Yesterday, when the Gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62) was read in church, I heard something that I didn't notice during the week leading up to Sunday. That happens a lot, and, when it does, it feels like the Holy Spirit is inviting me to pay more careful attention. It was the story of Jesus interacting with would-be disciples and holding up to them a standard of urgency that none was ready to accept. One who volunteered to follow received a discouraging response from Jesus: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head." The other two would-be followers have family matters that demand their attention, and, at first glance, it seems like Jesus dismisses them as unworthy of his ministry.
But, as the Gospel lesson was being read, I noticed what Jesus actually says to them: "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" and "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Even if Jesus questioned their commitment, in a way, he still invited them to pursue the kingdom of God. Rather than with a dismissal, another way to hear his words is with the invitation they contain: "You go proclaim the kingdom of God" and "Be fit for the kingdom of God."
This Sunday, in the next chapter of Luke, we will hear Jesus send out his disciples with some particular instructions:
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road...Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'That's not an easy commission. Jesus tells them to take only the bare minimum of what they need and trust that they will find everything else on the journey. They are to depend upon the generosity and faithfulness of those to whom they go. There's a level of trust and immediacy to that calling that not everyone can accept.
On the wall in the chapel of the seminary where I was formed for ordained ministry, a plaque commemorates those missionaries who left their homes to go overseas and died without ever returning home. As you might imagine, all of those titans of faithfulness were from the nineteenth or very early twentieth century. Missionaries don't live like that anymore. Partly, our understanding of mission and evangelism have changed, and partly the ease of international travel has grown, but along with those developments has come a change in how we commit to the work of the Gospel. We don't leave home expecting never to return. We don't set out underprepared. We don't give our whole lives--physically, financially, spiritually--to the work of proclaiming the kingdom of God.
For most of us (me included), answering Jesus call is easy. It comes with more reward than sacrifice. We say, "Lord, let me say farewell to my family" or "I need to be sure that I can take a year off to care for my dying parent," and Jesus says, "Sure, of course. Family is important. The work of the kingdom can wait." But that's not what we see in Luke 9, and maybe that's why discipleship doesn't look a lot like Luke 10. This week, before we marvel at the disciples' success and wonder how that fruitfulness could be indicative of our own ministry, let's remember what sort of commitment they made in the first place. Maybe the secret isn't really a secret after all.