Jesus met people as he walked from place to place. Some were ill and needed his healing, some wanted to follow him as disciples. All were treated as individuals. In the service on Thursday I looked at three encounters with wouldbe disciples as Jesus walked away from a Samaritan village which refused to welcome him. The readings were Psalm 138, Joshua 4:1-5:1, Luke 9:51-end.
The internet is a really good place for encounters, isn’t it? SL is particularly good as there is just so much of it. You can wander randomly and see who you find, or you can search for a particular type of place. Alternatively you can just go back to the same place each time. You are near enough guaranteed to find someone interesting to talk to. Some people tell you lots about themselves straight away, some are more careful about personal details. Whichever is the case, conversations are usually good though arguments are not unknown of course. Whoever you talk to, you can often learn something new.
The Bible is a story about people of course and is full of encounters, some good and some not so good. There were family reunions, alliances between nations, battles and treaties. Not only are there encounters between different people but also between people and God. God spoke to people in different ways, whether it be through a burning bush or a still small voice, and drew them into relationship with him. Some accepted his invitation and some rejected it, preferring to run their lives their own way.
Joshua had been Moses’ right hand man and seems to have heard God very clearly. He had no hesitation in getting his people ready to cross the Jordan when God had promised to allow them to cross on dry land. It all happened as God had said. In the passage we heard today, the nation crossed over and then erected a monument so that no one might forget that encounter with the power of God, who drove back the waters of the Jordan to let his people enter the Promised Land.
Once Jesus had come to earth as a human being, encounters with God were less unusual in nature. They happened in the everyday of life, at the market, on the shore, in the temple, on the country roads, in the crowded streets of the city. Unlike our usual modes of transport nowadays which cocoon us in metal containers, the walking that took Jesus where he wanted to go brought him into contact with all sorts of people.
In the Gospel reading there is the story of the encounter that never really got off the ground. It seems that Jesus had every intention of going into the Samaritan village to bring them the Good News. He carefully prepared for this by sending his disciples there first but despite his preparations he was rejected and had to move on. The story says it was because he was heading for Jerusalem. The Samaritans didn’t believe that Jerusalem was where God should be worshipped. This problem didn’t seem to stand in the way of another Samaritan place though. When Jesus had arrived at the town of Sychar and sat by the well, the woman there at least listened to him, though she was surprised that he talked to her. She too disputed with him about where God should be worshipped, saying it should be on the mountain there. By being open to what Jesus had to say, that woman who had such a bad reputation that she didn’t dare come to the well in the cool of the day with the other women, became a very successful evangelist for her people. Many people believed in Jesus as a result of what she said, but sadly that was not the case in the village in this passage from Luke. The people there missed the opportunity to respond to Jesus, perhaps because their minds were closed, or maybe because they didn’t know their need of him.
After that disappointment, Luke tells of three other encounters which happened on the road as Jesus and his disciples travelled towards another village. First of all someone came up to Jesus, seemingly determined to follow him. We’re not told where the person came from or what had inspired him to want to follow Jesus but he seems pretty sure in his own mind. You come across people like this, don’t you; they hear about something new and immediately want to be involved with barely a thought about the implications. Jesus adds a touch of reality to this rush of enthusiasm. ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ The lifestyle of an itinerant preacher is not comfortable. It might involve hungry stomachs at the end of the day and sleeping under the stars. Like Jesus, any follower would not be at home in this world any more. Jesus made it plain that anyone wanting to follow him should count the cost of discipleship. Later in Luke’s Gospel this is illustrated as a man calculating the cost of building a tower, or a king preparing for war and assessing his resources. Nowhere does it say that Jesus rejected the man’s enthusiasm; he just reminded him of what the outcome of his decision would be.
The second person that Jesus came across didn’t actually take the initiative. Jesus did with him as he had done with Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the other disciples. He simply said, ‘Follow me.’ In a situation which was rather the reverse of the first one, this man seemed very aware of the cost. He wanted to follow but first to see to his family responsibilities. It’s not clear if his father had already died or was simply old and therefore close to death. The chances are that the process of burying the father would have taken a year as the body was buried and then a year later the bones were transferred to an ossuary box. Long before the year was over, Jesus would have completed his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus sounds quite harsh telling the man to ‘leave the dead to bury their own dead’. What he was saying was that the spiritually dead could get on with burying the physically dead. This potential disciple was called to spiritual life if he chose to accept the invitation. Jesus would have been perfectly aware of family responsibilities and the need to honour parents. However, carrying out family responsibilities had to be out of obedience to Jesus, not as an excuse not to be obedient to him.
The third encounter was different again. This man seemed to have thought through the implications of following Jesus, to a certain extent. He was prepared to leave his family to do so, BUT. A disciple with a ‘but’ could not be thought of as fully committed. He was half-hearted in his discipleship. Following Jesus was going to be tough enough without having part of him still unsure about where his allegiance lay. This reminds me of the message to the church at Laodicea. They were accused of being neither cold nor hot, but merely lukewarm. Their fate was to be spat out of Jesus’ mouth. He could deal with hot or cold, but not something in between. Jesus’ used the illustration of a ploughman but we could easily use that of a person on a bike. While your eyes are looking in the direction you want to go, you take a straight path. If you start looking back over your shoulder you will go all over the place. The advantage with a bike is that, as long as no one notices that you stray for a while, you can nonchalantly carry on as if nothing happened. With a plough there is a record of where you went off course in the furrows left in the soil, which anyone can see.
Luke doesn’t tell us the outcome of these three encounters. We have no idea if any or all of the men chose to follow Jesus in the end. What we do know is that Jesus treated each one as an individual, responding to them according to their character and where their thoughts had got them to. He still does that today. I imagine if we were all to share our stories of how we came to be Christians, there would be some elements in common but lots of variations. What doesn’t vary is the need for commitment. However we get to the point of believing in Jesus, we need to be fully committed. Half- hearted belief just won’t do at all.