Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
When Elisha asks for leave to kiss his mother and father goodbye before following, Elijah doesn’t seem to have any objection. “Go and return,” he says, “for what have I done to [stop] you?” Jesus, on the other hand, seems far more harsh and unyielding than Elijah. How can anyone be expected to follow Jesus when he seems to be asking them to forsake family, friends, homes and livelihoods in order to proclaim the reign of God? And yet, we know from experience that we live in a world where people are too ready to give up those very things, to strap bombs to their chests and take assault rifles into movie theaters and night clubs for the sake of the fear and hatred they feel towards others. Why shouldn’t Jesus ask for the same level of commitment? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Perhaps this is why Jesus demands so much of us who would follow him. Jesus is looking for people who have the zeal and the devotion and the conviction to work for all they’re worth to realize the just and righteous reign of God. If we are to do this work, we cannot be distracted even by family, friends, or livelihoods, because the powers of hate and fear and evil have no such distractions either.
But even conviction alone is not enough. Unlike the three Jesus encounters on the way to Jerusalem, James and John did give up everything. They left their nets on the beach and their father in the boat to follow when Jesus called them. They have that conviction that Jesus is looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s always directed well. When they ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans like Elijah did (2 Kings 1:1-18), he rebukes them. Like James and John, our conviction can sometimes easily slide into violence, even without us realizing it.
In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many well-meaning people who are understandably and justifiably angered and saddened have been driven by their convictions to do good and ended up doing harm. Nobody has held a gun, but we have fed the hostility. We have lobbed the same tired arguments about gun control or mental illness or Islam at each other like grenades across the same stagnant political lines. The more “inclusive” members of our Church have aimed and fired allegations at our sisters and brothers who disagree, accusing them of violence simply because of their sincerely held beliefs. In short, we have, in our passionate intensity, desired to call down fire from heaven on our perceived foes who stand in the way of God’s reign.
This entire story discipleship is framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We know what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and what he will give up for the sake of God’s reign. We know that he will endure the worst kind of violence there, and we also know that he will overcome it; not with more violence of his own—not with flames coming down from heaven—but with love for his friends and for his enemies, with obedience to God’s will and faith in God’s promise.
One place we might begin to look is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul writes, “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
If we truly believe that Jesus loves and works to save all people then being “radicalized by love” means that we should continue to stand up and even fight when necessary for what we believe to be right, but it also means channeling our anger, our sadness and our frustration into more fully loving the people we are tempted to call “enemies;” otherwise we only become part of the problem we intend to solve.
I think what Jesus is demanding of his followers is not the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” of us coopted and redirected by the “best,” but a complete and utter change of the script. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a straight line while looking backward. God is calling us to find a way forward, and we can only do that together, and that is difficult, frustrating work; so difficult, in fact, that it got Jesus killed. However, if we truly believe that God’s reign is for all people, then that’s the job ahead of us.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
And yet, as Christians, we trust in the promise that what “slouches towards Bethlehem” is no rough beast at all, but Christ himself, and with him, the reign of God in which all wrongs are righted and all hurts are healed. On some days, that hope seems truly delusional. We may feel naïve or ignorant to trust in a promise of wholeness when things fall apart all around us.
Or, we may feel that if we are to help bring about that reign of God, that we, too, must have the same passionate intensity of the terrorists and the murderers. Like James and John, we are ready to call down fire on those who would oppose the reign of God and prevent Christ’s work from being done. If God’s reign is to come forth in the midst of such violence and terror—even from Christ’s own followers—then the power and conviction behind it must be great indeed.
Thankfully for us, it is. Even on our best days, we may be unable to match the passionate intensity of the world’s hatred and fear. It's not humanly possible to keep on plowing, to keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. Thankfully, though the best among us may lack all conviction, there is one whose conviction is enough for all of us. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) We may not always be faithful to God’s vision of love and wholeness, but the one who calls us to this work is. Jesus has a habit of calling broken and imperfect people—people like James and John—and using them to inch slowly towards God’s promised reign.
Jesus calls us to give everything we have, to set our faces towards Jerusalem, and then in the same breath he says to us, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Through baptism, we are joined to Christ—our weakness and faithlessness has died, and he now lives in us. We are able because he is able. Where our conviction ends, his takes over. Maybe the center cannot hold, but it is no rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born; rather it is the eternal reign of God that is preparing to bind up the broken pieces of our world. As the old proverb says, “When you get to your wit's end, remember that God lives there.”
. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak." He needed the word of this proverb. "Keep your hand on the plow..." (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143).
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world." I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone (ibid, 173).