Please pray for Roxana Tenea Teleman, who will be ordained deacon at Holy Trinity Brussels on Sunday, June 30. Roxana will have her first Sunday as our curate on July 7, when we will welcome her to both church communities.
I attended the Clergy Retreat organised by the Episcopal Church in Europe at the St Thomas Cultural Centre, Strasbourg. The programme was varied. We had presentations about clergy well-being and building church communities but the retreat principally gave me the opportunity to meet Bishop Mark Edington, the new bishop, and talk about the longstanding connection that Holy Trinity has with the Episcopal Church. We host their Convention (synod) in 2020.
Next Sunday’s gospel describes Jesus journeying through a Samaritan area. Since there was longstanding hostility between the Jews and Samaritans, it wasn’t surprising that Jesus’ disciples encountered rejection when they entered a village. They asked Jesus to let them command fire to come down from heaven and consume the villagers but Jesus dismissed their request.
Following this story, there are several examples of people asking Jesus what it costs to be a disciple:
One man offers to follow Jesus wherever he goes but Jesus warns him that his is a rootless life: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
To another Jesus simply says ‘Follow me.’ The man is willing but he asks that he may bury his father first. Jesus’ response is: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
The man’s request to bury his father will seem natural to us. From the story, it is not clear whether the father is dead or near death. It may be that the disciple is just asking, in an orthodox Jewish way, to take care of his parents in their old age (one of the Ten Commandments is to honour your parents).
There is also an allusion to Sunday’s Old Testament reading which describes Elisha ploughing with his oxen when Elijah called him to follow him. Elisha asked to be allowed to say goodbye to his parents first. Then, when he left to follow in Elijah, he slaughtered the oxen with which he had been ploughing and used their yoke and harness as fuel to cook the oxen for his neighbours to eat. He had burned his bridges to follow Elijah. He had killed the animals and destroyed the equipment that would be required for him to resume his old life, which meant that he couldn’t turn back.
Another enquirer responds in a similar vein, asking to say goodbye to his family. Jesus’ tells him that ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Jesus invites us to imagine a team of oxen or horses ahead of someone ploughing. To plough a straight furrow, you must look ahead and hold the plough firm to the ground. The moment you look behind, the pressure will be relieved from the plough and the furrow will become crooked – the mark of an amateur.
In contemporary terms, imagine someone driving a car and turning to look behind while they were driving along. Even on a road with no traffic, this would be dangerous. What Jesus is saying is that if anyone wants to follow him they must be single-minded and avoid distraction.
This was not an easy message in Jesus’s time. The Gospels tell us how Jesus’s disciples continually misunderstood him. Some of them – James and John – looked forward to enjoying worldly power with Jesus. All his disciples ran away after Jesus’ arrest; only the women remained faithful at the foot of the Cross.
Jesus’ message in each of these brief stories is that following him entails renouncing everything and everyone in your life.
This emphasis on following is at odds with that part of our religious tradition which sees Jesus as someone to worship and as someone who will protect us.
The well-known theologian Richard Rohr argues that the tension between following and worshipping Jesus is a fundamental one in our religious tradition.
He argues if we put worship of Jesus first, we will stress what we believe about him. This may lead us to stress whether someone has ‘right beliefs’ about Jesus. This will make us concerned about whether someone subscribes fully to the ‘right belief’, whether they are ‘inside’ the church or ‘outside’.
On the other hand, following entails movement and a willingness to change – the possibility of transformation, so that we become the people God calls us to be and change the world around us. This is the riskier and more costly choice.