Rob Bell’s former church Mars Hill hosted an art show featuring paintings, poems, and sculptures about peacemaking. Among the works was one that featured a quote by Mahatma Ghandi.
One of the show’s visitors attached this note to that work: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” (Rob Bell, Love Wins, p. 1)
Ghandi’s fame arose in part from his advocacy of non-violence, a principle adopted by our own Martin Luther King in the struggle for racial equality. Ghandi insisted on the dignity of every human being, even those who persecuted and oppressed him and his people. His political action and personal life embodied love and peace.
Ghandi was not a Christian. So, that note-writing visitor to the Mars Hill art exhibit assumed that God condemned Ghandi to hell.
You may not find this particularly jarring. But, I do. The eternal fate of non-Christians pushes me to ask some fundamental questions.
Who is God?
What does he require of us?
What happens when we don’t do what he requires?
Today’s Gospel addresses each of these questions, so let’s look at each in turn. (Luke 9:51-62)
The Determined God
The opening sentence of today’s Gospel passage provides the context for the story and also a key to understanding who God is. Luke writes, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51)
In Jerusalem, the Romans will torture and crucify Jesus. On the third day God will raise him from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection will reset the default of the entire creation. A new era will begin.
The suffering, death, and decay of the fall will linger for a season, but their reign is receding. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus begins to answer the very prayer he teaches us to pray. The kingdom is coming to earth as it is in heaven. Eternal life is displacing death. God is transforming the fallen creation into the new heaven and the new earth.
Commentaries often say that Jesus goes to Jerusalem to lay down his life for us. In a manner of speaking, this is perfectly true. He will give himself to his executioners in Jerusalem.
But in another manner of speaking, Jesus has already laid down his life on the road to Jerusalem. He has already completely devoted his life to God’s mission. He has set his face on Jerusalem. He is determined and will not be turned aside by anything.
God is a determined. His mission is to restore his creation. Nothing we do or say will distract him from his purpose or prevent him from accomplishing his objective.
God is advancing his kingdom relentlessly. He is making peace between himself and his people. He is making peace among his people. No more sickness, violence, or deprivation. No more suffering or persecution.
The toxic social logic of insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots will vanish. Love will reign. Peace and joy will be love’s fruit.
God is determined.
The Demanding God
Since God is so determined, what does he require of us? That may be a jarring question for some of us. We are accustomed to hearing that God loves us just the way we are.
That’s true. God loves us just the way we are. That’s precisely why he requires so much of us. That’s the flip side of God’s relentless insistence upon his mission. He requires our whole lives.
He is not content with a half-hearted, on again, off-again relationship. Nothing less than our whole being will do. God is infinitely demanding.
He says to one potential disciple, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) In other words, follow Jesus because you want to be with Jesus, not because he happens to know the best way to your chosen destination.
If we’re following Jesus just because it will give us a happy marriage, a successful career, physical health, inner tranquility, or even eternal life, we’re saying that we would drop him like a hot potato if we happened to find a more attractive guide to these things.
Another disciple agrees to follow Jesus. He just wants to bury his dead father first. Burying your dead father is a good thing. And yet, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” (Luke 9:60)
God demands that we make our relationship with him our top priority. It is not enough to give up bad things for God. Our greatest temptations don’t generally come in evil packages. I am not tempted to rob a bank, cheat on my wife, or shoot people who cut me off in traffic.
But something like the well-being of my children is a different matter. I am so committed to my daughter and my sons that I have to take care not to make their happiness or success my idol.
Finally, a third recruit signs on to follow Jesus, but he just wants to say goodbye to the folks back home before he goes. That’s when Jesus delivers one of his most memorable lines. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
Following Jesus is more than one of the many activities with which we fill our time. That’s how many of us approach it. We want to be balanced. So much exercise. So much leisure time. So much family time. So much Jesus time (or church time, as some narrowly define it).
Our relationship with God is not something for which we need to carve out an adequate amount of time. God demands that we organize our entire life–our universe–as a function of our relationship with him.
The Merciful God
God is infinitely demanding. He requires every corner of our hearts and minds, every movement of our hands and feet. What happens when we fall short of what he requires? What happens to people who don’t follow Jesus in the way that Jesus is teaching us?
By now it has probably occurred to you that Ghandi is not alone in facing the question. And it’s not just atheists or nonbelievers of every stripe who join him in facing that question. It’s you and me and every human being who has ever set their feet on the path following Jesus.
None of us follow Jesus in the way that God demands. Even the best and most spiritually mature among us forget God from time to time.
We let our love of comfort or desire for status prevent us from being radically generous or from speaking up about injustice or from welcoming strangers into our worshipping community.
We hold a grudge or greet a friend’s good fortune with envy.
We just get swept away by the ceaseless demands of our job or our kids or our aging parents or the social calendar we have built for ourselves.
So what does God do about all of this half-hearted discipleship? Remember that Jesus brings the Good News, not the Good Rules for Discipleship. Our discipleship does not save us. We are disciples of the one who saves us. And he saves us precisely because we cannot save ourselves.
God is merciful. That’s the lesson we draw from Jesus’ response to the Samaritans who refused to follow him. James and John wanted to rain fire down on them. Jesus would have none of it. (Luke 9:52-55) He came to redeem and save, not to condemn and destroy.
When we follow Jesus we’re just letting ourselves be his very own work in progress. All that God really requires of us is to let his relationship with us do what he intends for it to do. And he is doing nothing less than making us a new creation one step at a time.
This sermon was preached at Trinity, Crowley.