Luke 9:51–62 51When the days were approaching for him to be taken up, Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem. 52He sent messengers ahead of him. They went and entered a Samaritan village to make preparations for him. 53But the people did not welcome him, because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”
55But he turned and rebuked them. “You don’t know what kind of spirit is influencing you. 56For the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s souls, but to save them.” Then they went to another village.
57As they went on the way, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59He said to another man, “Follow me!”
But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60Jesus told him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61Another man also said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those at my home.”
62Jesus told him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Two weeks ago, I finally brought my road bike out of the garage after getting flats in both tires last fall. Since repairing the tires, I have logged about 200 miles in the past two weeks. I’m working to get in shape for a one-day 100-mile bike ride in August. My other goal is to log 2000 miles by December 31st.
For me to reach my goal means being faithful - no days off. It means being committed – biking at least 11 miles a day. It means being dedicated – biking in wind, rain, heat and cold. Biking in Wisconsin is hard where our two seasons are 9 months of winter followed by 3 months of road construction.
It is the same for a high school athlete who wants to earn a scholarship to a D-1 university. The athlete needs to put in the time in the weight room, the soccer pitch, the basketball court or the driving range.
It is the same for a student studying at college or the electrician learning his trade or the teacher preparing her classroom. There are long hours, lots of studying, foregoing vacations, getting to work on time, staying late, etc.
You cannot succeed unless you are driven, faithful, dedicated and committed. If that’s true for biking, athletics, studies or career, it is even more true for our discipleship as Christians.
St. Luke reports: “When the days were approaching for him to be taken up, Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). After his transfiguration on the mountain, Jesus is walking along the road to Jerusalem to die on the cross for the salvation of sinners. He is unwavering in his goal. Along the way Jesus meets some men who wish to join his group of disciples. This is exciting! In a very short time, Jesus is going to be sending out his seventy-two disciples (Luke 10:1). He could always use a few more.
As Jesus is walking along the road with his current disciples, a man walks up to him and says, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Luke 9:58). Jesus always initiated the call to discipleship. Remarkably, the Gospels never tell us about anyone offering to follow Jesus and then successfully becoming a disciple. Jesus always confronts their self-confidence.
Jesus does that again. Jesus says to the man, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
The man has made a bold promise to follow Jesus wherever he goes. No hardship will be too difficult. No sacrifice will be too great. Does this man know where he is promising to go with Jesus? Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem – where he will be arrested, beaten, scourged and crucified.
Jesus lovingly warns the would-be disciple that foxes and birds have more than the Son of Man does on earth. There are no comfy pillows or air-conditioned rooms. Following Jesus means constantly being on the move, being uncomfortable, treasuring heavenly things more than earthly things, giving up a home and regular family life to be a dedicated disciple of Jesus.
As he is walking, Jesus sees another man and invites him, “Follow me!” But this man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Luke 9:59). That sounds like a perfectly reasonable reply.
Jesus responds to the man’s excuse, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). That sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? Yet, in their Jewish culture, if the man’s father had just died, this son would be at the funeral, not on the road talking to Jesus. The Jews buried their dead within 24 hours. If the father had died, the son would have been busy making funeral plans.
What the man was probably saying to Jesus was, “Lord, I appreciate the invitation, but let me go take care of my family obligations first. You know, like my elderly father dying someday. Then, when the funeral is over, I will be right there proclaiming your kingdom.”
This man put his family responsibilities first and sharing his Savior second. Proclaiming the kingdom of God must have top priority. God can never take second place. As important as earthly responsibilities are, they can never take precedence over being a dedicated disciple of Jesus. Service to Christ requires our whole-hearted obedience and our undivided attention.
Burial is not Jesus’ concern. Resurrection is. Jesus is not in the burying business. He is in the business of confronting death and removing saints from their graves. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem where death will meet its match. There the Lord of life will die … and bring about the destruction of death.
A third would-be disciple offers, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). A simple goodbye. What could be wrong with that? Maybe a little going-away party. Jesus looks into this man’s heart and sees his desire to see his family is stronger than his desire to serve the Lord. As sanctified as his answer is, Jesus understands it as an excuse not to follow Jesus right away.
Jesus uses a farming analogy, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Any farmer will tell you that you cannot plow straight if you are looking over your shoulder. You cannot move forward correctly if you are constantly pining for the past. You cannot follow Jesus if you are distracted by what’s going on around you. Being a dedicated disciple means always putting service to Christ even over service to those within our family.
These three would-be disciples handed in their discipleship applications to Jesus. But, sadly, all three have something that holds them back. There is something that keeps them from dedicated discipleship.
What about you?
Are you ready to put in the long hours it takes to study the Bible – at church, at home, with your family?
Are you willing to stop binge watching TV to put your children to bed with a kiss, a Bible story and a prayer?
Are you content to put your projects at home aside for a time so projects in your church home can be completed?
Are you comfortable standing up for your Christianity while everyone else around you is sitting down?
Are you devoted to worshiping your Savior every single worship service and not just when it is convenient for you?
Are you enthusiastic to be a committed Christian, not just one hour a week in church or from 4 to 9 pm while your kids are home or from 9 to 5 when you are at work, but all the time, every moment, 24/7?
Are you passionate about being a dedicated disciple of Christ?
Jesus gives some tough words to these would-be disciples. These are difficult words for us lukewarm disciples. Jesus means serious business. His words are urgent. They are hard, edgy, and demanding. His claim on our discipleship is radical. It is all or nothing. No halfway disciples. No compromises. No misplaced priorities.
Remember, Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem to the cross. This was radical! The Son of God dying for sinners! It was all or nothing. It meant either salvation or damnation for us. Jesus could not go halfway. He could not compromise. We were his priority!
You might be able to ride your bike 100 miles or pull an all-nighter studying or put in long hours working in sweltering heat. You can make yourself dedicated, committed and faithful. But you can’t do that with Christianity. You will always falter. You will always fall. You will always fail.
The only way that you are willing to take your cross to follow Jesus is because Jesus has already gone to the cross for you. His salvation is your motivation. His cross is your catalyst. His propitiation is your provocation. His resurrection is your reason for action.
To follow Jesus means to go to the cross with him. To lose your life to let Jesus save it. To become least to receive Jesus’ greatness. To admit your weakness to receive Jesus’ righteousness. To give up everything to receive everything from Jesus. To die in order to really live.
We are not asking Jesus if we can follow him. He extends his discipleship invitation to us. By the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we accept his gracious invitation. We take up our crosses daily and follow him (Luke 9:23).
One way we visibly show that we are following Jesus’ cross is by physically following Jesus’ cross. We lift high our processional cross in our festival services like Epiphany, Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, Reformation, Christ the King and Christmas Day. With our eyes, we follow the cross from the back to the front of the church. This represents everything Jesus tells us would-be disciples - Jesus wants us to lay everything and everyone else aside, keep our eyes fixed on his cross and follow him through life, into death, and into life eternal.
There are probably many churches today that do not have a processional cross. Maybe that’s because they don’t know its history. Processions were used in the earliest days of Christian worship for practical reasons – the pastors and choir members needed a way to get from the back to the front of the church. There were no sacristies in those days where the pastor could just walk out by the altar. It was very practical then for ministers of the gospel to enter the church in a procession. They would follow a raised cross on a pole – a processional cross.
Processional crosses were used in Christian churches hundreds of years before crosses were ever placed on altars.
A processional cross is either an empty cross or a crucifix with the corpus or body of Christ on it. The cross is affixed to a pole and raised in procession into and out of the sanctuary.
Epiphany first used our processional cross 9 years ago for the Festival of Pentecost. Our cross was made specifically for Epiphany to match our oak woodwork, yet it was stained a little lighter to still stand out. The cross is made of oak, bloodwood, canary wood and curly maple. The nimbus or halo around the cross is reminiscent of the ancient Celtic cross and symbolizes eternity. The Celtic cross I wear around my neck matches our processional cross. The design of the corpus or body of Christ surrounded by the asymmetrical mosaic symbolizes how Jesus was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The mosaic looks broken because we are whole in Christ.
The cross is placed next to the pulpit where the sermon is preached as a reminder that “Christ crucified” is the central message of all Christian teaching (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Again, practically speaking, churches today have sacristies, so they do not need to lift a cross in processional to enter the sanctuary. Yet there is deep symbolism in the processional cross. As we “Lift High the Cross” and see it carried through the assembly and into the chancel, it teaches that we can approach the altar of God in worship only through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (1 John 2:1-2). Martin Luther College where our WELS teachers and pre-seminary students are taught and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary where our pastors are trained each have a processional cross for festival worship.
We are determined to take up our crosses to follow Christ who was determined to go to Jerusalem to the cross. May the processional cross remind us to set everything else aside, make Christ’s kingdom a priority, and look only ahead to Jesus so that he may make us determined disciples. Amen.