Proper 8C; Luke 9:51-62
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Today's gospel passage marks a change in focus. Today's gospel is roughly at the mid-point between the beginning of Luke and when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem at 19:29 ff. It marks a shift from a casual Jesus that outlines his ministry – good stories, miraculous healings, and some confrontations with Pharisees – to a literally deadly focus. Teachings, miracles, and confrontations still occur, but now the stakes become higher and we see the steady procession to Jerusalem and his Passion.
This journey to Jerusalem requires a lot from those who follow. It requires a willingness to leave our personal comforts behind to follow Christ to places unknown. It requires a willingness to put discipleship over and above social pressures of conformity. It requires us to look forward to what will be and not back to what was or how it used to be.
It's also important to note that it's after this change in focus when Jesus sends out 70 disciples to prepare and proclaim the coming of Christ. It's after this that he talks of openly acknowledging him as the Son of Man. It's after this when he speaks of being prepared in the middle of the night. It's after this when he talks of giving up everything to follow him.
But it's also important to note nothing that follows this reading – none of the parables, none of the confrontations, none of the healings – nothing, is presented as a requirement from Jesus. Everything is presented as an If/Then: If you choose to follow me, Then this is what will be expected of you. Jesus never says, “You MUST follow me.” With Jesus, it is always a choice to accept or to reject him. That same choice is also ours.
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. They entered a village of the Samaritans, but they did not receive him.”
James and John take offense at how they are treated and ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
To be fair, there is scriptural precedence for this action. Fire from heaven came down and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It consumed the sons of Aaron for offering an unholy sacrifice. It consumed some of the Israelites in the wilderness for complaining to God. Fire from heaven consumed 100 of King Ahaziah's men. So James and John may have simply believed that fire from heaven was an appropriate response to those who rejected God.
This response isn't limited to James and John, or any of those other stories I just referenced from the Old Testament. There are plenty of people in the here and now who would like nothing better than to see fire from heaven destroy their enemies and/or those whom they think act contrary to God's will.
Everything from female clergy to women who wear improper clothing to churches that don't hold to a particular “biblical” belief to lgbtq people and those who support them, to interracial marriage, to gun regulation to pro-choice, and anything else you can think of, is subject to someone somewhere calling for the wrath of God to eliminate those people with fire from heaven. The belief, I guess, is that those who don't hold to MY correct understanding of God and scripture are wrong and must be destroyed before they can lead others away from the truth.
“But he turned and rebuked them.”
Jesus rebuked them because violence isn't the answer. He rebuked them because we aren't here to force people to follow. He rebuked them because it's not up to us to dole out judgments and punishments. He rebuked them because fire from heaven is not how you love your neighbors.
Over in Matthew, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who harm you. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those whom you think are causing problems. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who reject the message you proclaim. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who choose differently. And there is no shortage of people who take that easy road to destruction.
But you know what's difficult? Loving our neighbors is difficult. Loving those who make different choices than us is difficult. Loving those who have deeply held but different religious beliefs is difficult. Loving those who want to execute those who are different is difficult.
You know what else is difficult? Authentic discipleship is difficult. Being willing to be sent elsewhere is difficult. Making Jesus our number one priority is difficult. Not focusing on the good old days is difficult.
The longer I'm involved in Christianity the more I'm convinced that the narrow gate isn't accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior – it's the willingness to allow people to choose how they wish to live, loving them anyway, and focusing on your own daily discipleship.
From here on out Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. From here on out the choice to follow him is fraught with personal sacrifices that require us to put aside how the world does things in favor of taking up how Jesus does things. From here on out we are asked to take up our cross daily.
Following Jesus doesn't mean forcing our beliefs on others; and it certainly doesn't mean destroying those who differ from us. What it does mean is doing the best we can to live up to his expectations while also inviting others to join us on this journey; and then either helping them along the way or wishing them well on their own path.
May we have the courage to set our own faces toward Jerusalem and the compassion to not destroy others along the way.