When I was a 13 year old boy I discovered something about myself quite by accident that changed the direction of my life. I had always known, even as a young boy that I was a fast runner... a sprinter, or so I believed. Then one spring afternoon at a Carmel Jr. High verses Eastwood Jr. High track meet my coach, for some reason, had me run the half mile… 2 laps of the track. This was distance-runner territory to me and I started that race, shall I say, unwillingly. But in that one race I discovered that besides being pretty fast, I could also run pretty fast for a lot longer than I’d ever imagined. My stunning victory that afternoon changed my life and my identity: I became a distance runner. Now, I was never a ‘great’ runner but what I learned right away was that the pathway to becoming even a good distance runner was simple and clear… but… it was difficult. Being a serious distance runner demanded strengthening your body, eating well and getting rest, but, most importantly you needed to run and run and run and run. I’m certain that there were many others my age who had the innate talent to become good or even great distance runners but the simple and clear yet difficult nature of the journey to success kept most from even trying. I tell you this because many things in life are simple and clear: the directions, the process, the means to the accomplishment of a goal are easy to explain and make a lot of sense. They are simple and clear… but the doing is difficult. And possibly one of the simplest and clearest yet difficult of all calls in life is Jesus’ call to everyone to, ‘Follow me.’ It was simple and clear yet difficult when he walked the earth during the first century and it is still a simple and clear yet difficult call to us today. But it is a journey that is worth every moment of difficulty… and I can say with great confidence at this stage of my life that it is a deeply rewarding and important journey… far more so than was my journey to being a distance runner.
Now, right off the bat I think it’s important for us to know that Jesus calling anyone to be his disciple went against the protocol of the way things worked in the 1st Century Jewish world. Rabbis, and that word simply means ‘teacher,’ never called their own disciples. Young men would request to follow a particular rabbi and then the rabbi either gave them permission or refused them the right to follow them. Jesus, though, offered his disciples the opportunity to follow him even though this was unheard of in his day. He chose them; they did not choose him. And his call to them was simple and clear: He simply said, ‘Follow me.’ Now, what he meant by this simple call was, ‘Follow me in every aspect of life: go where I go… learn to do as I do and to think as I think… nothing more but nothing less.’ And as we will see, though this call to follow Jesus seems simple and clear actually following Jesus was difficult. There is a passage in Luke’s gospel, Luke 9:57-62 Page ????, that shows us just how difficult following Jesus was and still is… Let’s all turn to this passage and if you need a house Bible at Grace Fishers just raise your hand and one will be given to you. “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Each of the three vignettes in this passage would have had a crystal-clear meaning to first century readers… they would have understood exactly what Jesus was saying… but time has clouded these meanings… so here is a bit of background.
In the first vignette a man says to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ It’s unclear if Jesus had called this man, but it is clear that this man wanted Jesus to know he was serious about following him… Jesus was a traveling teacher… he walked from village to village preaching in synagogues and town centers everywhere and this man was saying, ‘I will go with you anywhere… I am that serious!’ Jesus wanted him to know what he was really getting into and so he said, ‘Foxes have dens; birds have nests.’ Foxes were considered to be shifty and dangerous animals. There was nothing cute or endearing about a fox in the ancient world; they were one of the farmer’s greatest troublemakers. Birds, on the other hand, were held in high regard as one of the most amazing yet, fragile and vulnerable of all creatures. They were highly admired. Foxes and birds represented the opposite ends of the animal kingdom ‘lovability’ spectrum, if you will. And yet, Jesus said, ‘They both have homes. But I don’t have a place to lay my head.’ The meaning of this would have been clear: he was saying he was homeless. Now, even though 1st Century Judea and Galilee were poor places, homelessness was almost unheard because the family system was so tight knit that it was almost impossible for someone to become homeless. One person’s homelessness would have brought shame on the entire rest of that person’s family. It was an expected duty to make certain that no one in a family was ever in danger of not having a roof over their head. Jesus was telling this man that if he seriously followed him, he wouldn’t have a place to lay his head either; in other words, no place to call home. He, too would have to live his life trusting in other’s generosity and God’s provision… and he may even shame his family in the process. Evil foxes and gentle birds both have homes yet following Jesus, traveling with him, learning how to live your life from him and listening to him as he teaches could mean losing an aspect of life that gave most people their identity: having a home. It was almost unimaginable. The Bible doesn’t tell us how the man responded, but I’m sure it gave him pause… yes, rabbis did often ask hard things of their followers to make sure they were serious about following them, but putting themselves into homelessness wasn’t one of those things. Following Jesus seemed simple and clear… so much so that this man said he would follow Jesus anywhere… but it turned out to be very difficult!
The second man was called by Jesus directly and his response, ‘Lord, please let me first go and bury my father,’ seems reasonable. People often wonder how Jesus could have been so unfeeling. What is with this, ‘Let the dead bury the dead?’ But there are cultural factors to consider. First, any man whose father had just died would not have been anywhere near a rabbi looking for an opportunity to become his disciple. We know far too much about a son’s responsibilities for this man’s father to have just died… not the least of which is that it was important to get any dead person buried within hours! There would have been way too much to do as a son in the hours after his father’s death to be out listening to a rabbi. So, this leaves us with two possibilities: first, his father wasn’t yet dead which would have meant he was elderly or sick and the son was expecting him to die soon but he wasn’t sure when. What he wanted was permission to wait until he’d died and been buried before he followed Jesus… which could have been who knows how long. Or second, and much more likely, his father had died some time ago. You see when people died they were quickly wrapped up in cloth and placed in a tomb, an enclosed cave really, and then left there to rot for one year. After the first anniversary of the death, the bones were then gathered up and placed in a small stone box called an ossuary and that box was either buried or placed in a space in a wall. This man’s response could have meant he was asking for up to almost a year until he actually took the step to follow Jesus. Jesus’ cryptic response has been debated for centuries: ‘Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of heaven.’ I’m very confident that what Jesus was saying to this man was this: ‘If you actually have the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven and you want to be a part of traveling with me to share that good news, then it is far more important that you spend your time spreading that good news with me than waiting to deal with the bones of someone who has been dead for a year, even if it is your father. Let those whose lives center around that sort of task do that work; to follow me means your life centering around spreading life-giving, good news to the living.’ The call was simple and clear: follow me. But it was difficult to do: it meant going against the expectations of those around you… it might even make you look like a bad son… but Jesus says, ‘Your reputation should mean nothing to you if you are my disciple.’
The third man seems to have responded positively to Jesus’ call and his request to go home to say goodbye to his family also seems reasonable. In fact, there was even a Biblical precedent for him doing just this! His reply to Jesus is almost a direct quote from the Old Testament story of the call the prophet Elisha by the older prophet Elijah. Let me read what happened, ‘Elijah went straight out and found Elisha son of Shaphat in a field where there were twelve pairs of yoked oxen at work plowing; Elisha was in charge of the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak over him.Elisha deserted the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please! Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye—then I’ll follow you.” “Go ahead,” said Elijah, “but, mind you, don’t forget what I’ve just done to you.” So Elisha left; he took his yoke of oxen and butchered them. He made a fire with the plow and tackle and then boiled the meat—a true farewell meal for the family. Then he left and followed Elijah, becoming his right-hand man.’ (I Kings 19:19-21). What this man requested of Jesus was exactly what Elisha requested AND what Elijah let him do: return to his parents to tell his family goodbye. If Elijah gave Elisha permission to do this why wouldn’t Jesus? But Jesus wanted this man to remember that there was a second half to this Elisha story… the part about Elisha killing his oxen and burning his yoke… proof that he was leaving everything behind to follow God’s call… And Jesus was saying that the decision to follow him was more important that Elisha’s decision to follow Elijah. It meant an even deeper resolve to never look back and to keep moving forward even if that meant offending your parents. Now, that was difficult!
In all three of these cases there were cultural expectations that no one would have wanted to ignore: no one wanted to bring shame on their family; no one wanted to be known as a son who didn’t follow through on his responsibilities during the season of his father’s death; no one wanted to be known as a child that showed their parents dishonor. (And by the way, many rabbis of the day taught that honoring one’s parents was the most important of the 10 commandments). These were all really important to everyone in Jesus’ day and yet Jesus was saying ‘These expectations all pale in light of following me. The call is simple and clear but the following will be difficult.’
And to be honest, things really haven’t changed all that much when it comes to expectations clouding our ability to follow Jesus. The details have changed, but I know from my own life that we are still often overwhelmed by the expectations that come with being a parent or an employer or an employee… the things that everyone around us just expects us to be doing and these expectations can still keep us from fully following Jesus. Parents are expected to give their children the greatest possible opportunities to reach their potential whether that be in sports or music or whatever their interests might be; we all know this. I certainly do. Our three children were all swimmers and the demands of their schedules overwhelmed our lives for more than a decade. And as I look back I can see that the time for something like seriously following Jesus often just disappeared as I went from here to there trying to meet the all of the expectations of being a good swim parent. And the same often goes for work life… work, too, often comes with expectations that leave little time or space for something as important as having the time to seriously follow Jesus. I get this, too. I ran my own business for 13 years and it was often an all-consuming project that I often allowed to overwhelm every other priority in my life. Everyone would have understood a son’s desire to bury his father; Jesus says, ‘Think again.’ Everyone would have understood saying goodbye to the family before you head off to a new life; Jesus says, ‘Think again.’ And now, I often wonder how many times there have been and still are moments in my life when Jesus would say, ‘Think again.’ I think this would be a good time for all of us… together… to back up the bus, look at our lives and see if there is anything going on where Jesus might be saying, ‘Think again.’ Finding the will and the discipline to prioritize our lives is always going to be difficult, especially when we are being continually bombarded by the expectations of the world around us, but it is the difficult task that we all will have to do if we are going to seriously follow Jesus.
So, to be dead honest, the first difficult aspect of following Jesus, especially if you are going to be a part of our Way of Discipleship… if you are going to be meeting regularly with one person to either lead them as you follow Jesus or follow them as they follow Jesus and together learn the 11 practices of an ordinary disciple of Jesus… the first difficulty is going to be finding the time to meet… setting new priorities… priorities that actually carry weight. In every survey we’ve taken about how the Way of Discipleship is going for the over 500 people we currently have in discipleship relationships we’ve found that the number one difficulty is finding the time to meet regularly. For some reason, getting two people together for an hour or so on a regular basis is just plain hard. But even as simple as prioritizing a space once every two or three weeks seems like it should be, there are always things that compete for priority: time is the first difficulty. I just wanted to get that out there because it is a frustration for everyone.
I could talk a lot about other simple and clear aspects of the Way of Discipleship that that turn out to be difficult to live out… surrendering our lives to Jesus and trusting him to lead and care for us sounds simple enough but it can be really difficult to do. I met with someone in a discipleship relationship that said at the beginning of our time together that he couldn’t think of any areas in his life where he hadn’t already figured things out. He felt like he’d surrendered his life to Jesus but he couldn’t think of any areas where he needed to trust Jesus for much, or so it seemed, since he’d been working all of his life to get the systems organized to make life work well for him. There was some difficult work needed there. Or there is the aspect of living a life of moral integrity; this one seems clear and simple enough… But even so, as clear as this can seem and as simple as it is to say to someone else, ‘Just stop it!’ when it is something burning in our own hearts, and I know this from my own life, things can get very difficult. Overcoming moral difficulties is an ongoing, lifetime project. Jesus’ moral requirements are simple and clear but they are difficult. Or there is the practice of studying God’s word. And let’s be honest, you’d think that anyone that seriously claims to be a disciple of Jesus would want to know as much as they can about Jesus and the primary source for knowing about him is the Bible. And yet, finding the time and the will to study the Bible keeps a lot of people from even but occasionally cracking the Bible open. I understand these difficulties… and in the discipling relationships that I’ve had with others we’ve spent a lot of time coming to grips with these difficult aspects of following Jesus… and can I just say, boy, has the difficult work been worth it! Over the last three years I have seen great life transformation. Sin patterns have been defeated; the Bible has come alive; I’ve seen one person finally come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have the right to condescend to anyone… that every life matters…. And these are huge changes! Now, we would all say that we are supposed to have moral integrity and love the Bible and treat others with dignity… those things seem patently obvious… clearly they are aspects of following Jesus. But through the Way of Discipleship I’ve had the privilege walking with others and doing the hard, difficult work of putting these clear characteristics of a follower of Jesus into practice. And in the process my life has been transformed as well. I am a different person because of my time discipling others. When I think about the possibilities that are in the future for these men as they begin to lead others I can’t help but get excited. When I think of the way that we could exponentially be changing lives and the world through the Way of Discipleship I can’t help but get excited. When I think about the possibility of everyone at Grace having a clear understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus, I can’t help but get excited. I know that the way of discipleship is simple and clear… you can figure out pretty easily what Jesus is asking of you. I also know that living out what Jesus asks of us is difficult but I have found that as we run this race together we can do the difficult and in the process Jesus will change our lives… he will make us people who are focused on him and his mission of changing the world.