|"Following Three Friends Into a Storm"|
by MightyBoyBrian, on Flickr
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Galatians 5:13-14; 22-25
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." [The] fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
It was third grade when Sarah and I tried to build a house.
We'd just finished an architecture unit in school, learning about different styles and designs and features, and we'd even taken a walking tour of the neighborhood to look at windows and doors and roof structurs. Our final project was grab a partner, pick one of the styles of houses we had discussed, and to build our own model house out of cardboard.
Sarah and I had grand ideas. Our house was going to have a tall, peaked roof, and a wrap-around porch, not unlike the very gingerbread-house-esque dollhouses that we ourselves coveted. Shutters on the windows, pillars framing the front door, it was going to be beautiful.
The problem, however, is that two nine-year-old girls might have grand intentions, but they don't have great follow-through. We fussed over our plans, but lost energy to actually build the house. We didn't think through the supplies we'd need, so we tried to construct our house using rubber cement and a sewing kit. And did I mention that we didn't start building until the afternoon before the project was due?
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. And we all have our good intentions. We all have our good ideas and our noble impulses. But as it turns out, whims without follow-through don't amount to much.
And this is especially true with matters of faith.
In our gospel reading today, we meet three well-meaning folks who have the very best intentions of following Jesus. They have the eagerness. They have the excitement. But they don’t quite have the follow-through.
Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. For Jesus, this is a death-march. It is his pilgrimage to the cross, and his face is fixed forward. As they travel, a crowd gathers around them, and some members of this crowd, inspired by his words and deeds of power, decide that they, too, want to be a part of the action.
For them, the decision to follow Christ is something like an impulse-buy. You know, like the ice cream you bought at the Whippy Dip on your evening walk (even though you didn't plan to stop), or the magazine you couldn’t help buying in the checkout lane (even though you just planned on buying some milk and eggs)? To these would-be followers, joining up with Jesus seems like a great and even irresistible idea.
And there’s a certain measure of beauty in that. Because it is indeed true that the gospel of God’s grace and salvation is pretty irresistible stuff. It’s the promise of new life and the comfort of an eternal homecoming for our longing souls.
The problem is that faith is bigger than just the idea of salvation.
This is where these three members of the crowd get stuck. They are eager to be a part of all of the good stuff of following Jesus, but they don’t grasp the weight of what this good stuff will demand of them. They have great intentions, but don’t have the heart to follow through on the demands of discipleship. They have dreamed up a beautiful house in their heads, but aren’t able to commit to building it.
Because the peculiar thing about hanging out with Jesus is that, whether we like it or not, faith changes us. Following Jesus makes us different. God’s grace may indeed be free, but this freedom inspires new demands of our souls. Faith in Christ breeds discipleship, and as Luther Seminary professor Michael Rogness says, "Discipleship means living in ways that we might not otherwise live."
Jesus, when commissioning the disciples, didn’t say to them “Go into all the world, convincing people to believe in me.” He didn’t say “Go into all the world and get people to subscribe to a creed about who I am.” He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Discipleship means getting out of our heads and hearts, and letting the faith that is in us show through in our words and our deeds. Discipleship means following Jesus, not simply believing in him. Discipleship means following through on the grace and compassion that first drew us to faith.
Martin Luther was clear that our good works do not determine our salvation, but he was equally clear that faith always bears fruit; that if our hearts have been moved by Christ, we will bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; loving our neighbors as ourselves.
And all of this sounds so nice and wonderful...in theory. But if we are anything like those crowds, and I think we are, we also get a little stuck when we really consider the idea that faith might change us. That faith might make us live differently. For some of us, we aren’t sure that we are actually capable of living as disciples, and aren’t living fully into Christ’s calling because we’re afraid of failure, or afraid that we’re not worthy. For others of us, we aren’t sure that we actually want to live as disciples, because we are comfortable with who we are and don’t know what would happen if we changed, even if that were a change for the better.
And so we find excuses to merely nibble at faith instead of sitting down for the whole meal. Like those members of the crowd, we put qualifications around our desire to follow Jesus.
I’ll follow you, Jesus...if I can approve the itinerary first.
I’ll follow you, Jesus...if you let me first take care of some important business that’s weighing on my heart.
I’ll follow you, Jesus...if you just wait for a couple days so that I can get my affairs in order and say my goodbyes.
I think that if it were up to us, not many of us would ever become disciples. Because loving your neighbor and being gentle instead of angry and being generous instead of sensible is all hard stuff to do. And there are days that I don’t want to be so kind, and there are times that I really don’t feel so patient, and what about those days when joy is the farthest thing from my mind and heart? If it were up to us, not many of us would ever become disciples.
But the good news is that it really isn’t up to us.
Today, we are going to baptize baby Elliot. He will pass through those baptismal waters as a sign that he has been chosen and claimed by God. He will be anointed with oil as a seal of his belovedness. Elliot has not chosen God - God has chosen him, just as God has chosen each one of us. Elliot’s parents and sponsors, as well as all of us gathered here, will make promises on his behalf as we welcome him into God’s family and dedicate him to Christ’s service. We will all promise to support and pray for him as he grows into the calling that God has prepared for him: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the world.
These are some mighty tasks entrusted to this small child. These are some mighty tasks entrusted to each and every one of us! And while we might not ever do any of these things perfectly, baptism reminds us that we have both been called to Christ’s service and, more importantly, empowered by God’s spirit to carry out those tasks.
Because baptism is the beginning of our lifelong process of conversion; of feeling God molding our hearts anew every day, about trusting God’s double-share of grace to reorient our very beings around loving God and loving neighbor.
This is not flash-in-the-pan faith that we’re talking about here. This is long-term business. Because when God claims us, it’s not just for a moment. It’s forever. And trust me, God is really good at his follow-through.
He has given us these waters of baptism and this table of mercy, to remind us often that we are forgiven and blessed, loved and saved and called.
And more than that, God has given us Christ, the one who has set us free. And we have thus been called in this freedom to serve one another in love, bearing fruit, and giving over our hearts to the deepest workings of God’s divine compassion. We live by the Spirit, and we belong to Christ, who says to each of us, “Follow me.”
May God give us all the strength to answer this call, not just to follow, but to follow through, and to be true disciples of his love and mercy. May we wake up every day, ready for God to shape and mold us into Christ's hands and feet for the world. May we give up control of our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits to the movings of God's grace. And may we see ever more clearly the places in our lives where God is calling us to live differently, that his kingdom might continue to come to life among us.