"And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village. And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." - St. Luke 19.51-62
It is perhaps unfortunate that in the ordering of the books of the New Testament that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which is also authored by Luke, are separated by the Gospel of John. It is as a result easy to overlook the fact that the two are a unity. The Gospel of Luke tells of the life and work of our Lord Jesus beginning in Galilee in what is today far northern Israel and ending on Calvary outside of Jerusalem. In the Gospel lesson this morning, we get a snippet of this movement from the provincial Galilee to the urban religious center Jerusalem in the enigmatic phrase: "he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." The Acts of the Apostles opens with the ascension of our Lord and his command to his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes: He tells them, "you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, and in Samaria and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). In the succeeding narratives in the book of Acts his apostles are witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and then the surrounding region of Judea and then to Samaria, kind of like concentric circles in increasingly large geographic areas. Finally, we learn in the later chapters of Acts of Saul of Tarsus who is miraculously converted and renamed Paul. He becomes an Apostle to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire. There is, thus, a movement inward to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke and a movement outward in the Acts of the Apostles. What is the point of this important facet to these two books? Well, it says that the central event of both of them is contained in the death and resurrection of our Lord. Everything in the Gospel account is leading up this sacrificial death and the miraculous resurrection. Everything in Acts is pointing back to this one event. A passing study of the Apostles sermons in Acts will evidence this point.
The cross truly is the center point of history on which the whole history of the human race, even the creation, hinges. It is through this event that we should, as a lens, see the world and all of our relationships. Through the cross, we see God's purpose for the world, both in judgement for its sin and rebellion against his gracious rule but also God's design to redeem the best of the human spirit and to save us. Through the cross, we see that we should love others even when they are not lovable or when we believe they deserve judgment. The cross constantly before us reminds us that our Lord Jesus shed his precious blood for us knowing that we still would be unfaithful and rebellious against him. We in turn treat others with the same unmerited kindness and love. It is the cross that is the center of all human history. The hopes and fears of all the years are found in our Lord Jesus and in his most important action, his sacrificial death.
Now we are in a position to understand more clearly what the Evangelist is saying in this enigmatic phrase, "he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." We've seen what that phrase means in the context of Luke and Acts, and what it means for us, namely, that we should strive to see all our life and the world around us through the lens of the cross. This is the center of all. Religious people don't like to hear that because the cross is outside of us. Religious people like spirituality and the search for the divine spark within which is ultimately searching for a god like one's self. The cross tells us that none of our religious efforts, none of our attempts at spirituality have any real meaning or significance in light of the one sacrifice of the Master. The heavy price of our sins has already been paid in full, and we are in no position to try and buy ourselves out: we can only make assent to this awesome work.
In his sermon last week, Deacon Easter spoke of the modern tendency to draw sentimental portraits of our Lord Jesus. We want him to bless the children and heal the sick, but we don't want him to talk about carrying a cross and we certainly don't want him to turn over the money changers tables and fashion a whip to drive them out of the temple. Now we need to be careful on this point that, as he made clear, we don't exclude either part of the full portrait of our Lord, and we also need to take care that we do not in the end give Jesus two masks, one as the stern master and the other as the loving shepherd. He is one Christ who brings both a word of judgment and a word of grace for human sin. With all this talk about the cross, what I'm not saying is that Jesus is just the easy shepherd or the docile parent who merely overlooks our sins. The cross doesn't take sin lightly, but rather shows how costly its grace is through our Lord's costly death.
Further in the Gospel lesson today we see this same tension that Deacon Easter pointed out. Our Lord first rebukes the disciples for wanting to cast down judgement on a Samaritan village, saying that he has not come to destroy men's lives but to save them. The "gentle" Jesus. Following this, we have a slew of what are typically called the "difficult sayings of Jesus." Preachers love to teach classes and explain away these sayings. "The Son of Man has no where to lay his head"; "Let the dead bury the dead", and "No man, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." It might make us doubt his earlier assertion that he has come to save lives not destroy them, when we learn that our Lord expects that, to be his disciple will mean we never feel at home on earth, we will follow him first most even putting him before our family, and we will be his disciples without wavering or relenting. Is he truly come to save lives when he seems to infringe so drastically on the ordinary lives of his followers?
A neglected skill in understanding the Bible is relating parts to parts. We might understand verses on their own, but there is a depth and a profoundity to be found in seeing how verses relate to verses, chapters to chapters and even books to books. Proficiency at this skill evinces the artistry behind the various texts of Scripture. And our reading from Luke is no different. It is no mistake on the part of the author that these two contrasting passages follow one another. In fact, these two contrasting passages help develop the significance of one another. Jesus says "let the dead bury their dead" and "no man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God." Our Lord suggests that the customary order of this world may not be in line with God's design. In our Sunday morning adult education class, we've talked about the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer, and the virgins of the early church commemorated on various dates. The virgins forsook the conventional design on their lives as young women--having an ordinary, ordered family with a husband and children, sometimes at great cost of alienation from family and society--and committed themselves wholly to following our Lord. Clearly this type of celibacy is a special calling, but it shows the other-worldly dimensions of Christianity, the same ones that our Lord is highlighting in the latter part of our passage.
In the first part of the passage, when the disciples ask if they should command fire to down from heaven upon a village, I don't think our Lord's response is simply saying he wants to preserve biological life for its own sake. Rather, the end of life, closes the door to repentance, and perhaps, he wishes to preserve this opportunity for repentance for those Samaritans. Might I suggest that the lives he has come to save are those that will be directed to his counter cultural world-view, those who when they receive the call to serve him will not look back.
Our lives are more than food, clothing and shelter and they are even more than the complex biological processes in our bodies. Rather, our life, as St. Paul says, is hid with Christ in God. And if we are to save that true life, we must lose our life here. We must be willing to sacrifice conventions, our own standing in society and sometimes even our respectability among our family in following our Lord Jesus and bearing witness to him. This is a great price to pay, but in doing so, we will find this true life, the one our Lord came to save with his precious blood.