There’s an urgency about the Gospel, an urgency about following the path of Jesus. And despite the fact that Jesus tells us, again and again, that discipleship will cost us something, we don’t want to believe it. We want to pretend that everything is fine just the way it is here in North America. We want to pretend that the whole world will somehow catch up to our standard of living, our consumption of resources, our collection of material comforts, even though our own government, through its programs and entitlements and payments to poor families and countries, has a vested interest in keeping everything just the way it is now.
Jesus’ message stirs up some discomfort in us, particularly when he uses harsh sayings. Maybe we wish Jesus wasn’t quoted as he is, but there’s no way around it: Jesus wants us to be clear that following him will cost something. His mission, his belief in God, his program of non-violent resistance to the Empire, (the domination system, as Walter Wink calls it,) demonstrates that his program for change is radical. Jesus is moving forward.
He’s on his way to Jerusalem, the seat of imperial power, the place where the domination system is aided and abetted by the ruling priestly class and the Temple itself. It’s an urgent mission, and even though Jesus had to know that his destiny would probably include a violent end, he remains determined. He knows that he cannot take up violent resistance against the Empire, thereby adding to the spiral of global violence. Neither can he simply acquiesce to the Empire. Instead, he proposes a third way, a path of nonviolent resistance, which, if followed, will transform the world. Jesus expects a lot of himself and a great deal from those of us who claim to follow him.
Each of us has to be willing to give up the way of revenge and live the way of Jesus—the way of forgiveness and mercy. When Jesus sets his course for Jerusalem, he passes through Samaritan territory. The Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, and when Jesus arrives in a village and people realize he’s on his way to Jerusalem, they refuse him hospitality. And, referencing the Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis, James and John suggest a little divine violence might be just the thing to clean things up and make things right. Jesus repudiates them and rejects the notion that violence can bring redemption. It’s not about revenge or retribution, it’s about mercy and forgiveness.
Those who want to follow Jesus must become vulnerable. In his day, that meant depending on others for hospitality, for food and lodging whenever they entered an unfamiliar town. They had to be willing to give up control over their own lives—give control up to God, and entrust their well-being to others. Is that something we’re willing to do? Are we willing to let God take charge of our lives? Are we willing to admit that we have needs that we can’t take care of ourselves, that we need others, need their strength and encouragement and support and prayers as we journey with Jesus? Can we take the risk of being dependent and vulnerable?
Finally, those who want to follow Jesus must be faithful to his mission of redeeming the world. A man is invited to follow Jesus, but asks first if he might go bury his father, and he is told, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It’s not that Jesus is being heartless, it’s that Jesus is reminding us that discipleship is urgent, that the domination system exists also in families, that there is no time to waste. Jesus isn’t expecting us to be perfect in the sense that we become magically sinless, rather, he is expecting us to be perfect in the sense that the Hebrews of his time understood the word: mature, whole, focused, motivated, intentional.
Jesus calls us to move forward with him, without looking back at what we’ve left behind, wondering if we’ve made the right decision, fantasizing about what our life might have been if we’d chosen to follow our own path instead of God’s. If life is a boat, then the past is lilke a rudder that guides our direction; it’s not supposed to be an anchor to weigh us down. Yes, it’s scary to walk into a future that is unknown, but that is exactly what Jesus is asking of us right now.
Jesus demands much, and there are times when we’re just not sure we’re up to the task. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the call, the amount of work to be done, the energy required to make even the smallest changes within myself!
Jesus is moving forward. To Jerusalem. With a purpose. With determination. And no one can deter him from carrying out his intended mission. Nothing, not even death at the hands of the Empire itself can stop him. Maybe that’s why he expects more from us. We have followed him to this point, and we’re attracted to his healings and miracles, we like the teachings about justice and peace—but now Jesus wants something in addition to all that. He wants us to move forward with him and make the changes necessary to complete his vision for humanity.
There is some urgency about all this. Our world continues to cry out for peace and wholeness. So many people in the world and in our personal lives seem stuck and unhappy, unfocused and afraid. Many, many people are floundering, looking to find a joyful, hopeful path to a new kind of life. That’s why we’re come to this time and place, this moment in time—to live and proclaim with our lives that the God of Jesus is offering exactly what each of us so desperately needs right now. We need to keep movin’ forward.
For over 50 years I’ve claimed to be moving forward with Jesus, even when I have been resisting and rebelling and not living my beliefs. For the last 2.5 years, I’ve been on that journey as an ordained priest in the Catholic tradition—a journey of fits and starts, wrong turns, disappointments and tremendous miracles of grace and power. It’s had its ups and downs; it’s had joys and pains. But, if you were to ask me today, “Would you do it again?”, I would unhesitatingly say, “Yes!” What else would I do? Who else would I become if I turned away from this work God has called me–one of the unworthiest men–to do as one of his priests??
Each of us has to answer that question for himself or herself before we can agree to follow Jesus forward to another level of commitment. Each of us, myself included, has to hope and pray that we keep moving forward with Christ, forward in the company of the community called in his name, forward in anticipation of a world God has promised to us and to all of God’s people, regardless of what color or religion they are, regardless of their economic system or their form of government, regardless of which continent they happen to live on.