Wow. Can you imagine what it must have been like to hear these words from Jesus? Can you imagine what it must have felt like to have committed yourself to this man and his mission but find yourself in the position of needing to attend to your family, to honor your father or mother or care for your children, only to be told that there isn’t any time for that? To follow Jesus, it seems, is to be all in. To follow Jesus is to put your hands to the plow and not look back, because there is too much important work to do.
This passage makes crystal clear what we find throughout the gospels: Jesus is a man on a mission. “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He had a destination and a purpose in sight, and he was on the move to get there. Not only was he on the move, he was creating a movement. He was drawing people into his vision, into his plan, and he expected of them the singular and unwavering commitment that he himself had made.
How many of us could answer that kind of call?
Often, whether we would ever verbalize it or not, we expect the preacher to take these difficult and demanding words of Jesus and soften them up a bit. We want to hear that Jesus didn’t really mean what it sounds like he said. We want to hear that his words were for some specific people he was talking to and that we shouldn’t extrapolate his demands to cover all those who choose to follow him, lest we find ourselves on the receiving end of such demands. We want to somehow neutralize the piercing words of Jesus and transform them into something safe and comfortable and perhaps a little inspiring.
But I’m not inclined to do that this morning. I want us to take this opportunity to sit with these challenging words and really think about what they might mean for us. To domesticate them too quickly is to sell Jesus, the gospel, and ourselves short.
But my goodness this is hard. In fact, it seems to run counter to inclinations we feel are good and God-inspired. After all, aren’t we supposed to care for our families, to honor our parents, to at least bid farewell to those we love before embarking on this journey with Jesus?
I have an immense amount of love and respect for my father. He has been a role model and a friend. He has provided for me my entire life. When my sister and I were young, he was busy climbing the corporate ladder of the major construction company he worked for. The more responsibility he took on, the more he had to travel and be away from us. But there came a point in time, when he was still quite young, that he felt he was spending too much time away. He was travelling so much that he wasn’t able to enjoy the benefits of his labor and be with his family and children the way he wanted to. So he took an early retirement and walked away from a great job and lucrative benefits. He traded wealth and prestige for time with his family.
It must have been a difficult decision for him. Like me and many other members of our family, my father is a bit of a workaholic. He needs to be busy and loves to immerse himself in what he is doing. Now that I am a father with children of my own, I have even more appreciation for the struggle he felt, the difficultly of balancing careers we feel called to and love and our deep desire to be fully present with our families.
Yet here is Jesus, calling us to be a part of a radical movement of global transformation and telling us that we don’t have time for family. We need to get on board and keep moving toward the destination, toward his vision of a new world. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
How different this is from the comfortable kind of Christianity we’ve signed up for. There’s no way around it: American Christianity is a fairly low demand endeavor. Although things are changing in our post-Christendom times, being a Christian and participating in church is still pretty mainstream. As more and more people choose not to do this, perhaps we will encounter more and more puzzlement at our commitments, but it’s unlikely that we will find ourselves persecuted or stigmatized for our faith anytime soon. This is especially true for progressive Christians, whose values of openness, tolerance, and pluralism are becoming more and more common in society as a whole.
Beyond the relatively simple rigors of confirmation, becoming a member of a mainline Protestant church like ours is a very easy process. All it takes is a few hours in an inquirers class, an introduction to our session, and a public profession or reaffirmation of faith among people who basically believe the same things. We expect that members will become involved in the life of the community and support us with time, talents, and resources, but it’s not like we force anything upon people. No one is holding you accountable for attendance or participation. No one is demanding that you prioritize church above your family and career. No one expects you to, well, put your hands to the plow and never look back.
Is this what Jesus had in mind for the church? Did he ever envision that two thousand years after his time on earth his radical vision of the kingdom of God would become for millions of people a rather banal decision of whether or not to attend a worship service on Sunday morning and maybe volunteer for something a few times a year? Did he live and die for us to sit here and listen to beautiful music and eloquent speeches? Or did he have something different in mind when he said, “Follow me”? Did he have something else in mind when he said, “As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”?
Jesus didn’t create a nice institution for relatively privileged people to come and be comfortable, reassured, and maybe even inspired. He initiated a radical movement that he described as the kingdom of God. It involves the transformation of the world as we know it. It demands that we change our hearts and lives. It requires that we leave certain things behind and walk with Jesus toward an unknown future in which nothing will be as it is now. “Get on board,” invites Jesus, “and don’t look back.”
How many of us are willing to do that? Following Jesus and encouraging others to do the same is quite literally my job, but I’m not sure I’m there either. There are things about my life that I don’t want to give up. There are things about my life that are too hard to give up. We all want a kind of Christianity that allows us to be who we are with a little faith here and there when it is convenient or when we need it. But this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind.
We’ve lost sight of the radical and revolutionary nature of Jesus and the gospel he proclaimed. Instead, we’ve domesticated and privatized religion into something safe and relatively easy. But God has bigger plans for us and for the world.
By not talking so much about heaven, hell, and personal salvation, progressive Christians like us have lost the sense of urgency that is essential to the gospel. But if Christianity isn’t primarily about getting into heaven when we die, what is it about? What did Jesus mean by the kingdom of God?
One the one hand, it is about our individual lives. Jesus invites us to change our hearts and minds and trust his good news. He calls us to make changes for our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. He calls us to be in good relationships with others. He calls us to understand that our lives are precious gifts that should not be wasted. He calls us to love ourselves, to love others, to even love our enemies.
But the gospel is also bigger than any one of us. The gospel is global in scope. It’s about the worldwide crises that we allow our comforts to obscure. It’s about the environment and the future of the world God has entrusted to our care. It’s about peace and reconciliation in the face of division, violence war, and death. It’s about hunger and poverty. It’s about inequality, injustice, and oppression.
When will these things shake us from our complacencies? When will personal and global crises remove our blinders and help us see that things need to change?
When will we hear Jesus’ call and not be afraid to follow? When will we be willing to make difficult decisions and hard changes to our lives and to the world? When will we put our hands to the plow and not look back?