Today’s Gospel reading is widely regarded as Luke’s telling of the exact center of the drama of Christ’s life. Before chapter 9, verse 51, Jesus has been recruiting his disciples, announcing the kingdom of God, performing miracles, and meeting with considerable success. He has barely anticipated where all this is leading: to his going to Jerusalem to be handed over to the authorities, crucified, and raised again.
But from here on out, Jesus is fully dedicated to this mission, there is no turning back, and it becomes clear that not everyone will join him. From here on out, Christ is on a journey. Some will accompany him on that journey; others will not, and we see some such individuals today.
“When the days drew near for him to be received up,” Luke tells us, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This word translated as “received up” has many possible meanings. It can mean to be taken up or even to ascend, as in the Ascension, which puts an end to Christ’s earthly journey. Here that journey begins, and Christ’s single-mindedness in pursuing this journey is signified by Luke’s choice of words: He set his face to go to Jerusalem. That means he resolved to do so, he was set on it. In fact the word “face” is used three times by Luke in this short passage, though our translation might cause you to miss that.
Not only does Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he also sent messengers “ahead of him.” But literally in Greek Luke says he sent messengers “before his face.” Just as our Lord’s face is set toward Jerusalem so too his messengers, presumably those disciples who are accompanying him on his journey, are sent “before his face,” they are his representatives, those who bear his face to the village of the Samaritans, “to make ready for him.” As his disciples they can do this, go before his face, because they too share his intention, their faces too are set toward Jerusalem.
But now we get our first sense that not everyone will accompany Jesus on his journey. Because the people of the Samaritan village will not receive him, and they will not receive him precisely because of the nature of his journey. Once again Luke tells us Christ’s face was “set toward Jerusalem,” that’s the third “face,” and it is because his intention is clear that the Samaritans will have no part of his journey. That Christ’s face is set toward Jerusalem means that some are ready to share in that journey, and some are not.
To this reality though some of Christ’s disciples respond incorrectly. “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them? But he turned and rebuked them.” Other ancient authorities add another sentence here, which reads, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
If that sentence belongs in the Gospel record then it expands on why Jesus rebuked James and John. They are of a spirit that is not destructive but salvific. That some people will not accompany Jesus on his journey is not a reason to condemn them to destruction. This journey is not a scorched-earth campaign; it is a journey toward salvation, one that will culminate not in Christ destroying his enemies but in him willing his own destruction for their salvation.
St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians fills out in more detail what the spirit the disciples are of entails: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” These are the hallmarks of life in the Spirit, and “those who belong to Christ Jesus,” St. Paul tells us, “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Those who belong to Christ have put to death the works of flesh, the sinful passions that enslave us. The spirit that the disciples should exhibit is not one that indulges the passions but has put them to death.
“If we live by the Spirit,” St. Paul says, “let us also walk by the Spirit.” The disciples are walking with Christ on his journey; and Jesus shows them how to walk that journey. They are not to indulge their own enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, or selfishness but to put these things to death and walk by the spirit.
Indeed this imagery of walking by the spirit is totally appropriate to Luke, who then goes on to depict what it is like to be “going along the road” as he puts it in verse 57. As commentators have pointed out, in verse 51, Jesus alone set his face toward Jerusalem, but in verse 56, “they,” that is Jesus and the disciples who accompany him, together, “went on.”
Together they went on along the road, and on the journey they encounter three individuals, each of whom it is implied do not accompany Jesus on his journey. The previous part of today’s Gospel passage put the emphasis on the disciples being sent before Christ’s face. Now the emphasis shifts on what it means not to be sent but what it means to follow, a word that occurs numerous times in what is left of this passage.
The first man they meet promises to follow Jesus, but Jesus answers him in words that suggest he does not think this man has properly counted the cost of doing so. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Though he is creator of the universe, he has not even the humble home of his lowliest creatures. To follow Jesus on his journey is to leave behind the consolations of home, to forsake human security and accept a provisional life, one that depends on doing the will of God alone.
The second man Jesus calls upon to follow him, but he gets an excuse that the man must first go and attend to his dead father. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This journey is a journey for the living, not the dead, by which Jesus may have in mind here not just the physically dead but the spiritually dead, those still in their sins. To follow Jesus on his journey is to leave behind relationship with the dead and to walk in new life, to accept that one is called not to death but to the proclamation of the kingdom of God.
Finally the third man also promises to follow Jesus, but says he must first farewell those at his home. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now if you’ve never plowed it might be hard to know what this means, but the trick in plowing is that you have to keep your eyes downfield, fixed on where you are going, and not stop along the way but get to the end of the row. Looking back or to the sides will result in a botched and crooked row. To follow Jesus is to be like him, with your face set toward the goal and never looking back.
It has been wisely said that life itself is a journey. For Luke the Christian life is definitely a journey. Not only does he use that imagery here, he also uses it when telling the story of the disciples who meet the risen Lord Jesus in a journey to Emmaus. They encounter Jesus then along the road, on the way. I have said before from this pulpit that in the Gospel of Mark a lot of things happen on a boat. In the Gospel of Luke, a lot of things happen on the road. For Luke we are all on the road. You and I are on a journey.
And as any child can tell you, to be on a journey is necessarily also to be on an adventure. The Christian life is an adventure. And an adventure is exciting because it puts something at risk. It is not safe to go on an adventure. Which means there is always an excuse not to go. “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go, as long as you are going to a five-star resort.” “Jesus, I will follow you but first I have to do this really important thing.” “Jesus, I will follow you just as soon as I finish up what I am doing.”
These three encounters on the road have been understood in many ways in church tradition, but what they all boil down to it seems to me is that they are ways of making excuses. And some of them are really good excuses. But a really good excuse is still an excuse. We all have things we would prefer in our lives; we all have relationships that involve commitment; we all are accomplished people with lots of important tasks before us.
But we are being called to make of all those things an adventure. We are being called to go on a journey in and amidst the important stuff of our lives. Have we counted the cost of accompanying him? Are we prepared to give up the things that we think we must have to be safe, to be comfortable, to be provided for? Have we abandoned the ways of the dead, the passions of the flesh, and lived a new life? Are we still too wedded to abiding by social niceties, going along to get along, or indulging ourselves and our passions? Have we set our face toward the goal? Are we accompanying Christ along the road, eyes fixed on where we are going, not stopping or turning back?
There will be consolations in the Christian life, this we are promised. We are all still committed to relationships with loved ones to whom we have real responsibilities. And if we seek the kingdom of God with single-mindedness all the rest will be added unto us as well. These are real sources of encouragement and good news for all believers.
But in many ways those things are at the end of our journey, and here as I have said the journey begins. It begins with single-mindedness and determination. It begins in a sober reckoning of the real costs of the journey. It begins with responding to a call to live a totally different kind of life. It begins with a dedication to the one thing that matters.
May we begin our journey well. That we may end it well. Amen.