Follow me! By Bishop David Atkinson

26 June 2016

Preacher | Rt Rev David Atkinson

Follow me! By Bishop David Atkinson

All Saints; Sunday after referendum.   26th June 2016        

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set is face to go to Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers ahead of him.  On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.  When his disciples James and John saw it, they sai , ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’  But he turned and rebuked them.  Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’  To another he said, ‘Follow me.’  But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’  Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’  Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’     Luke 9: 51 – 62

This rather difficult Gospel may well have an unexpected poignancy in the light of the Referendum decision. In particular, let me read again the last verse:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’.

This is a bit stark; it seems to suggest that we should not think about the past at all, but only the future.   And yet other parts of our faith are very much about remembering.  ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt;’ ‘Remember your Creator,’; ‘Do this in Remembrance of me’.   

But in this text, Jesus is saying something else.   This section of the Gospel begins:  ‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set is face to go to Jerusalem.’     The whole of Jesus’ focus and direction is now forwards: towards Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to Gethsemane, to the Cross, to Easter morning, and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.     That is what has changed the world.  Jesus’ life and death and resurrection  has brought a new creation into being.    That is what gives the power to the disciples to share in the life of the risen Christ.     

So if you are a disciple of Christ, the Gospel implies, that is the Way you must follow.    While you remember these great redemption events of the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus -  and that is a proper remembering,  -  let that be your guide and your focus as you look forwards: let God unite you with the risen Christ, let God’s Spirit shed his love abroad in your hearts; let the values of God’s Kingdom be your supreme concern,  let God’s joy be your strength -  and once you are travelling on that Way,  do not look back.       Do not hanker for your past life, do not fall back into your past sins.  Do not live in recrimination, resentment, disappointment, or retaliation.  You are a new creation:  Do not let your past dictate your future, but steadfastly set your face to follow the Way of Christ.  If you want to plough a straight furrow, says our Gospel, if you want to plough a straight furrow -  one that is fit for the Kingdom of God -  then  keep looking ahead to Jesus,  and follow his  Way.

It has not been easy to keep our eyes on looking forward to God’s Kingdom in the light of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, through this sometimes poisonous referendum campaign.    And now we are set, certainly for a period of uncertainty, and if we are not careful, for a period of recrimination, of jostling for power, of shifting blame.   We need also to be aware of the principalities and powers in the heavenly places  -  which I think often includes the corporate power of unjust structures and institutions  -  and,  as St Paul puts it,  stand firm using the armour of God:  salvation, righteousness, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.   The whole tone of our national life needs lifting back towards the values of God’s Kingdom, of justice, peaceableness, compassion, humility, forgiveness and love,  focused in the new creation born at the Cross and on the first Easter morning; strengthened by God’s Spirit shedding God’s love in our hearts.

And this is where our Gospel reading has one or two poignant things to say.  If we are followers of Christ, we need to take note of what Jesus says here.

The first is for a proper sort of tolerance towards those with whom we disagree.  The Samaritans were not welcoming to Jesus, and James and John thought they could protect Jesus’ honour by denouncing the Samaritans: shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them?’      No doubt some of us have been tempted to call down fire from heaven on some who have been in the news in recent days, but Jesus words to James and John apply also to us.  ‘He turned and rebuked them’.   

I know ‘tolerance’ can be a slippery word, and we sometimes use it to justify inaction, or not standing up for the truth. There is a proper sort of intolerance against injustice and evil.    However, there are few attitudes that are less productive and more damaging than thinking that I am right and therefore you are wrong.  On a visit to California some years ago I saw someone with a slogan on his T-shirt that said  ‘Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do!’

And sadly, in Church life also, religious people are sometimes tempted towards the wrong sort of intolerance,  by insisting that our views are right and have to be imposed on others.  It took me a long while properly to understand that the Gospel is offered to us with the freedom to disagree.  God does not coerce us.  He allows us the freedom to turn down his gift; God in love gives us time to respond.    And truth is not something that I have and you don’t, or that you have and I don’t.   Truth is embodied in Jesus, whom we are all in our own ways called to look to and follow in love, and point others to him.  As Jesus put it in our Gospel:  as for you:  proclaim the Kingdom of God.

Then Jesus’ other words in our Gospel reading fill out something of what following Jesus in love entails, and it is rather costly.      To the one who brazenly said  ‘I will follow you wherever you go’ Jesus cautions: Before you follow me, count the cost.   I am on the road to Jerusalem: following me will mean you taking up your cross as well:  it is not a bed of roses   -  maybe not even a pillow for your head.

Then there was one who said ‘Please let me first go and bury my father’. Probably the man was thinking ahead and saying  ‘ I’d like to follow you, but I have family commitments at the moment: when I no longer have to care for my sick father I will follow you’.   But Jesus says: when the moment of God’s call and your decision comes, don’t miss the moment.

To another who wanted to delay his response, Jesus says ‘don’t keep hankering for the good old days.’ God’s Kingdom calls you forward   -   forward into the costly road of suffering love;  forward in the light of the Cross and the Empty Tomb;  forward into the life of God’s love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.   

Following Jesus is not easy: pointing to Jesus as the truth is not easy; proclaiming God’s Kingdom is not easy; helping our nation recover its spiritual values will not be easy.   But it is our calling, even in a time of great uncertainty.   The risen Jesus is our certainty, and the joy of the Lord is our strength.