As Chris mentioned last Sunday, today we are officially beginning a series of sermons on the theme of "discipleship". Although discipleship seems to have already been the theme for at least two weeks now. Two weeks ago we saw how Jesus called people to be disciples and then directed them to call other disciples to follow him. Last week we were reminded that the call to follow Jesus is one that each of us must answer for ourselves. Today I would like us to do two things: (1) Firstly, to try and understand some of Jesus' difficult sayings about discipleship; and (2) secondly, to share a couple of introductory reflections on discipleship.
In the Australian War Memorial Collection there is a black and white photograph taken here in Melbourne on 15 December 1939. In the foreground four women and two children are standing on a pier with their backs to the camera. In the background a ship is sailing out to sea. One of the women is standing right on the edge of the pier. Her name we are told was Doreen and she lived in Mildura. The departing ship was a troop transport named the Strathallan carrying an advance party of the 6th Division AIF for overseas service in World War II. Mrs Martin and her family were saying farewell to her husband, a signalman named Bernard. [The photo by Edward Cranstone can be viewed at http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/000304/01 (public domain)].
I am thankful that I have never been forced to make the choice Bernard made. But I know from talking with you that there are people here who have. Having been called to protect his country, his community, and his family, Bernard chose to leave his family, his community, and his country, and go off to the war front. In recent years many Australians have been called upon to make the same choice in relation to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as peace-keeping missions in several countries. This is not the time to debate the rights and wrongs of any of those conflicts – there will be different views among us I expect. The point I want to take from Bernard's experience is that sometimes we find ourselves with conflicting loyalties. And it is not only in war that we find ourselves having to choose our priorities. I hope that this picture will help us as we try to understand the difficult sayings which we have heard from the lips of Jesus in this morning's Gospel reading and to relate them to Jesus' call to each of us: "Follow me" (Luke 9:59).
2. Understanding Luke 9.57-62
Let's begin by looking closely at the section section of the Gospel reading, verses 57-62. Luke tells us that:
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." 58And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." 59To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." 60But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 61Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." 62Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus sayings here seems very harsh don't they? They seem to contradict common sense – even common decency! Surely Jesus does not expect his followers to behave like that? In fact, wasn't Jesus contradicting not just good sense but even the Bible? After all, if we take the second of Jesus sayings here: "Let the dead bury their own dead" (v. 60) – we discover that burial of the dead was a religious duty that took precedence even over the study of the Law (God's word). Leviticus tells us that even priests who could not normally touch a dead body without becoming unclean could do so in the case of relatives (Leviticus 21:1-3):
1The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, 2except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; 3likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her.
To leave this duty undone was scandalous. And in the third of Jesus' replies he suggests that someone who goes to say farewell to his family before becoming a follower of Jesus is not fit for the kingdom of God. But in the Old Testament even the great prophet Elisha was allowed to return home to say farewell to his parents before following Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21):
19So [Elijah] set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. 20He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." Then Elijah said to him, "Go back again; for what have I done to you?" 21He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
And as if all this wasn't enough Jesus' words seem to directly contradict the fourth of the Ten Commandments – "Honour your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12) – doesn't it? If it was good enough for the priests to make funeral arrangements for a relative, and if it was good enough for Elijah to go back and say farewell to his father and mother, why did Jesus speak so harshly to these people? Weren't they just obeying the Commandments anyway?
We won't be able to answer all the questions that arise from these sayings this morning. I want to just concentrate briefly on the second saying and see if we can move from there to an understanding of the message Jesus was intending to give to these people who claimed they wanted to follow him. To my ears at least this second reply sounds the harshest of all: "Let the dead bury their own dead".
One principle of good Bible reading is to always balance what is said in one part of the Bible with what is said elsewhere in the Bible about the same subject. Now it is a fact explicitly stated by Jesus that the care of parents is a God-given duty which may not be put aside under any religious pretext whatsoever. Jesus criticised the Pharisees and scribes for creating religious rules that allowed them to disobey the fourth Commandment (Matthew 15:3-6):
3[Jesus] answered [the Pharisees and the scribes], "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, 'Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,' then that person need not honor the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God." (see also Mark 7:1-13; and compare Luke 18:20)
It seems to me reasonable to conclude, therefore, that if anyone becomes a follower of Jesus, Jesus will direct them to fulfil their duty to their parents. So where did these three people go wrong?
It has been suggested that the man who asked permission to go and bury his father was making two mistakes (David Gooding). (1) Firstly, he asked permission to fulfil what he felt was a prior duty before becoming a follower of Christ. But there can't be any duty that comes before following Jesus can there? If Jesus is God's Son our first duty is toward Jesus. A person who believes that they have duties that come before they are free to become a follower of Jesus does not really understand who Jesus is.
And (2) secondly, the man was not asking permission to look after his elderly father, but to bury him. In asking to delay following Jesus until he had buried his father, the man showed no concept of the urgency and importance of the task to which Jesus was calling him. That task was made very clear in verse 60: "but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God". Jesus' intention was that these would-be disciples would put their priorities into perspective – into God's perspective.
Following Jesus often brings a conflict of loyalties. "Certainly Jesus is not denying the claims of family loyalties. He was saying, however, that when there is a conflict of loyalties, those of the kingdom [of God] take precedence over all others, no matter how sacred" (D.G. Miller). In these verses Jesus placed discipleship above family, above duty, and he stressed the need to stay committed and focussed on following Jesus right until the very end. What Jesus was calling these would-be followers to was both "immediate and whole-hearted discipleship" (Howard Marshall).
[(The following words between the brackets were not part of the spoken sermon but I have added them to this written version in response to some useful discussion after the service). When do we find ourselves in a similar situation to the three people to whom Jesus spoke about discipleship in today's reading? For those who are yet to become Christians, it seems to me that the comparable situation would be whenever I say "No" to becoming a follower of Jesus for whatever reason: for instance, I might lose friends, get off side with my family, be ridiculed by my work colleagues, and so on. For those of us who are already believers, in my opinion, a comparable situation would be when we find ourselves placing something, anything, or anyone, before our call to follow Jesus. For example, if I say to myself, I believe Jesus is calling me to overseas mission but I can't do that because then my kids would be unable to go to a good school. Or if I believe that God is calling me to leave my current job to work in a another less lucrative position and I say I can't live on less than $60 000 a year. Or if I am an up-and-coming football "star" and discover that Jesus is calling me to go and work with disadvantaged children but I cannot surrender my opportunity to become a "celebrity". Millions of other examples could be given but I think the common factor and the bottom line is always that something else stands before the call Jesus makes to each of us to "Follow me". To give another biblical example, for the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-30 that obstacle to true discipleship was his wealth. For each of us, then, the challenge is to identify anything in our life which stands between us and following Jesus immediately and whole-heartedly. This is not necessarily easy and we may need the help of our fellow Christians as we revise our affairs to follow through on our decision to follow Jesus.]
A soldier called to protect his country, his community, and his family, must be prepared to leave his family, his community, and his country, and go off to the war front. Perhaps today Jesus would say to people who would be his followers that they are also fighting for other people's lives. And they are fighting not just for people's physical lives but also for their spiritual lives! One of the great New Testament scholars of the last century made this comment about the sayings of Jesus on discipleship:
"But a person must be prepared to sacrifice security, duty, and affection, if he or she is to respond to the call of the kingdom, a call so urgent that all other loyalties must give way before it. The most difficult choices in life are not between the good and the evil, but between the good and the best." (G.B. Caird)
Is he right? Are the most difficult choices in life not between the good and the evil, but between the good and the best? I'm not sure. I am sure that in my own life I often feel torn between many things that are good. But what things are best? What are the things that God really wants me to be doing with my life? This leads me to the first of a couple of brief reflections that have been helpful to me in thinking about my discipleship – and hopefully for how I live as a disciple as well!
3. People who are constantly revising their lives
A couple of years ago a friend from my Bible study group emailed me a web page on discipleship. It was written by Dallas Willard, a pastor and teacher of philosophy in California. Willard is also the author of several books on Christian spirituality, including: The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives and The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (the second book was the 1999 Christian Book of the Year according to Christianity Today magazine).
In his web page on discipleship Dallas Willard wrote this: "Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus." He goes on to argues that disciples are people who understand every part of their lives as a working relationship with God. Another author I have found helpful on discipleship is Richard Peace, one of the founders of the African Enterprise mission organisation. In his article on discipleship in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity Peace suggests that discipleship involves what he calls "conscious intentionality". "The contemporary challenge", says Peace, "is to conduct our whole lives as conscious disciples of Jesus." But in a society whose dominant value is to "shop until you drop", where everything is just a "lifestyle choice", not easy to live intentionally as a Christian is it? Do you find that the busyness of modern life is the greatest enemy of being an intentional disciple? I certainly do!
John Wesley was one of the great reformers of the church and one of the most effective Christian evangelists of the 18th-Century or any other century. During his ministry he rode over 225 000 miles on horseback across Europe and North America to preach the good news about Jesus. Wesley had lists of over 20 questions he would use to examine himself each day and to help keep himself spiritually accountable (see A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day of the Week, published 1733). He also gave them to members of his discipleship groups. Some people would perhaps find them somewhat negative? I'm sure Francis McNabb would. But then as far as I know Francis McNabb hasn't changed the world like John Wesley did. I won't go through Wesley's list but if anyone would like it I can e-mail it to you. [I have included one of Wesley's lists at the end of this written version of the sermon]. When I was younger I tried for a few weeks (or was it a few days?) to use Wesley's questions to revise my own life. I discovered two things: Firstly, that I'm not John Wesley (just in case anyone here was confused). But I also discovered it was a useful experience. Since then I have found it useful is to set aside periods of time specifically for the purpose of revising my life – for reflecting on my priorities. My wife and I try and set aside one day each year when one of us takes on all the responsibilities at home. The other spends a day somewhere peaceful to read the Bible, pray and reflect on our lives and what it means for us to follow Jesus at this stage of our lives. It is not enough time, of course, but it helps us.
Another thing is to write a personal mission statement and to revise it every year. Mission statements have been very popular in churches (at least writing them has anyway) but have you ever considered writing a mission statement for yourself? I had never written one until a couple of years ago when I read a book which set out the following five simple questions for writing what the author (James Lawrence in Growing Leaders, p. 111) called a "Personal Life Statement":
- Physical: how does God want me to take care of my body?
- Spiritual: how is God calling me to grow in relationship with him?
- Relational: how does God want me to grow in relationships with others?
- Personal/emotional: what areas of my character does God want to develop in me?
Professional: what does God want me to do in my work?
4. Living a fully human life, discovering our true selves
Let's conclude by looking forward to the coming weeks. Richard Peace of African Enterprise, who I mentioned earlier, reminds us that being a disciple "is to enter into a lifestyle that brings wholeness and fulfilment. It is to maximize our potential, fulfil our destinies and discover our true selves because it is to live in the way God has designed for human beings." Over the next few weeks as we explore what someone (David Gooding) has called the "costs and sorrows" and the "joys and triumphs" of Christian discipleship let's all bear in mind what Jesus told his first disciples: "I came so you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of" (John 10:10; The Message translation). Jesus came so we can have real and eternal life, more and better life than we ever dreamed of.
John Wesley's questions for self-examination
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
4. Can I be trusted?
5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
7. Did the Bible live in me today?
8. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
9. Am I enjoying prayer?
10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
13. Do I disobey God in anything?
14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
17. How do I spend my spare time?
18. Am I proud?
19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
22. Is Christ real to me?