During his ministry, Jesus made it clear he wasn’t about creating a one person show. Even as he was involved in personally ministering to the crowds — healing and teaching about the kingdom of God — he was also quite intentional about making disciples. He called persons who would go into the world imitating his life — living a Christ-life, witnessing to the reality of the kingdom of God in the here and now.
Unlike the Pharisees of the day who knew the laws inside and out and did an impressive job keeping them, the life of Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t be about keeping all the laws; rather, they would embody a certain quality of life — the same life Jesus himself lived — one marked by an extraordinary freedom and love. The ministry of the disciples would be defined less by what they did than about who they were and what they were experiencing — the life being lived through them as God’s children. “You are the light of the world,” he said, so go ahead and let the light shine. Don’t hide the light under a bushel.
The people Jesus called weren’t exceptional people; on the contrary, they were quite ordinary: unlearned people, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like; quite flawed people. He took them where they were and loved them — just as they were. By calling such ordinary folk Jesus made it clear that this life is open to all.
And yet, the life to which Jesus was calling the disciples was anything but an ordinary life; it was an exceptional life that flowed against the grain of what is considered normal in this world. Not surprisingly, the Gospels describe that disciples as having a really tough time getting a hold of this altogether new kind of life.
For instance, in this morning’s Gospel story, as Jesus was traveling with his disciples to Jerusalem through a Samaritan village, and certain Samaritans wouldn’t welcome Jesus and his disciples with ordinary Middle eastern hospitality and provide a place to rest for the night, James and John’s knee jerk reaction was to destroy them — to call down fire from the sky to fry them. (Hey, what’s the point of having spiritual power if you can’t fry your enemies with it when they tick you off?)
And so Jesus rebuked them, letting them know that this new kind of life they were living wasn’t dependent upon having things “go our way.” The kingdom of God is at hand whether or not people cooperate with us. We are free from the knee jerk need to take revenge that is so much a part of this world.
“But Jesus, they dissed* us, they dissed you, for God’s sake! In the old days, Elijah the prophet would never have stood for this!” (*contemporary jargon for “showing disrespect.”)
But Jesus replied, “Hey, if you belong to God, nobody can ever really diss you. Don‘t you get that?”
Some were interested in signing up to be disciples, but they needed some assurances. “Hey, Jesus, we think you’re wonderful and all, but tell us a little something about the accommodations we‘ll be staying in — where exactly will we be sleeping while we do all this traveling? And while you’re at it, how about a few words regarding the pension plan, the health care plan, stuff like that?”
“If you’re going to follow me,” he said, “you need to consider yourself homeless. That’s how I came into this world, that’s how I’m leaving. I’ve got no place to lay my head. Worrying about all that stuff just distracts you from the kingdom of God that is here in this very moment”
They were others who were interested in following Jesus, but what about their families? “Hey Jesus, we’ve got family obligations, and shouldn’t they take precedence over everything else?
“Families are wonderful things, a good gift for sure, for which you should consider yourself truly blessed. But contrary to popular opinion, they are not the most important thing. The Kingdom of God, right here, right now, that’s the most important thing. And if your family attachments get in the way of focusing on that, well there’s a problem.”
Now I need to acknowledge that at best, I too am a faltering disciple. I have a real hard time living the Jesus life. All those things that tripped up the disciples 2000 years ago, hey, they trip me up as well.
For me, I come closest to catching hold of this quality of life at certain moments of grace, more often when I stop to take time to pray. At such times my tight grip on my life eases up and suddenly it all seems like a gift — a good gift — and I really do feel free. Loved. At peace.
But then I get back to interacting with this world, and something inside me begins to tighten, and I forget what this freedom feels like.
*I get caught up in frustration about the people who throw monkey wrenches into my plan;
*I worry about what people think of me, and whether I’m being “dissed”;
*I worry over money and the future;
*I worry about my kids and whether they are turning out the way I think they should turn out, and what I should be doing to make them come out better;
and all these worries seem oh so normal, and that quality of freedom begins to seem like but a distant dream.
Partly what I’m talking about is the fact that I’m not really ready to die. I’m too attached to my life in this world, and my tight grip is a habit I’m not ready to give up. Jesus, however, was ready to die. He was making his way to Jerusalem to do just that, and in a strange way, it made him ready to live as well. It’s a paradox. Readiness to die makes you ready to live. It creates space for what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” take hold: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22,23) The fruits Jesus himself lived out.
A true story I heard somewhere. A pastor was arrested and being interrogated for standing up to the regime’s human rights abuses. The officer in charge of the interrogation had him beaten, but still the pastor would not tell him what he wanted to hear. Finally, in frustration the officer slammed his fist down on the table screaming, “Don’t you know that I can kill you?!!”
Calmly the pastor replied, “Do what you must, but I have already died with Jesus.”
The officer went limp, recognizing that he was in the presence of a quality of freedom before which he could only stand in awe and amazement.
This morning as we come to the table of the Lord, we remember once more Jesus willingness to die for us — and marvel at his extraordinary freedom. As we share once more in Jesus’ body and blood, his life lives within us. We remember who we are: God’s beloved children, birthed to live in glorious liberty.