There’s a difference between sharing the road with someone else and following somebody.
On my frequent trips up and down I-49 and US 165 and US 171, across I-20 and US 84, I share the road with scores of fellow travelers.
We each have our own, distinct destination. As long as we’re heading in the same direction, we’ll share the same road. But we part ways eventually. The point of the trip for each of us is to get where we want to go, not to drive along together.
Following is something else entirely, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But first I want to explain why I’ve raised the distinction between sharing the road and following in the first place.
In today’s Gospel, we hear that large crowds are traveling along with Jesus. (Luke 14:25-33) They are not following him. They’re walking along with him. And no wonder!
Jesus performs miracles. He makes the blind see and makes the lame walk. Leprous skin grows healthy and smooth at his touch. Lifelong ailments disappear at his command. Some have received these miracles and follow out of amazement or gratitude. Others hope for a miracle either for themselves or a loved ones. And maybe a few others just hope to catch a glimpse of something mind-blowing.
Jesus is an electrifying teacher. What he says and how he says it really connects. Some are comforted by his message of forgiveness and grace. Others are inspired by his vision of justice for the poor and the marginalized. Some may simply be dazzled by the intellectual puzzle his parables present.
Jesus seems to be heading toward their desired destination. They want healing or comfort or justice or spiritual knowledge. Jesus seems to be heading the right way to get to these things, and so the crowd walks along with him.
Now let’s examine the difference between walking along with someone and following.
Members of the crowd who are traveling the road with Jesus will part ways with him when he seems to diverge from the direction they feel comfortable with or when they have arrived at what they assume to be a suitable destination. Some in the crowd have no desire to travel unfamiliar roads or to leave comfortable surroundings.
By contrast, followers stick with Jesus wherever he goes. That’s because followers seek above all else to be in step with Jesus. And what Jesus knows–and what some in the crowd and even his chosen twelve are struggling to get their hearts and heads around–is that he walks a way radically different from the world’s way. And not only is that way unfamiliar, it will stretch everyone who follows it beyond their wildest dreams.
You see, Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. The crowds and the twelve have not quite figured out that Jesus is walking the way of the cross. It is not an easy way. And the way of the cross cannot be followed by chance. Jesus chooses the way of the cross. And any who will follow him must choose it as well.
Now don’t get the idea that Jesus condescends to his fellow travelers or despises them for their half-heartedness. Walking along with Jesus is what most of us do before we follow him. For that matter, following is something we choose daily, and we choose it imperfectly even then.
Nevertheless, following is Jesus’ call to us. And he wants us to understand what he would have us choose. He tells us we’ll have to hate our dearest loved ones, bear our cross, and kiss all of our possessions goodbye.
Let’s face it, Madison Avenue would ditch this ad campaign before it ever hit the media. It’s not just demanding. It’s repugnant. Why would anybody follow Jesus if that’s what it means to do so?
Well, let’s look at each in turn and see what following really means.
When Jesus says to hate our loved ones, he’s not teaching us to bear strong negative emotions toward family and friends. Instead, he says to love them properly. Each person in our lives is a gift. Our relationships enhance our lives, and our lives become meaningful when we seek to serve the people around us.
However, we destroy these relationships, and perhaps even the people we cherish, when we demand that those relationships play a role in our lives that only God can play.
No matter how much we love our spouse, our children, our parents, and our friends, their love for us or their achievements in life or their gratitude for what we’ve done for them cannot make our lives infinitely and eternally significant.
Asking another human being to make our life worthwhile is the surest formula to resenting that person for letting us down and destroying the relationship.
We often talk about bearing our cross, and what we mean by it has no resemblance to what Jesus had in mind. Many people refer to enduring suffering or loss or disappointment as bearing their cross. Jesus meant something else entirely.
Jesus suffered on the cross, certainly. But the point of bearing the cross is the redemption of the world. Jesus did not just throw his life away on the cross. He gave his life away for the sake of the life of the world.
To bear our cross is to approach life in a way radically different from the way the world teaches. In place of self-preservation and self-promotion, Jesus models giving our self away for the sake of others. Instead of asking, “What’s in it for me,” Jesus teaches us to ask, “What is the good I can do today in this corner of the universe I inhabit?”
And then Jesus hits us where it really hurts. Our possessions. One of our most cherished myths is that something is mine because I earned it. I get to keep it if I want to. But the basic truth is that everything is God’s. What we have, God has given.
God has given what we have for our enjoyment, but that is not the highest purpose of his generosity. He gives us what we have so that we may know the joy of giving it away for the purpose of God’s kingdom.
Our money is not our own. Our material possessions are not our own. Our very lives are not our own. God gives all of this to us for a season, one day to give it all back. And in the meantime, we practice giving it all back to him by giving it away each day for the sake of God’s kingdom.
It may be tempting to think that Jesus is drawing a distinction between the true insiders and the mere pretenders, the true believers and the half-hearted hypocrites. But that would be contrary to the core of Jesus’ message.
Jesus has come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom where insider and outsider, top of the heap and bottom of the pile no longer exist.
To that end, Jesus is not identifying a new elite and casting everyone else into the outer darkness. On the contrary, the message is that we all have deeper to go in our relationship with God in Christ.
From time to time, each of us asks someone or something to do for us what only God can really do. Or we put our own comfort ahead of what would be best for everyone else. Or, we try to get God to make our personal plans his top priority instead of surrendering ourselves to his vision for the Kingdom in which the blind see, the poor receive good news, and the lame walk.
Jesus doesn’t scold us or roll his eyes or write us off. He’s really neither surprised nor disappointed. He just keeps calling. Follow, he says. Follow me. This is the way of the Kingdom of God. The New Heaven and the New Earth. Where you will be a new creation.
This sermon was preached at Trinity, DeRidder.