I guess we all of us have a slightly different view of what it means to be a Christian. For some people, it's synonymous with being British. Others talk about giving your life to Jesus or being born again. But I suspect a great many of us, whatever we might say, we have a working theology of being a Christian which is essentially about being a kind, charitable person - as St Paul put it in our epistle reading, the essence of Christianity is loving our neighbour.
But it that's the case, our gospel reading sits very uncomfortably with that view. There we see Jesus refusing some poor chap the right to bury his father before he follows him and another poor chap is refused the right to say goodbye to his family. What on earth is Jesus up to? And when we come across a passage which conflicts so obviously with our working theology, we have two choices: we amend our point of view or we ignore the passage. Too often, perhaps, we take the latter course, but I wonder what we might be missing if we do that. Let's see if we can at least understand the passage and then I'll leave it to you to decide.
The passage is about excuses - good ones and I know all about excuses. Living in a new home, we are surrounded by boxes so that I never know where anything is. The law governing the particular branch of the laws of physics that relate to new houses is that the thing you're looking for is always in the last box you look in. And people tell me my life would be a lot easier if I just unpacked my boxes first and tried looking after you lot after I've done that. But I just don't have time. There's always some worthy cause that's more important than unpacking my boxes and so it never gets done.
Now, the people who come to Jesus have good excuses too - they don't come much better do they? So why is Jesus so harsh - especially when these people have offered to follow him?
Well, their responses actually betray an underlying attitude that needs challenging and it needs challenging hard precisely because their arguments seem so plausible, yet are very corrosive.
Firstly, there is an underlying lack of trust in God. By offering to follow Jesus only after they've cared for their family, they are implying that Jesus wouldn't look after their family for them. They're keeping the care of family out of the realm of Jesus' kingdom. I have not the slightest doubt that if they'd simply offered to follow Jesus, the first thing he would have done was to send them to say goodbye to the folks at home - or to bury the poor man's father. But putting conditions on following God (even reasonable ones) is fundamentally wrong. It suggests that there are things God can't or won't do for you and not only is that pretty hurtful to God, it's pretty corrosive for us - it puts us in the place of God and places the onus on us to save ourselves by our own effort, something we're fundamentally incapable of doing.
So putting conditions on following Christ betrays an underlying lack of trust in God's good purposes for our lives and his power to provide us with all we need.
Secondly, their conditions betray an underlying attitude towards our service of God. It suggests that they think that God should be grateful with whatever we offer him. It's an attitude I see quite a lot (if I'm honest, it's an attitude I find in myself too). And it's easy to make it plausible. After all, if we're following God of our own freewill, surely we have the right to dictate terms - how much we follow him, where, when and how. And he ought to be grateful with whatever he gets. It's an attitude we see a lot in voluntary work when people feel that if they're giving something for free, they can throw their weight around and get what they want. And it's easy to apply that to our attitude to God too.
But if we're serving God, don't we need to ensure that what we're doing pleases him? I'm sure we've all received presents at times from people who give us something they don't want any more and they give you something rather dog-eared or just downright strange. Is that what our gifts to God are like? Or perhaps you've also had someone do you a good turn, but in such a way that you feel that you really owe someone big and you are now at their beck and call or else you'll always be damned for ingratitude. Is that how we want to serve God? It's easy to fall into that trap, but we must remember that if we're going to follow God, freewill or not, he's God and we owe him everything, so we must serve him on his terms - we can only do it by being obedient.
So putting terms on the way we serve God betrays that we consider ourselves higher than God and it turns our gift into an insult. We can only serve God on his terms. No-one who sets his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.
And thirdly, the response of these would-be disciples betrays complacency. The backdrop to this whole episode is that Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. People in the ancient world didn't travel much, but the Jewish people made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate their freedom. Each Passover they would gather at Jerusalem, the heart of the Promised Land, to re-tell the story of the Exodus, how God freed them from slavery in Egypt and set them free in the Promised Land.
But they were so evidently not free. For one thing, they were under Roman occupation, but also (as Jesus pointed out) they were under a far more profound slavery - a slavery to sin and complacency. So each year, this celebration of freedom had become a façade - a meaningless succession of words and actions that reminded them of the past and was strangely mystical, but which no longer had any meaning.
But this pilgrimage was going to be different. This pilgrimage was going to bring them genuine freedom - lasting freedom, eternal freedom and at a terrible cost, because Jesus was now on the road to the cross. Only through the Cross could Jesus take on the forces that so mar his beloved people and his beautiful creation; only through the Cross could Jesus come face to face with the consequences of their sin and complacency and overpower them so that his life could burst through. And only through the Cross could his beleaguered people learn what real love is.
Because real love cannot be complacent, it's not just about being nice or charitable, it cannot dictate terms. It can only be completely trusting, totally wholehearted, sacrificial - focussed on the other and providing their needs without attention to our own preferences or expecting anything in return. It can only be real - not hiding behind mantras, or repeated (but meaningless) words or rituals. Real love requires total commitment. And that was what Jesus was about to demonstrate in his total commitment to us.
And in comparison with that, even our best efforts at commitment are pretty pathetic. But if we are to come alive, if we are to be free, we have to love like he loves, even if it means leaving everything we thought was love behind - let the dead bury their own dead - follow him to leads us to true life without precondition or reserve, without trying to do deals or imposing terms, but with total trust, total adoration and total commitment and then we'll know what it really is to live and to love.
Preached:Cliburn & Crosby 27 June 2010 (also discussed at Thrimby)