Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
When I was a kid, my favorite classroom job was eraser cleaner. I loved the chance to go outside and beat the chalkboard erasers against the wall of the school. They don’t have chalkboards in most schools anymore, so that job has gone the way of the gas lamplighter, and in a highly unscientific study of two girls ages 7 and 4, I’ve come to realize that the number one classroom job nowadays is Line Leader. Even when our girls hated going to school, the weeks that they knew they’d be assigned Line Leader were always a good ones. Being the one who gets to lead the class to the bathroom, to lunch, or best of all, to the playground seems to tap into something deep within human nature. There seems to be something hardwired in us, something integral to our humanity that makes us want to be leaders. We want to be in control. We want to be the ones who are out front. Of course, that desire that sits deep within us is part of what makes being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, so difficult.
Instead of running out on our own, ahead of everyone, Jesus invites us not to lead, but to follow. In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of three people who really wanted to follow Jesus, they deeply desired to be with him, but they wanted to be with him on their own terms. They wanted to be in control, even as they followed Jesus. They wanted to walk out front instead of holding back and trusting Jesus to lead them to the Promised Land. Luke doesn’t tell us whether or not any of them actually ended up following Jesus, but he makes it abundantly clear that following Jesus is not easy. Of course, these three aren’t the first to struggle with the idea of trusting Jesus enough to follow him.
Way back at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus met three fishermen cleaning their boats after a long, unsuccessful night of fishing. After borrowing one of the boats as a makeshift teaching platform, Jesus asked one of the fishermen, a man named Simon Peter, to put out into deeper water to drop the nets for a catch. Jesus invited Simon to follow his directions, directions Simon knew it would be absolutely foolish to follow. Simon vocalized his distrust of Jesus. Two boats full of professional fishermen had fished all night long and caught nothing, why on earth would he waste his energy by dropping nets in the heat of the day. Yet, Luke tells us, Simon eventually followed. “If you say so,” Simon said to Jesus, “I will let down the nets.” Despite Simon Peter’s misgivings and his vocal objection, two things he will come to be known for, Simon followed Jesus, dropped the nets, and the catch was so large that both boats were filled to the brink of sinking. Simon made the intentional choice to follow Jesus even when it made no sense, but as he took in the events surrounding the amazing catch, Simon Peter was caught short. He knew that he was in the presence of a man of God and he became afraid to follow Jesus, blurting out, “Get away from me. I am a sinful man.” But Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook that easily. Jesus invited Simon and his friends to make their lives about following him, to become fishers of people, and so Simon, James, and John immediately dropped their nets and followed him.
Following Jesus means giving up all control. It means going where Jesus wants to go, at the pace he wants to get there, using whatever path he wants to use. Peter, James, John knew this better than anybody else. They followed Jesus all around the Galilean countryside. They followed Jesus to meals at the homes of sinners and tax collectors. They followed Jesus as he violated the laws of Sabbath, and they even followed him to Nain where they watched him raise a man from the dead. As they followed, they listened to his teaching; they misunderstood his parables; they watched with concern as his mother and brothers tried to get him to stop what he was doing. Much to their surprise, they even followed in his ministry of exorcism and healing.
Everything about following Jesus changed in the course of about a week, however. After Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he and James and John followed Jesus up a mountainside where he was transfigured before their very eyes. Because they had followed, they were witnesses to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and they heard the voice of God. As they came down, it became clear that things were never going to be the same. Luke suggests this by telling his readers that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem. He set his face toward the cross, the final act of self-giving love, a place that would prove too difficult for his disciples to follow. But before he got there, he was met by these three would-be disciples who desired to follow him. Jesus responds to their requests, not with harshness, but with reality. Following him on the way to Jerusalem will mean having nowhere to call home, it will require a commitment stronger than death, and it will mean walking resolutely forward. The stakes are much higher now; there is no time to look back, no time to mourn what is lost, no time to worry. Jesus wants every would-be disciples to count the cost of following him.
I can’t help but wonder if following Jesus in 21st century America is just too easy? Even as a priest, a professional follower of Jesus, as it were, I have a very nice house where I can lay my head; I have plenty of leisure to spend three weeks each year looking back, studying the past in church history and theology; and worry is, as you know, my spiritual gift. Jesus Christ set his face toward the cross, but what sort of risk to we take to be his disciples? What is the cost? What difference does following Jesus make in my life? I think it is important to ask ourselves these questions; to examine where our lives have fallen short of accepting the true cost of following Jesus, but I’ve also seen the barrage of prayer requests over the past several weeks. I’m keenly aware that our community has deeply felt the pain of loss and the fear of the unknown of late.
The good news is that following Jesus isn’t about feeling guilty for falling short, but claiming for ourselves the grace that overcomes our failures. We follow the living, risen Jesus who walks ahead of us through the cross to resurrection life. Following Jesus doesn’t mean being protected from the hard things in life – Jesus walked straight to the cross. Following Jesus means walking through all the trials and tribulations of life. It means walking through illness, through death, through darkness and sadness. Following Jesus means you won’t walk through those hard places alone. Jesus has already walked through the valley of the shadow of death and he will be there with you. Following Jesus means having him as your ever present companion. He offers you his body and breaks bread with you. He offers you his blood and shares the cup with you. He nourishes you from his very substance so that you might continue to follow where he leads. Following Jesus means choosing each day to walk with him through the cross to eternal life. It means counting the cost, keeping our eyes focused ahead, and trusting him to lead us through the hard times to life everlasting. Where would you have us follow, O Lord, for we are ready as you lead the way? Amen.