Wrestling with the "Hard Gospel"

Blessed be the Name of God

It’s easy to forget how very hard the gospel of Jesus really is.  It seems to be Luke’s particular mission and responsibility to remind us of the complexity of life in Christ.

The passage from Luke’s gospel that we have just heard marks a central moment in the story that Luke has to tell. We are only half way through Luke’s account, but we have reached a crucial—perhaps the crucial—turning point. In stark, memorable language, Luke tells of Jesus’ firm resolve: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” [9.51] These words, hard, spark like flint! “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And so Jesus begins his journey south, from Galilee, where he has been, to Jerusalem in the south.  And, as Luke has already made clear, Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem: the death to which he is called and whatever it is that God has in mind beyond that. Jesus knows of his impending death, and he knows of the constancy of God. He undertakes his faithful journey to that end.

Luke knows what’s ahead of Jesus. He knows of the glorious resurrection that awaits, after the agony of the cross. He knows what will be asked of the followers of Jesus, what will be asked of their faith, and what will be asked of their lives. So, here, in this first set of stories after Jesus “set his face”—after he committed himself to this complicated, torturous, and eventually triumphant future—right away, Luke gives us glimpses of what Jesus will expect, and how very difficult, even severe, the true gospel really is.

First, we have the sojourn into Samaria. Given the ancient animosity between Jews and Samaritans, it comes as no surprise that the villagers there did not receive Jesus and his people in welcome. Samaritans simply did not welcome Jews, whoever they may be and whatever claims they or their disciples might make.

What catches our attention is not that Jesus and his followers were not welcome.  What we notice is the question put to Jesus by James and John. In the face of the predictable and completely to be expected inhospitality of the Samaritans, these two hotheads ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus refers to these two lads as “Sons of Thunder,” and obviously with good reason. It is clear that these two struggled mightily with turning the other cheek!

To their foolish question, Jesus says, “No thanks,” and he rebukes them. So they press on.

In the next set of verses in Luke’s account, Jesus encounters folks like us, you and me.  Well-meaning folks, earnest in our intent but finally not clear about the immediacy of Jesus’ call, not clear about what we are really buying into.

When Jesus invites folks like us to tag along, we typically say “yes” but with some other something or other to see to first. “Let me go bury my father.” “Let me say farewell to those in my home.”

To the one Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and to the other, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Harsh words, painful to hear. Not words we want, but there they are. The hard gospel.

Let me tell you a story. I went to seminary in 1964. My seminary was Bexley Hall, then the Divinity School of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. The first year of seminary is full of challenges and unsettling times. I had married in 1963, and my new wife and I had settled into this very small central Ohio town. 

Then something happened. I can’t quite reconstruct the circumstances but somehow or the other, my classmates and I got caught up in one of Luke’s hard passages, one in which Jesus is heard to suggest that one must leave father and mother, sister and brother, wife and children in order to be a faithful follower (Lk 18.29). I had doubtless heard this passage before, but on those earlier occasions, I had let it pass by without so much as a blink.

This time, in my first year of school, I blinked. I don’t know if it was because I was freshly married or what, but this perspective, this ‘hard gospel’ stuff, set me spinning. I went for a walk and spent much of the day walking, rather purposefully, through the village and the countryside, puzzling over what had crept into my consciousness. I didn’t like it at all. My problem was that even in hours of walking, I could not walk away for this very difficult message.

Somehow or the other, I got myself back together, went back to class, did my studies, got ordained, served in parishes, taught in several seminaries, and here I am with you this morning... still completely unreconciled to this “hard gospel.”

But, if unreconciled, I am wiser for my puzzlement, wiser in this way. I am absolutely certain that people who suggest that life with Christ is easy, gentle, or comfortable have not paid attention. If they imagine that inviting Christ into one’s life will make things swell, I want to tell them, “Read the fine print!” If you can’t acknowledge the hard gospel, then you have not got the entire story, you have not got the message right. Jesus, here this morning, tells us what “following” means. To someone who said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus snapped, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  “Following” means restlessness, not being settled, not being “at ease.”

I’d sooner this was easier, more simple, more easily done, more comfortable, but to tell you so would be to deceive you. This hard gospel is just that. And no broad smile or hug will make it otherwise.

Were it not for the immeasurable grace of God, and the enduring presence of Christ, we simply could not tolerate these expectations. Our capacity for failure, our inclination to weakness and distraction, would surely send us to no good end, were it not for God’s generosity and acceptance of us, frail as we are. But that acceptance does not mitigate the claims and expectation of the hard gospel. God’s loving kindness does not remove the difficulty. It’s simply that the loving kindness of God is the larger context in which we struggle to be faithful.

So, here is my strategy.

In the literature that came from the young Christian community, there is a treatise called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It is dated from the late first or early second century, contemporary with many of the writings of the New Testament. It is usually identified by its Greek name, The Didache, meaning “the teaching.” This treatise proved very influential to later generations.  It has certainly been influential with me.

The Didache contains two sections. The first is a catechism, intending to tell the reader about “the Two Ways”: the way of life and the way of death. The wise reader, obviously, will follow the way of life.

The second part of the treatise is given over to telling the reader how to do certain sacramental activities, Eucharist and baptism in particular. As a teacher of liturgical studies for countless years, I have used this section very often. But what is of use at the moment is the verse that separates these two sections.

Now, interesting as all this is, why am I telling you this? Because this is where I have found aid in coping with the demands of the hard gospel.

In Chapter 6, verse 2, we read, “If you can bear the Lord’s full yoke, you will be perfect. But if you cannot, then do what you can” (Richardson, In Early Christian Fathers, 174). Isn’t that good news! If you cannot bear the Lord’s full yoke, that is, if you cannot be perfect in obedience and response, then do what you can. Oh my, what a wonderful word! It has saved my spiritual life over and over again, and I offer it to you, hopeful of the same result.

 

 

The hard gospel will not go away. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does in fact say to the young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19.21). Earlier in Luke, and also in Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who will lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9.23-24, Mt 16.24-25, Mk 8.34-35). In Luke 12, Jesus seems to go completely off his nut:  “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:  father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in law against her daughter in law, and daughter in law against mother in law” (Luke 12.52-53). This is our Jesus, our Lord, the One to whom we have pledged ourselves.

Mix these passages together and all the others of the same sort and kind, and we have quite a difficult meal to eat, much less digest. It’s really hard stuff! Only fools would imagine otherwise.

So I give you the wisdom of the writer of The Didache: “If you can bear the Lord’s full yoke, you will be perfect, but if you cannot, then do what you can.” If you set that good counsel alongside the promise that Paul gives us near the end of his letter to the Romans, it will make you strong. Paul writes, “…I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8. 37-39).

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him there. He has invited us to come with him and to share his tragic and triumphant future. To you and to me, I say, in the face of the demands of the hard gospel, as faithfully as possible, do what you can, confident in the constancy and faithfulness of God.

Blessed be the Name of God.