First Mennonite Church
August 9, 2020
Our Greatest Priority
There is a testing tool called “objective measurement” which is used by companies, businesses, and organizations to measure progress or lack thereof in what they do. This tool helps its users to know if changes are necessary and where these should take place. We know very well that accountability helps people to stay focused on goals and objectives. The office of the church Conference required all pastors to have an accountability plan each year. The plan included areas of personal growth and care, both spiritual and physical, family relations, finances, and the use of time.
But strictly speaking, is it possible to measure growth or progress in our relationship with Christ? As the years pass by, can we measure spiritual growth and commitment in following Christ? For example, can we say that the person who prays at least three times a day has an average relationship with Christ, but the person who prays five times or more a day has a closer relationship with the Lord? Is it possible to measure success or degrees of success in ministry? Is it possible or is it even wise to set personal goals or expectations on our Christian life?
The famous Catholic priest, converted caretaker for mentally ill patients, Henry Nouwen, warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile” to the faith “when years of hard work bear no fruit.”
Many people who are “disillusioned” by the church, as they put it, are likely the ones who had some kind of expectations about the churches they attended. “I expected the church to do this or that,” the complaint goes. “I though church people or the pastor would focus this or that activity, but I found nothing of the sort,” is the lament. These people expected some kind of a “payoff” when becoming part of the church.
Our passage this morning tells us the story of three would-be disciples of Jesus. It is most likely that these would-be disciples envisioned achieving something if they followed Christ on his earthly ministry. They not only had expectations regarding their decision to follow Christ, two of them also had personal plans they wanted to achieve before they joined. Therefore, the first would-be disciples volunteered, saying, “I will follow you wherever you go.” That sounds like a very good candidate for a follower. He was committing himself to follow “wherever” Jesus went. But from Jesus’ blunt reply, the man seemed not to know what he was talking about. Following Jesus meant, “Not having a place to lay the head.” It meant, trusting in God’s providence for the daily life. Following Jesus meant associating with someone who was going to die a shameful death and ending up in a group of people without leader to follow.
The second would-be disciple is one whom Jesus invited to follow him. But this one was not ready yet to follow. He asked Jesus to allow him first to bury his father. This seems like a reasonable request. In that time and culture, the responsibility to give a proper burial to ones parents was part of fulfilling the commandment to “honor your father and mother.” Yet, Jesus’ response seems quite harsh. He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Although there is significant debate about what Jesus meant by that, it would seem clear that the commitment to give priority to God’s Kingdom should trump all personal plans.
The third would-be disciple also volunteered to follow Jesus, but he asked permission to first go and say farewell to his family. Again, any responsible person would not want to engage in a major endeavor without at least notifying his or her family. In the Old Testament we read that Elijah allowed Elisha to go and say good-bye to his parents when Elijah chose him to be his disciple (1 Kings 19:19-21). But Jesus will have nothing of the sort. Echoing the incident with Elisha, he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Perhaps this would-be disciple was looking for some kind of recognition from his family for the fact that he was going to be a disciple of the Messiah. Or it could be that he knew his family would not agree with his plan. What seems clear is that all three would-be disciples decided not to follow Jesus in the end.
Jesus says, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Matthew 10:25). Every day, we should remind ourselves that above everything that we are, we are disciples of Jesus. But claiming that position brings to the fore the issue of our priorities in life. The problem with these would-be disciples is that they already had a plan for life. For the first is it seems to be his comfort and self-reliance. But Jesus reminds him that following him means depending on God’s providence. It means being rejected, just as he was rejected by the Samaritan because of his resolve to go to Jerusalem. The second would-be disciple also had a plan: to bury his father first and then he could obey the invitation Jesus made to him. Again to his one Jesus reminds that his disciples’ priority is the proclamation of the kingdom of God. The dead will take care of their dead, but the news of the gospel needs urgent proclamation. The third would be disciple also felt bound to his own family, thus he could not readily follow Jesus. To this third would-be disciple, loyalty to family was his priority. His response to Jesus’ invitation was quite a contrast to those of Peter, John, James, Matthew and Andrew who “immediately left everything and follow Jesus” (Matthew 4:20, 22).
Let’s not get it wrong, plans are very important and most times necessary not only for our daily lives but for life as a whole. We make a plan for the meals we eat. If we will eat something tomorrow that is frozen, we take it out the freezer to thaw overnight so it’s ready for cooking. As much as it is in our power, we also plan for the future. But planning or not planning has repercussion beyond this earthly life and into eternity. And that is where discipleship comes in. We are following Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, who showed us mercy, who forgives us, who loves us, even if it meant dying on the cross. Do all what he did for us have an impact on us? Has he made a visible difference in our lives? Has our commitment to him reorganized our priorities in life, making him number one? Or do we have plans we want to achieve before we could really commit to Jesus’ demands?
My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, one of the greatest difficulties we are having these days is the sense of having lost control over our lives. We used to go where we wanted and at the time we wanted to, whether to the store, restaurant, doctor, or to another town. These days we can barely leave the house and when we do we do it caution. The greatest benefit of planning is having control over the things we want to do, whether it is our meal or our future life. What Jesus was communicating to those who wanted to follow him and us he calls today is that following him demands relinquishing control. Jesus would become the all-consuming force that would absorb, mind, strength and soul. Committing to following Jesus is putting the hands on the plow and not turning back, not to say good bye nor to bury the dead.
Reflecting on the state of your life, my life, have our personal plans overtaken God’s priority for our lives? Have our well defined plans trumped God’s plans or has our commitment to Jesus trumped our plans for the sake of his kingdom? If we were honest with ourselves, we might find that much of what we do is the product of our own desires and wants. Much of what we do is the result of our effort to exercise control over our lives. But we should realize that despite everything we do, we are not and will never be in full control in our lives. It is an illusion to think we can be in control. When the unexpected happens, when illness comes, when our strength and life begin to decline, when there is loss, when a hundred other things dash our hopes and dreams, we are reminded that in the end we are not in control.
At the beginning of our passage we see Jesus’ resolve to go to Jerusalem. There he would face the greatest trial in his life, even to the point of praying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus did not have control over his life either. Even Jesus had to confront his own death, trusting that in the end the Father would vindicate his obedience, which the Father did.
Being a disciple means following Jesus’ bids. It means thrusting ourselves into the hands of God’s mercy, faithfulness, and promise that he will come to our final rescue. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Amen!
 Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality, 156