One of the most memorable and relatable prayers from the early church comes from St. Augustine: “God, give me chastity and self-restraint… but not yet.”
You may know something of St. Augustine’s story. Born in North Africa in the year 354, a man of extraordinary intellect, a person of considerable scholarly reputation early in adulthood, he was also a man of strong appetites, shall we say. Augustine loved loving women.
Augustine converted to Christianity at the age of 32. But even before becoming a Christian, Augustine knew he needed to overcome his struggle with sexual lust, what he called a “madness” within himself. In his later classic spiritual memoir, Confessions, Augustine recounts this period in his earlier adulthood. He was led to pray this heartfelt, famous, and frankly humorous prayer: “God, give me chastity and self-restraint… but not yet.”
Don’t we all know well the gap between discerning the right thing and having the desire to do it? Don’t we all know well the gap between good intentions and ready obedience? St. Paul confesses his own participation in this universal human struggle in Romans 7: “I can will what is right but I cannot do it.”
I wonder if our gospel reading today may help us examine this gap, and in this examination not only to find better resolve but, more importantly, Good News.
The Gospel According to Luke has an uncomplicated narrative structure. The first part of the gospel centers around the birth story of Jesus. The second part is about Jesus’ Galilean ministry. This is the part where we are introduced to the adult Jesus: his teachings and healings, performing miracles, calling disciples.
Now on this Sunday, we are launched into the third major part of Luke’s gospel, what commentators call “the Travel Narrative,” the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified.
Our gospel reading today in chapter 9 is an abrupt transition. Our attention is shifted away from Galilee – a pleasant and fertile land of agricultural villages like Nazareth and fishing towns like Capernaum. Today’s gospel shifts our attention to Jerusalem, the city whose name means “peace” but, in reality, is a strife-torn place under Roman occupation, a hot cauldron simmering with political tension, social unrest, religious feuding and, of course, blood sacrifices. As we shall see, it is easier to be a Galilean Christian than a Jerusalem Christian.
Luke says, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” What kind of expression is this – to set one’s face? I think there is here a sense of steely, steadfast resolve, an unflinching determination, a kind of “nothing can stop me now from this course” meaning.
Also, to set one’s face is about direction, it’s about orientation. We travel in the direction we are facing. “Jesus resolutely set his course on Jerusalem.” Again, there is a kind of clenched, dead-set focus.
We rarely talk this way ourselves. We don’t walk out of the house in the morning and say to our spouse, “I have set my face to go to the office.” (“Expecting a rough day, are you?”) We don’t “set our face” to go shop at the mall… unless it’s December, I suppose. And I hope we don’t have to screw up intense resolve and say, “I set my face to go to church this Sunday.”
“When the days grew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It certainly sounds like this will be a hard and costly journey.
Right away Jesus has these three odd encounters with unnamed characters. One stranger says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” You’d think Jesus would say, “Great! Come along then.” No. Jesus answers obscurely, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There will be no creature comforts of hearth and home on this journey.
Then another encounter with a stranger who says, “I’m coming, but I have an important family duty to perform first: let me go and bury my father.” You would think Jesus would say, “I am so sorry about your loss. Of course, have your father’s funeral, and then come follow me.” No. Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” In essence he says, “I am your first and highest calling, even over family.”
And then a third encounter, “I will follow, but first let me say farewell to my household.” “Of course! Go home, say your goodbyes.” No. Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Discipleship is a resolute commitment to face where Christ is facing, to look where he is looking, to go where he is going. No looking back.
All three of these would-be disciples of Jesus have their own version of St. Augustine’s prayer on their lips, “O Lord, help me to follow you to Jerusalem… but not yet.”
I think it is quite important for us to note something in the gospel text today. Discipleship is not set over against bad or evil things. Discipleship is set over against good things. What do I mean? It is not the case that Jesus says to a man on the way to Jerusalem, “Follow me,” and the man responds, “No thank you, sir. I prefer to continue walking in my sin. I wish to remain on the road to ruin.” None of these three persons refused to follow because they don’t believe or because they don’t want to do so. It’s just that they just have other commitments. And they are good commitments: to family, to loved ones, to livelihood…
Do we really think Jesus believes making funeral arrangements for a father is a bad thing? Of course not. This is hyperbole. But his recorded response speaks a vital truth. His call upon our lives is no halfway commitment. We cannot follow Christ in only a corner of our lives. “Yes, Lord. But can it wait? Can I slot you in later once I get some other important matters off my very full plate?”
There are only lives committed to Christ and lives not yet committed fully to Christ. Yikes! What if that is true? Who can save us from our uneven commitment? Where is hope for our dithering discipleship?
A simple familiarity with the gospels shows that Jesus says much harder and more challenging things to us religious and well-intentioned people than he does to notorious sinners and outcasts. I believe that is because Jesus loves us too much not to be brutally honest with us.
And for the likes of people who desire to be good, like most of us listening to this right now, the road to Jerusalem is not usually blocked by outright rejection or sinful scheming. It is blocked by our other loves, mostly good loves too: family, livelihood, career, social acceptance, long-term security, hobbies and recreational interests, even loving our membership in the church more than our personal relationship with Jesus. We all have our list.
So, what would it look like to be all in? If I am honest, I have to say that earlier in my preaching ministry I would have all too eagerly provided a list of things for half-hearted Christians to do right here. You know, read your Bibles, go to church more regularly, learn to pray more often and sincerely, increase your giving to the church, get involved in a missions project. All good things - essential things even. I am an absolute believer in the necessity of spiritual disciplines on the path to sanctification.
But with more age and experience – and hopefully more wisdom – I have come to appreciate all the more the depth of that gap, at least in my own life! The gap between my efforts and God’s grace. I cannot close it. Indeed, the gift of my spiritual disciplines is actually, I think, to expose the gap and turn me again and again to the grace of Christ who alone bridges it.
Here’s the catch – and the great good news: the first and most important step on the road to Jerusalem is to cast our eyes on him who walked it when we were unwilling. The first step to being all in is to focus our gaze on the One who really was all in for our sakes, to enter into contemplation of Jesus whose steps always go before us and never turn back.
Commitment to the Christian life begins with Christ’s commitment to us. If we start anywhere else, our commitment will stumble out of the gate, leading to unsustainable works righteousness or a lifeless partial discipleship.
Right now in our world, it is hard to get through a daily news cycle without cynicism or despair, some new reason for outrage or alarm. And as events and people far away and close to home show us, there are many alternative ideological commitments out there competing for our loyalty that do not lead anywhere near Jerusalem. So much of the world has its face set in other directions.
Our way is a hard way, the cruciform way of Jesus. And whether the world knows it or not, the world would love to see what that way really looks like. So, when self-professed Christians are not as committed in their lives as they are on their lips, it’s not just that the world does not see the gospel. The world may suspect that we don’t believe it either.
So, back to the problem of the gap.
Our great struggle may not be active resistance to the call of the Christian life. It may be instead a kind of vague torpor, an unwanted apathy. We can try to shake it by trying harder, but that way never fully succeeds until we turn again to the one who does succeed in winning our liberation, our true freedom, irreplaceable grace.
May God turn our face to the one who set his face to Jerusalem. And as we watch him go, can we see what he was willing to do for us who waver? Might watching Jesus on his way open a way for ourselves to trust that if God ever truly gets his way with us, we will indeed be blessed beyond measure. “Yes, but not yet.” Or “Yes, and how about now, Lord Jesus?”