Third Sunday after Pentecost

 

Find your purpose. This is what our parents and teachers counseled us to do, if they were at all invested in us and wanted to see us succeed in life. 

 

It’s interesting to see that in the blogosphere, “purpose” has become a very popular theme. To men who are seeking love, the internet dating coaches say: “there is nothing more attractive to a woman than a man on his purpose.” Indeed, among several of these gurus purpose is singled out as the one attribute without which it is impossible to have a satisfying and fulfilling life.

 

No doubt “purpose” receives so much attention because so many in our world today are devoid of it.

 

But in Western culture, purpose has never really been the prize. That distinction belongs to freedom. Not freedom in the spiritual sense, the sense in which the Apostle Paul means it when he declares that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), but freedom in the worldly sense. Freedom in this sense means financial independence. Consider how marketers sell unsuspecting consumers their blueprints for success. I see countless ads that interrupt the YouTube videos I watch: “Use this strategy and you will be able to live on your own terms. No longer will you be a slave to the grind. No longer will you have to please a demanding boss. No longer will you have to endure the punishing commute.”

 

To be sure, a person of means is answerable to no one. He can set his own schedule, travel when and where he wants, and buy whatever his heart desires. And yet is he happy? Is he fulfilled? The gurus I mentioned a moment ago will tell us, “No, not if his life lacks purpose.” He can have all the freedom money can buy, but if he lacks purpose, that free time will become an intolerable burden to him. He will become bored. He will waste his time and himself in frivolous pursuits. The burden of free time may become so intolerable that he will try every means at his disposal to escape from it. Arguably, in the end he is in worse shape than the person of limited means.

 

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus makes a firm resolution. He sets his face towards Jerusalem, which is his final destination. In Jerusalem Jesus fulfills the purpose for which he came into the world: to defeat the powers of sin and death by his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven.

 

Jesus enlists his disciples in his service. Their purpose is to serve him. The disciples of Jesus then and the disciples of Jesus now never have to despair of ever finding purpose. There can be no greater purpose than to be a disciple of Jesus, if the purpose of human being is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. But it is always possible to live in contradiction to our purpose. And so we have to be aware of the obstacles to discipleship, as our Gospel lesson makes clear. 

 

He sends them out ahead of him to the villages. Jesus is an itinerant rabbi, a traveling evangelist, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, which has arrived in his person. And he needs people to host him, to provide accommodations for him.

 

Now to deny a traveler hospitality was a grave offense in the ancient near East. That in part explains the fierce indignation of the disciples. They went into a Samaritan village, but when the Samaritans heard that Jesus was heading to Jerusalem, no one was interested in hosting him. 

 

Now if we were first-century readers, we too would be indignant, but we wouldn’t be too surprised. Jerusalem is in the South and the Samaritans are in the North, and the two were bitterly divided. There’s a long history of animosity between them.

 

After their conquest of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century BC, the Assyrians resettled some of their own people among the defeated Israelites. Because they became impure by intermarrying with the Assyrians, they were forbidden to enter the temple in Jerusalem. Later, when the Samaritans withheld their support from the Jewish people in their war of independence, the Jews retaliated by destroying their temple at Mount Gerizim. Subsequently, the Samaritans returned the favor by attacking the temple in Jerusalem, defiling it by scattering the bones of the dead in the sanctuary.

 

To make matters worse, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans were known to waylay Jewish pilgrims traveling to and from Jerusalem.

 

To be called a “Samaritan” was a degrading insult to the Jew. Samaritans were defiled and Jews risked defilement in handling anything belonging to a Samaritan.

 

No wonder then James and John felt justified in calling down fire from heaven to consume those wretched Samaritans! But even here Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach his disciples.

 

One of the lessons to learn as a disciple concerns the patience of God, and his timing, which is seldom our timing. Jesus does not command fire to come down from heaven and consume them. Indeed, he doesn’t say even a word against those who do not receive him.

 

James and John, on the other hand, are the like the man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. Luke records this parable later in chapter 13 of his Gospel. When the man went to look for fruit on it and found none, he told the caretaker to cut it down. How did the caretaker respond? “Sir, leave it alone for another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Let us see if it bears fruit next year. If not, then you can cut it down.” 

 

God gives people time to repent, to change course. The Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Rome that it’s the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience that lead people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Later he writes to his young protégé Timothy that Christ chose to have mercy on him, Paul, the worst of sinners, so that he might display his unlimited patience as an example to those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Tim. 1:16)

 

Patience is a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, as we saw in our epistle lesson. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,” and the rest (Gal. 5:13ff). We need to exercise ourselves in this patience, because it allows for God’s grace at work in those around us, especially those whom we consider too far gone.

 

Do you have people among family and friends whom you think are too far gone? Are there people you are ready to give up on?

 

But God hasn’t given up on them. It’s worth noting that in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke records that the Samaritans receive the good news of Christ (8:6, 14), a direct reversal of the scene in this lesson. God’s grace itself is an expression of the patience of his love, which far exceeds our own.

 

Rejected by the people in the Samaritan village, Jesus and the disciples go in search of another one in the hope of finding more hospitable people. 

 

It is here that the direction of the narrative takes a shift. It diverts our attention from the immediate task of their finding a place to stay to a series of encounters between Jesus and would-be disciples on the way.

 

It turns out that the circle of disciples is not closed. The invitation to follow Jesus, to be his disciple, is extended to others. That’s implied in the inquiries. There are three featured here. The interactions are brief and open-ended. We have no idea whether any of these three inquirers ever came around. But precisely because they are open-ended, they constitute an invitation to us to consider.

 

Let’s see what they have in common, before we drill down to see what makes each of them distinctive. Note that all of these inquirers are distracted. In this regard, they stand in direct contrast to Jesus. Remember that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. Nothing can or will distract him from his way. He has laser focus on his destination.

 

That is not usually our experience, is it? We get easily distracted. Perhaps what illustrates this best is our driving. Late last winter a woman slammed into my rear bumper at a stop light, because she was texting. The damage to the back of my car was extensive, but thankfully neither she nor I was hurt.

 

Today we all know the dangers of texting and driving, but that doesn’t seem to deter us from doing it. We’re still reaching for our phones while driving to read or even type that text, change that song in the playlist, enter that new address into the map. But these distractions are dangerous; they certainly have the potential of preventing us from reaching our destination.

 

Jesus Christ is our destination. We ought to set our sights on him, to follow him wherever he leads us, to learn whatever he teaches us, and to obey whatever he commands us. In this we fulfill our purpose. But what is it that distracts us?

 

It’s worth pointing out here that Jesus and his disciples are quite vulnerable. Not only do they not yet have a place to stay, but they are going to Jerusalem. That is enemy territory. Earlier, Jesus told the disciples that the temple authorities were determined to kill him (Luke 9:22). By setting his face towards Jerusalem, he, in effect, indicates his intention to walk into the direct line of fire.  

 

The first would-be disciple sounds absolutely determined to follow Jesus, without conditions, but when he hears about Jesus’ vulnerability, he’s afraid.

 

Our fears can distract us from following Jesus. To be his disciple involves overcoming our fears.  

 

Here it’s instructive to call to mind the great German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the Second World War, he traveled from Germany to New York. While there, he gave lectures at Union Theological Seminary. Impressed by the talent of the young scholar, the faculty offered him a position as professor of theology. But Bonhoeffer agonized over the decision. He asked himself where Jesus was leading him. In the end, he turned down the offer and returned to Germany, to suffer in solidarity with the victims of Nazi brutality. This decision cost him his life; he was hanged in a concentration camp at the age of 39.

 

Do our fears distract us from following Jesus? We should remember that if we have been baptized into him and have placed our faith in him, then we have his Spirit. And this Spirit is not a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7). There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). This love is not a mere human possibility; it is a love that comes from God. It is a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, as we learned in our epistle lesson. This love enables us to follow him, despite dangers, imagined or real.  

 

There is another one who crosses paths with Jesus. To this one Jesus says: “follow me.” This one too demurs. He sounds like the guests invited to the banquet in the parable recorded in Luke 14. You will recall in this parable that a certain man prepared a great banquet. He sent out his servant with the invitations. But all the guests on the invitation list had excuses. This would-be disciple may have liked the idea of following Jesus, but wants to defer the offer because of family obligations. The point is not that he should neglect to make funeral arrangements, but rather that care for his family is a more pressing priority. This doesn’t work for Jesus. This is a decisive moment. He wants to enlist the man in his service. And there is no time to waste; the time is now.

 

Misplaced priorities can distract us also from following Jesus. When we act like this one, we avoid the urgency of following Jesus. Whether it’s a question of making a major life choice or deciding when to dedicate time to prayer and the patient study of God’s word, we put it off, and allow ourselves to be distracted. We turn to something else, mistakenly assuming that it is more important than doing what Jesus commands us. We defer following him, forgetting that, as a popular saying puts it, “not to decide is in fact already to decide.”

After this one, there is a third and final would-be disciple who approaches Jesus. Like the first one, this one also seems ready and willing. But unlike the first one, he has conditions. He wants first to go back home and say good-bye to his parents.

This seems like a reasonable request. But Jesus’ response to him suggests there is something else going on here. The problem for this one seems to be a love for the past that keeps him longingly looking backward rather than plowing wholeheartedly into the future. Jesus told this person that God’s kingdom is about hope for what will be, not nostalgia for what once was. The good old days remembered (or misremembered) can be a stumbling block to God’s future.

We can recognize ourselves in the person who keeps looking back whenever our nostalgia for the past, comfort with the familiar, or fear of being wrong prevents us from venturing out in faith. Disciples will surely make mistakes, but the worst mistake is to become stagnant.

Luke means for us to contrast the responses of these three individuals with that of the disciples. Remember that they left behind their nets and boats, and immediately began to follow him. They were so captivated by Jesus’ offer that they kept following him and kept learning from him.

There can be no greater purpose than to be disciples of Christ. There will be obstacles, both internal and external. There will be the drag of competing loyalties, inertia, and hard choices. But let us not live in contradiction to our purpose. Let us instead be so loved by him and so captivated by his message of the kingdom of God that we decide that nothing else matters nearly as much. Amen. 

 

 

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