Jesus says “Follow me. Don’t look back”

The sermon I preached today at Wylde Green URC. The text was from Luke 9:57-62

Jesus says “Follow me. Don’t look back”

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen

Our reading from Luke is a difficult passage to preach on without feeling something of a hypocrite. It’s about how Jesus calls us to a discipleship not of prosperity and privilege, but service and sacrifice. It’s a hard part of the bible to read because it’s very easy to feel that we are not following Jesus very well at all. At face value, it’s not exactly one of the comforting passages of the bible.

The passage gives three examples of people offering to, or being invited by Jesus, to follow him. All of them are firmly though gently put down. The first man unequivocally says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus doesn’t turn him down but his reply is a bit of a letdown; “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lie down and rest.”

We don’t know what Jesus saw in the man that made him give this warning. At the very least Jesus seems to feel that the man doesn’t really know what he’s letting himself in for. What Jesus knows, and we know, but the man doesn’t, is that Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and Jerusalem means death on the cross.

Jesus has been setting his face towards Jerusalem from before birth. For Jesus, who existed before the world began; being born on earth at all was an act of humility and trust in his Father in Heaven. It would have been an act of amazing humility even if he had been born in a palace, let alone in a stable to parents soon to become refugees.

We don’t know what Jesus saw in the man’s heart, but at the time Jesus’ star seemed to be rising, and nobody but Jesus himself knew that it was going to end in the humiliation of the cross. Palm Sunday was closer that Good Friday, and much like James and John asking if they could sit at Jesus side, the man probably saw good times ahead if he stayed close to Jesus. Jesus knew better what those times were going to be like.

The second man is asked by Jesus to follow him, and he doesn’t say no, but replies “First let me bury my father.” It’s not clear if the father is already dead, but he probably wasn’t. Jewish custom is to bury bodies within the day, before they begin to decompose. It’s more likely that the son meant, “Let me care for my parents in their old age, and then, when they are dead, I will follow you.” If we take the second man’s statement at face value, rather than as a convenient excuse, it is a noble sentiment, embodying the commandment to honour your parents. For Jesus though this is not enough; “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God”.

The third man also makes what appears to be a reasonable appeal. “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go and say good-bye to my family.” Something is lost in translation here. The word translated here as “say good bye” is translated elsewhere as “take leave of”. The point being that that the person taking his leave is asking for the blessing and permission of those he is leaving behind. Presumably in this case his parents or elder brothers. Most parents would be inclined to refuse permission for their sons to leave home and follow an impoverished travelling holy man, and it might have been that this lack of permission is what the young man was banking on.

There is a parallel here with the story in our Old Testament reading about Elijah calling Elisha to follow him. When he is called Elisha asks to say good bye to his parents. It’s not clear from the reading whether Elijah says he can or not. Elijah actually says “Go back again, for what have I done to you”, which is more than a little obscure.

What is clear from the story is that Elisha burnt his plough and harness and slaughtered the oxen that pulled them. He was absolutely committed to following his master Elijah, and there was no going back. This story would be well known to Jesus’ listeners. This was the point that Jesus was trying to make also, because he too uses a ploughing analogy. “Anyone who starts to plough and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.

Using a plough was skilled work. You had to keep one hand tightly on the oxen’s reins, one hand firmly on the plough, and your eyes fixed on some immovable point in the distance in order to plough a straight line. A modern analogy might be, “You can’t drive a car in a straight line if you are always looking over your shoulder.”

Jesus’ response shows that he expects the young man to give him, Jesus, priority over even his family obligations, an almost unthinkable requirement. A dutiful Jewish son does not put anyone above his father – except God. That is the point of course. Jesus acts by Gods authority; he is the fixed and immovable point upon which we fix our eyes.

So how do we respond to these stories?

Well firstly, I think, by accepting them at face value. Jesus means what he says; there is nothing more important than following him by announcing God’s kingdom, without turning round and without looking back.

All those things which are important to us, our families, our jobs, and our freedom must come second to this. In a sense it is harder for us than it was for the people in the bible passage. They thought Jesus was going onto Jerusalem to take power. We know what he knew, that he was going to Jerusalem to die a slow, humiliating death on the cross. If we follow Jesus that is where the path winds, by way of the cross, because that is where Jesus first went.

It might not be the big cross of giving up our lives, at least not here in Western Europe. But as Christians we face many other crosses, points where we have to choose which path to follow, the one which follows the world or the one which follows Jesus.

Life has a habit of throwing up these moments, and perhaps Christians today face challenges that they didn’t face until recently. There have been a number of high profile cases over the last few years that have highlighted this. The GP who talked to a patient about his faith and faced being struck off. The nurse who offered to pray for a patient and was suspended. The housing association van driver who was told to take down the palm cross he kept in his van, and was threatened with disciplinary action when he refused. The homelessness prevention officer in London who was suspended and later sacked for gross misconduct for suggesting to an incurably ill client that medicine hadn’t got all the answers, and asking if she had tried putting her faith in God. The supply teacher who was sacked from her job for offering to pray for a sick pupil.

Some of these were later reinstated, but not until after months of anguish. Others were not. Christians can and do risk losing their jobs, or their freedom or even their lives every day. “Follow me, don’t look back” says Jesus.

Secondly, having recognised that Jesus is entirely serious about putting him first, we can recognise how amazingly gentle and patient he is. The bible is full of people called by God who try and excuse themselves with excuses not dissimilar to the ones produced here. Many, if not all, of the giants of our faith, first offered excuses before accepted God’s call, and frequently stumbled afterwards.

Moses protested, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Gideon pleaded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family“. Jeremiah protested, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Isaiah said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…!” Peter denied Christ three times, Thomas refused to believe until he saw the scars of the nails in Jesus’ hands. Paul first hated what Jesus stood for, persecuted his followers and was complicit in their murder.

All these giants first declined to follow God, or looked back, yet God was gentle with them, let them pick themselves up and then follow him anyway. We don’t know what happened to the three people challenged to follow Jesus. Did they follow him or did they stumble and fall away? We don’t know. We do know that if they turned back to Jesus he would forgive them, because he forgave people far worse. More than forgiven he would have rejoiced with them.

The verse “Anyone who starts to plough and then looks back is of no use to the kingdom of God” has worried a lot of people over the years. I think it’s because it’s easy to misinterpret it as Jesus rejecting the man who wanted to say goodbye to his parents. Jesus didn’t reject any of the men in this passage, and this isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. Firstly he isn’t referring to people who look back once, or even several times, or even many times. He says “anyone who keeps looking back” anyone who continues to look back, is in the habit of looking back, who is locked into the behaviour of looking back.

Secondly, he doesn’t say they are excluded from the Kingdom of God, he says “is of no use for the Kingdom of God” It’s about effectiveness not exclusion. People who keep looking back rather than following Jesus aren’t any good at proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

So why do we look back? Well sometimes it’s because we look on the things of the world with envy, we regret the things we think we’ve left behind for God. But Jesus tells us that these things have no value separate from God anyway. “What good will it do someone, if they gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul.”

Other times it’s because we’re locked in regrets for things we’ve done, or that have been done to us, or by grief, or by the consequences of decisions we’ve made in the past. Jesus says “Don’t look back, follow me”, and through looking at Jesus and following him we can put things into perspective.

I look back with some embarrassment at my failure to work for my A levels, resulting in my failure to pass any at all. I went into nursing, which you didn’t need A levels for at the time. I got a degree later but ended up going back into nursing. I can’t imagine having more fulfilment doing any other job, or the sense that God is with me as I do it. “Don’t look back” says Jesus, “Follow me

Bad marriages can lead to beautiful and much loved children. Surviving dreadful things can lead to closer empathy for the pain of others. We can learn to let go of our lost loved ones. We can learn to forgive ourselves for our past sins and mistakes as we learn how ready Jesus is to forgive us. And having learnt this we can begin to lead others to Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy, and that is proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Follow me” says Jesus, “Don’t look back”.

Let us pray.

Lord, wherever we are in our faith journey, your call to follow you is a challenge. Help us to keep our eyes fixed firmly on you, in Jesus name.


Sermon on Acts 16:6-16

I’ve just preached my third sermon, at South Aston United Reformed Church. I wasn’t particularly happy with the sermon’s end, but as a whole it was kindly received. One of the problems with Christians is that generally they’re terribly nice and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Anyway, I’m posting it here for posterity. Constructive criticism is appreciated.

When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. Acts 16:10

The story we heard in our second reading is the story of the first missionary journey to Europe, resulting in the first recorded Christian conversion here. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke were in Troas on the western coast of modern Turkey. They had travelled through what’s now central Turkey. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (not the whole of the continent; Asia was a roman province), and not permitted by the Spirit of Jesus to preach in Bithynia, another Roman province just south of Asia. However a vision appeared to Paul in Troas beseeching the help of the evangelists in Macedonia. Having set sail they made a straight course to Samothrace and ended up in Philippi, where the bible tells us that Lydia became a Christian, the first convert in continental Europe. She was baptised with her household, and invited the evangelists to stay in her house.

The bible doesn’t specifically mention the evangelists praying, but it’s impossible not to imagine them not doing so. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke were undoubtedly seeking the Lord’s will in their endeavour and presumably praying that God would guide them in all they did. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit had forbidden them to speak the word in Asia, and that the Spirit of Jesus had prohibited them from preaching in Bithynia. How did they know this? It’s possible that it was simply too difficult to preach the word there through force of circumstance. For example It was the habit of Paul and the evangelists to seek out the local synagogues where they would meet local Jews and God fearing gentiles; non Jews who had come to share the Jews belief in one, all powerful God. But this practice could be very dangerous as Paul knew more than most. There was often great hostility to the new Christians sharing the good news about Jesus. As an unconverted man in Jerusalem Paul had witnessed the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and had approved. It might have been hostility such as this that had closed the door to their preaching in Asia and Bithynia. There might also have been a shared sense that preaching there was wrong; that they sensed God just didn’t want them to do so.

I wonder if the evangelists were baffled or disconcerted by this lack of opportunity to preach the gospel; after all they were sacrificing and risking much to do what they thought was God’s will, not just their personal safety, but their opportunity for earning their own living and having a settled family life. I wonder if we have all been here in some way, wanting to do something for God, and finding we just don’t have the opportunity, or that doors which we thought would be open to us seemed firmly closed.

And yet in Troas the Lord took matters into his own hands. Paul had a vision, a clear sign that God had a plan for him and his companions. The door was opened, a ship chartered, the bible uses the lovely phrase they “ran a straight course” to Samothrace, and then to Neapolis and then to Philippi, in Macedonia. Not only was the door to where they should travel opened, but the opportunity to share the good news was presented too. Within a short time they were meeting with Jewish worshipers and God fearing gentiles. This wasn’t a hostile congregation they approached, though probably very small. Shortly Lydia had come to faith; the first of many converts in Europe.

Can we identify with this at all? Admittedly we aren’t St Paul, and most of us don’t feel called to be evangelists, but as a church we are aware that we are called to tell people about the love of Jesus and to proclaim the kingdom of God and as individuals we often feel we should do more to achieve this. Is there anything we can learn from this passage?

Lets look more closely at verse 10, which I think is the key verse in this passage. “When Paul had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” [repeat] “When Paul had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

When Paul had seen the vision we immediately, we immediately The evangelists had been waiting on God to reply to their prayers. Now the bible doesn’t specifically say that they were praying, but I don’t think it needs to. It doesn’t say that they ate either, but I’m sure they did. There are lots of biblical references to Paul’s commitment to prayer, but perhaps the most appropriate is “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” It’s appropriate because it’s the opening to the letter he wrote to the Philippians themselves a few years later. If he prayed with such devotion after they were converted, do we not think he prayed with equal devotion about where he might go before he was sent to them?

So Paul and the others were praying and Paul had a vision, and when he had that vision, we immediately. You see they were waiting expectantly for their prayers to be answered and when they were, they acted. Do we pray expectantly for God to answer our prayers? It depends really. If we are praying for a critically ill loved one then we can pray pretty intently. If we are praying for someone we haven’t even met, then it’s much harder so. But evangelism begins with prayer and a willingness to hear God’s answers.

“When Paul had the vision we immediately”. We can fall into the trap of seeing ourselves alone trying to do God’s work. Sometimes it’s because we are embarrassed, because we think we will look stupid, or mad. We look at ourselves and say I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t talk to people at work about my faith. They have seen how mean I can be. This issue is too big for me to do anything about. But it isn’t I and me. Even Paul, great missionary evangelist of the early church, worked as part of a group and a pretty equal group at that. “We immediately”, “we, being convinced”, “God had called us”. We are called as a church to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, not as individuals. We do it as a group, and we meet here in church, and outside, as a group because as a group we are stronger than we are as individuals. Jesus tells us; “when two or three people are gathered together in my name I will be with you”. We need each other.

Thirdly; “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia”. So far the early church had been largely confined to the very eastern Mediterranean, centred on Jerusalem. Paul and his companions had been trying to preach, unsuccessfully, in the area around western Turkey. Instead God tells them to travel further west, to Macedonia, and they recognised that. Now the evangelists could have decided that their lack of success in Asia and Bithynia was a result of their own lack of faith, that if only they prayed harder, or were braver or trusted God more then they’d make the breakthrough there. But that wasn’t where God wanted them. It’s at least possible that Asia and Bithynia were closed to the evangelists due to hostility and hardness of heart there. Instead Paul and his companions travelled where people were hungry for God, and where, on this occasion, there was little or no hostility. God has his own plans and we need to be open to them. Paul and the other evangelists were close enough to God to appreciate this.

Fourthly, “..being convinced that God had called us”. Elsewhere Paul was to say, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus our lord.” Paul and his companions trusted in God, they were not working for themselves. God had called them to proclaim the good news to the Macedonians, and Paul and his companions were confident of that fact. Not only are we not alone as individuals, but are part of a group, so also are we not alone as humans, but are with God. God calls us to proclaim the good news just as later it was God, rather than Paul, who opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. Be confident that if God has called us to evangelise he will equip us to do his work for him.

Finally, “God called us to proclaim the good news to them”. Brothers and sisters; it’s good news we’re called to proclaim not bad news. I’m a nurse. It’s a long time since I worked on the wards but when I did I would sit with doctors as they, as gently as possible, broke bad news about the death of loved ones to their relatives. Its been many years but I will always remember what it is to see the light of hope go out in someones eyes. That’s bad news. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It’s the story of a a god who loves the human race, a God who sent Jesus into the world to save sinners, who, through love, died a miserable lonely death on the cross to do so, who offers forgiveness for wrongs done, reconciliation between God and mankind, and between neighbours, who values and seeks justice and who has proclaimed a new kingdom. A saviour who hung on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” and told a dying criminal hanging next to him, “Tonight you will be with me in paradise”, and meant it. This is the good news that we are called to proclaim.

I’m not sure how to finish this sermon, except by saying that I’m the same as most people and find the thought of being involved in doing evangelism very hard. It’s almost as scary as doing children’s talks, which for me s the gold standard of scariness. It has helped me to work through what Paul and the evangelists experienced, and it’s worth recapping this; expectant prayer, supporting each other as a group, being prepared for something slightly unexpected, being confident that God had called them to what they were doing, and being joyful in the goodness of the news they were proclaiming, but there is one final observation. It’s not us who bring people to faith and into the new kingdom. Paul spoke words, but it was the Holy Spirit who convicted Lydia.

Many years ago when I became a Christian, my best friend Phil and I struggled to maintain our friendship. Phil wasn’t a Christian. It was probably largely my fault, I was young, fiery and probably more than a little judgemental, but our friendship was important to both of us and we got through it. I remember praying very vigorously that Phil might come to see what I had come to see about Jesus, but after a while we stopped talking about God because it was divisive, and I stopped praying for Phil because, well, because I did. Probably because Phil seemed so far from faith that I thought it wasn’t worth it. Last year out of the blue Phil phoned me that he had started going to church. His daughter, Hannah, had a school friend who had invited her to go and Phil had gone with Hannah. He had done an alpha course, and over a period of several months had become a Christian. You see it’s God who convicts people of their need for him, and he’s capable of doing without our help.

Location:Birmingham,United Kingdom

The National Memorial Arboretum

Yesterday my wife and I visited the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. I first visited it two years ago, when my wife and I were first courting. I was struck then by the juxtaposition of old and contemporary; of remembrance for those long since fallen, but still mourned, and those still paying the supreme sacrifice today.

Alongside memorials to units which have already passed into history; the WRNS, the ATS, the Royal Green Jackets, are memorials to the fallen of particular industries (for example the Post Office), often with accompanying displays explaining the roles they played in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. Old memorials from factories and offices now defunct and demolished have been relocated to it’s garden. There was a memorial to the fallen at my old school, closed since the early 1980s. I’ve often wondered what happened to it; it would have been wonderful if such a place as this had existed then. How many other memorials were just consigned to skips as junk.

The trees at the arboretum are still young; saplings mostly and the memorial has the air of something unfinished. In a few years as the trees mature it will look splendid, but not yet. It’s one of the reasons I intend to visit annually. However the most striking thing is the central memorial. The names of the fallen since the second world war are listed there, listed by year of death and by service. It’s updated annually; 2009s fallen are already inscribed, and the ground beneath bears cards and wreaths from grieving parents, wives and children, their pain barely mitigated by profound pride.

The Salisbury Way

In 2004 I started a blog called The Salisbury Pages, which I maintained briefly before realizing that writing an essay every day wasn’t a good way to relax, besides, I turned out to be a lot less clever, or funny, than I’d thought. More recently it has occurred to me that it would be useful to have somewhere to pop my occasional rants; if only to stop me posting them on facebook and alienating my friends. Unfortunately I can’t remember my login details for The Salisbury Pages, so I’ve had to start a new one; I’ve also discovered WordPress.

I’ve used the Salisbury name again because I’ve a soft spot for Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister twice in the late nineteenth century. To summarize him (badly) he believed it was the duty of government to do as little as possible, because whatever governments tried to do they invariably got wrong.

It’s a philosophy I’ve embraced enthusiastically, to the annoyance of my wife and work colleagues. However I can’t help feeling that the country would be a better place if twenty first century prime ministers had embraced the philosophy as keenly.