Proper 8C1 Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62
The 51st verse of chapter 9 marks a major turning point in Luke’s gospel: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
The story of the earthly ministry of Jesus begins in Luke in Chapters 3 and 4--at his Baptism in the Jordan and Temptation in the Wilderness--and then continues as Jesus gathers his disciples and begins his work of preaching and teaching and healing, miracles and exorcisms, all in the region around the Sea of Galilee, little towns like Nazareth and Capernaum and Cana. At the beginning of Chapter 9 this first phase of his ministry comes to a dramatic high point at the Mountaintop of the Transfiguration, as Jesus is revealed in all his transcendent glory.
And then they come down from the mountain. “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
The last leg of the journey to the Cross that began on that holy night in Bethlehem many years before. The Lord returning to his Temple, as prophesied by Isaiah and announced by John the Baptist, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It’s almost like a liturgical procession—but not one filled with song and praise and celebration, except for that brief, deceptive moment on Palm Sunday. Instead, it becomes a long march into ever deeper darkness. A hard road, to be marked by an ever-rising tide of rejection, conflict, opposition, plots and intrigue. A gathering murderous storm. All the forces of evil and sin and death rallying for their last stand.
Jesus has spent these past months and years, teaching and preaching and preparing his disciples for what was to come, for a life of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly discipleship.” For what it’s going to be like to live in him and for him, with one foot still in this world. Costly Discipleship. For Jerusalem and Holy Week, and then for what lies beyond, in the years and centuries to come. If this is what they do to the teacher, so it will be for his students. Continuing in our own present time in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, in East Africa with Al Shabab and Boko Haram. It always is unsafe to be a Christian somewhere.
So his preaching and teaching and his prayers for them, giving shape and direction to his church . . . . To build them up, to encourage them and guide and sustain them in the coming days and in all the generations to come. And now here we are, Luke 9:51, and that preparation is going to be put to the test, its first test, as we can see just in the very first incident on the first day of the journey. And I guess we would say on the first time out for these disciples, for the life of the church—well: not a passing score. It’s actually almost embarrassing.
Jesus and company leave their hometowns, and as the first day of travel comes to an end they approach a Samaritan village. Some run ahead to make arrangements--to seek a resting place, somewhere to stay the night, perhaps an evening meal . . . but they are refused, turned away, rejected. Not clear that these villagers had any particular idea who Jesus was. Just that this was a party of Jews on their way to Jerusalem. Reason enough in the context of ethnic and religious prejudice between Jews and Samaritans to shut the door and put up the “No Vacancy” signs. We don’t want your kind around here.
(Perhaps as a side note--we as readers of this gospel will pause here for a moment of context, as we recall that just a little while later along this road to Jerusalem Jesus is going to tell his disciples in Luke chapter 10, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Just to keep this morning’s story in mind when we get to that parable in our lectionary reading in a couple of weeks.)
In any event, our Samaritan villagers here are for sure violating traditional norms and customs of Middle Eastern hospitality—but I guess we could say that compared to what was coming for Jesus and his friends this is really not all that big a deal. It’s not Good Friday yet. So what is so interesting is the reaction of the disciples. They go ballistic! Over the top! They immediately want Jesus to call down a fiery blast from the heavens to consume the village, to sweep them all up, men, women, boys and girls, to wipe every last one of them in one horrible punishing and incinerating pulse from the face of the earth. Wow. Talk about a short fuse! None of that classic Anglican “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit, that’s for sure . . . . And so maybe we can hear Jesus sigh--like a schoolteacher looking over the weekly quiz after the kids have had their first lesson in fractions. Clearly we’re going to have to spend some more time working with this bunch. I mean, is anybody paying attention?
Just a few days before these very same disciples had all sat with him as he preached. From Luke, Chapter 6, in what we sometimes call his great Sermon on the Plain (usually appointed for us in the lectionary on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, but we didn’t hear this reading this year because Easter was so early. Perhaps we remember it from three years ago, or from other times when we’ve read and studied Luke’s gospel.) Words for his disciples, his church, all of us.
“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt . . . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same . . . . But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Needless to say, it’s hard to find much in there about a destroying fire raining down from on high upon those who reject us.
Echo in the reading from Galatians 5 as we heard it this morning as our first lesson: the Old Adam and the “works of the flesh”-- Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing. A partial list, but we get the idea. (We all did get the idea, right?)
Killing our enemies, or even wishing them dead, or even in our own hearts and minds stripping from them their dignity and humanity and value--anything short of love and prayer for them--that’s not Kingdom living. It’s where we are with the disciples as we come to the first night on the journey to Jerusalem, but it’s not where Jesus wants to leave us. Not who we are, who we would pray that we are becoming, as we are walking with him along this road. What we learned from him—what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” A great list: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
This Luke 9 moment on the first day of the journey to Jerusalem made me think some in the past couple of weeks about the angry times we live in. Politically, socially. Divisions and polarization, from every side and point on the spectrum, left and right, conservatives and liberals, and fueled at least in part by the instantaneous reactivity of politically segmented media and the white-hot rhetoric of social media. Rage and more rage. The election cycle here, and perhaps reflected in the election in Britain this past week as well. All kinds of anger and polarization.
And so, again, a memo to myself, with this incident at the Samaritan village in the background. The disciples miss the boat big-time. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there. “Let’s keep going,” he tells them, and see what we can find together down the road.” A yellow post-it for the mirror, to see in the morning while I’m shaving and getting ready to head out into the day. Stick close to Jesus. Listen. Pay attention. Learn from him. Fortunately, he’s not leaving us on the first day of the journey. We still have miles to go; he’s not finished with us yet.