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A New Testament: Follow Me

Date: 14/07/2019/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

I remember when I was younger, we used to sing this song in Sunday School and you might find it familiar too:

I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, no turning back

To my mind as a child back then, “to follow” meant something quite literal and I understood it as walking behind Jesus. The other way I understood “to follow” was belonging to Jesus, becoming a part of his gang, so to speak.

Remember two weeks ago when I was preaching about the parable of the Good Samaritan, I said that with familiar Bible passages and parables, there is often the Sunday School level and the Super Cool level? Well, the Sunday School level of “Follow me” probably looks something like this:

Sunday School Level
1. Come along with me
2. Be part of my gang
3. Be like me

Each of these still hold true and are important to keep in mind even as we try to progress beyond the Sunday School level. But perhaps God is challenging us to go deeper and to practice discipleship in wider and more life-giving ways. Let’s first read the passage from Luke 9 and see if we can uncover anything new.

Luke 9:51-62
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them[b]?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village.
The Cost of Following Jesus
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

There were 3 groups of people represented here in this story:

1. Those who offer to follow Jesus wherever he goes, whether it’s due to bravado, ignorance, questionable motivations, etc. Jesus manages his/her expectations and subtly rejects their offer to follow

2. Those whom Jesus invites to follow him
Jesus brushes aside their concerns/excuses and reiterates what they are supposed to do.

3. Those who say they will follow but with conditions
Jesus harshly says such people are not fit for the kingdom of God.

This passage today is a challenging one. It’s confrontational and it feels like Jesus doesn’t leave much room for negotiation. I don’t know if you may have wondered, “Why is Jesus so harsh in his responses? That person just wanted to bury their father or say goodbye to their family. Those seem like pretty reasonable requests, right?” But it seemed like Jesus wouldn’t even allow for that. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he said.

There are a few possible interpretations to help us understand better what the person meant and why Jesus possibly responded the way he did. The first interpretation is that the man’s father had been dead for quite a long time. In the Jewish culture of that time, the man would not have been walking around town if his father had just died. Instead, he would have been performing mourning rituals and these lasted for quite a long time. According to Jewish rituals, when a person dies, they are buried in a tomb immediately but after a few years, the bones would be retrieved and placed in a limestone box, and this box would store the bones of dead family members. One reason for this was to save space. But a more important reason for the use of these boxes was the belief that with the disintegration of a deceased’s flesh, sins were also removed and the individual would become eligible for resurrection. So it is possible that the father had died quite some time ago and the official time of mourning was over but the person Jesus was speaking to was in the “in-between time” waiting for a few years to pass so that the bones can be retrieved from the tomb and stored in the box.

The other interpretation that is also feasible is that the man’s father hadn’t died yet and he was basically saying to Jesus, “My parents are old and I can’t leave them in their old age. I have family responsibilities but when I am free from my obligations and responsibilities, then I will follow you.” Jesus’ response was effectively saying, “You need to get your priorities right.” I don’t think Jesus was telling the person to neglect his family and responsibilities. That would go against the vein of the Gospel, which ultimately is about love. I think Jesus was using a Rabinnic way of speaking to make things very black and white. Jesus often taught like the rabbis of his time by drawing sharp comparisons between opposite ideas. For example, “If you want to live, you must die” or “if you want to be my disciple, you must hate your father, mother, wife and children”. These statements were not meant to be taken in a literal way. He was drawing stark comparisons to show the importance and priority of discipleship, and the commitment it required.

In a metaphorical sense, burying the dead may also mean leaving the comfort of the known and familiar and moving on to uncharted waters. Is God challenging you to “bury the dead” in your life and move on to new and uncertain things? And if you have sensed God’s leading, what is holding you back?

Jesus was basically saying, “If you want to follow me, you need to be prepared to let go of your earthly securities.” That’s what he meant when he replied the person who enthusiastically offered to follow him, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus had no earthly security. He didn’t have a house of his own and depended on others to have a place to sleep. He had to borrow a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. He was buried in a borrowed tomb. Sometimes our earthly securities are like our security blanket. But Jesus is saying, “If you want to follow me, you need to lessen your grip on your security blanket. If you want to follow me, you need to get your priorities right.”

This passage is not easy or fun or comfortable. Jesus is calling into question the direction of our life, the values we claim to hold, and how we are living out those values. On top of that, he’s also asking us to look at ourselves rather than the Samaritan on whom we’d like to call down fire from heaven. Two weeks ago, I had explained a little about the Samaritans in my sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. In essence, the first century Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, traitors and heretics. Who do we consider Samaritans today? “Samaritans” are those who are different from us in our outlook and perspectives; those who may have different values from us; those whom we come into opposition and conflict with; those on your social media who post articles and comments that anger or annoy you. Jesus’ disciples at that time were so outraged at the inhospitality of the Samaritans that they asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy them. Jesus rebukes them because what they are asking is in direct contrast to what Jesus had originally instructed them when he sent them out at the beginning of Luke 9:

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.

Later in Luke 9, when the Samaritans heard that Jesus’ heart was set on going to Jerusalem, they refused to welcome him. The disciples reverted to their automatic human reaction of anger and outrage, and wanted to destroy the Samaritans. Jesus didn’t rebuke them for being angry. He rebuked them for wanting to destroy as a result of that anger. Anger is not always bad. Sometimes our anger shows us what is wrong and what needs to change, and that can be helpful. But the propensity to destroy anything or anyone, including ourselves, as a result of our anger is problematic. So following Jesus means we don’t revert back to what we are familiar with — to our earthly securities and our automatic human reactions and tendencies. It means we pause before reacting and going back to our familiar patterns. Following Jesus means we show extraordinary grace, towards ourselves and others, in moments when it’s difficult and we stop giving excuses. “But first let me go and…” How often have you experienced that same tension? We say to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” and on the other hand, we say, “But first let me go and…” What is your version of “but first let me go and…”? Today we are being invited to pause, and rethink and realign our priorities.

So what does it truly mean to follow Jesus?

Earlier I mentioned the Sunday School level understanding:
1. Come along with me
2. Be part of my gang
4. Be like me

And these past few weeks, I was reflecting on what “Follow me” means to me. For me, I realized that when Jesus said, “Follow me”, it was an offer of a relationship. Not just a touch-and-go kind of relationship but a deep intimate one. The Sunday School level of “Come along with me, be part of my gang, be like me” are just scratching the surface of what Jesus was offering.

“Follow Me” Super Cool Level:

1. An offer of relationship: come be in relationship with me. Let’s do life together!

When Jesus says “Follow me” to the various ones, he was inviting them into a relationship. Not just a meet-and-greet kind of relationship but the kind where they live together, serve together, journey together, wrestle through doubts and questions together, learning to love each other in the midst of community. The amazing thing is this same invitation is still being offered to us today. Yes, we may not be able to do life with Jesus in the flesh like the disciples did but we are still being called to be in relationship with the One who created and loves us. And this relationship deserves to be nurtured both individually and in community. It’s not easy to nurture this relationship and to follow Jesus on our own, and the ancient Christians have something to teach us in this area.

Church historian, Diana Butler Bass, sheds new light on some forgotten elements of Christianity and her research shows what it meant to the early Christians to follow Jesus:

Throughout the first five centuries, people understood Christianity primarily as a way of life in the present, not as a doctrinal system, esoteric belief, or promise of eternal salvation. By followers enacting Jesus’s teachings, Christianity changed and improved the lives of its adherents and served as a practical spiritual pathway. This way—and earliest Christians were called “the people of the Way”—bettered existence for countless ancient believers. . . .
The way was based on Jesus’s teaching recorded in Mark 12:28-34. Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” and Jesus responded: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus’s followers took these words seriously. In many cases, and unlike contemporary practice, the process of becoming a Christian took several years, an extended time of teaching spiritual inquirers the way on which they were embarking. Christianity was considered a deliberate choice with serious consequences, a process of spiritual formation and discipline that took time, a way of life that had to be learned in community. . . .

In many quarters, Christian communities are once again embracing the ancient insight that the faith is a spiritual pathway, a life built on transformative practices of love rather than doctrinal belief.

I’m not saying doctrinal belief is unimportant. I’m saying mere information or the holding of beliefs are rarely helpful unless they also enlighten and transform your life. And Jesus is inviting us into relationship with God and one another so that real healing and transformation can take place.

2. An Invitation To Grow & Mature

“Follow me” is also an invitation towards growth and maturity. One verse that is often quoted in relation to following Jesus is Matthew 16:24 “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” You know, many Christians have very messed up perspectives of themselves and God because this saying of Jesus that we are to deny the self has often been abused and interpreted wrongly. Wrong messages like “if you want to follow Jesus, you must deny your sexual orientation, pick up your cross of heterosexuality and follow Jesus. Or deny your dignity and pick up your cross of continued domestic abuse and follow him. Or deny your healthy desires, your unique personhood and the pleasures of life, take up your cross and be miserable.”

“Denying yourself” is not God asking us to annihilate the self or for us to become a “non-person”. In fact, the opposite is true. God is saying “put to death the false self” — the ego that is defensive, arrogant, judgmental and lacking in vulnerability. The false self that is detached and disconnected from God and others. Maybe it’s denying the self that does not feel worthy of God’s love. I think “follow me” cannot be divorced from the notion that we were created in God’s image in the beginning. “Follow me” is a continuation of that journey of growing and maturing. We were created to know God and be known by God and others. God created us so that our deeper, truer self can develop and blossom as we follow Christ. Following and becoming more like Jesus is letting the Holy Spirit strip away the false constructs we have accumulated so that our true selves in Christ can emerge. That is true maturity.

3. To follow Jesus is to proclaim the kingdom of God

Lastly, to follow Jesus is to proclaim the kingdom of God!
Jesus mentioned this twice in the passage so it must be quite significant: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus puts the kingdom of God right at the center of following him. What is this kingdom and how do we discern the signs? Mortimer Arias is the Bishop Emeritus of the Bolivian Methodist Church and this is what he says in his book, Announcing the Reign of God:

There, where a just order is sought;
there, where human life is respected and a full life is fostered;
there, where women and men live in solidarity;
there, where the structures of society try to favor “the orphan, the widow and the poor”
there, where human beings have the opportunity to become what God intends them to be; THERE, the kingdom of God is at work.

On the contrary, there, where the social system is bound to favor a few
In detriment of the majority of the members of society;
there, where injustice divides and puts people against people;
there, where dictatorial regimes curtail freedom and tread underfoot the fundamental rights of people;
THERE, the anti-kingdom is at work.

-Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God

How are we involved in proclaiming the kingdom of God in and through our lives? Richard Rohr says:
Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world.”
-Richard Rohr

Now the question that I want to lay out for you this morning is this: we have this one life – this gift that God has given us. Jesus is saying, “Follow me.” He is asking, “Are you ready to bury the dead – the comfort of the known and familiar and move on to uncharted waters? Are you willing to rethink your priorities? Will you come be in relationship with me? I’m inviting you to grow and mature in my love. Then, will you go and proclaim the kingdom of God in and through your lives — in the choices you make and the lives that you touch. Will you follow me?