60th anniversary; it’s about each and every new morning, and the challenges and blessings it will bring.)

So what do we do with this tough reading, this one depicting a Jesus who may not line up with our go-to image of Jesus? The Jesus who says “come to me all that labour and are heavy-laden and I will refresh you.” This Jesus says ‘you don’t know what you ask’ and ‘forsake all others, then come and follow me.’ It’s a big ask, even if we’ve moved past the temptation toward extremism, or asceticism, or (as I mentioned earlier, like James and John, terrorism).

The first thing I would start with is that if we trust that Jesus is calling us, then he’s calling all of us. (To get back to the seriousness of our baptismal vows.) He’s calling all of us, and he’s calling us at the level at which we are most ourselves. And maybe we, in our brokenness, are sometimes (or oftentimes) alienated from who we most truly are (children of God, made in the image of God, those adopted by God, and Beloved of God). And maybe that’s what changes everything: our way of faith marked and inaugurated in baptism (and renewed and marked at other important times, as we witnessed last week), it isn’t one calling or one allegiance among a whole host of others. Instead, it’s our one true calling and allegiance that changes, or redeems, or transfigures, every other calling and allegiance in our lives. So for the last two would-be followers of Jesus in the story, I would ask if there were a way in which the burying of the parent, and the farewell to the family, if they could be approached in a way in which Christ is followed and honoured in those situations. Presumably they were not being approached or framed in such a way.

And lastly, we might find some help and solace in a prayer that many of us know well. (I tend to omit it in the Easter season and other times of celebration, but we had it this morning.) We stand before a God to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” And we ask that we would be cleansed. That our intentions be made good. If everything were perfect within us all the time, then we wouldn’t need to voice it in prayer. And in the baptismal liturgy we do consent to obeying Jesus, but before that, there is that acknowledgement of trusting his (not our) grace and love. Because the true, deepest self that God calls is Christ in us. [Citing Anglican thinker Norman Pittenger,] “[If] we somehow sense that we are ‘on the way,’ moving towards ‘ripeness in Christ,’ we can take heart…. Christ, God in Christ, is at our side and within us; and we can go on in the assurance that we are always loved, accepted, and cared for.”*

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

*Norman Pittinger, Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1972), 86-87.