“Don’t Look Back”

Luke 9

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

These days, a funeral is often not called by that name. Instead, when a person dies, his mourners hold a “celebration of life.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with recognizing someone’s achievements after they’re gone. Such commemorations can be inspiring for the living. Seeing all the good that the deceased person accomplished can make you want to do good, too.

But it’s not clear what Jesus would say about the way these services focus only on the life of the deceased. Today’s Gospel gives us several sayings of Jesus that imply that Christians shouldn’t just think of the past.

For example, in one episode in the lesson, Jesus invites a bystander to join his group of disciples. The man asks if he can first go to bury his father. Jesus replies: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Christ’s answer seems rather harsh. Surely Jesus could spare this new disciple for a few days while the man attends his father’s burial? Surely the man could put off his commitment to join Christ’s new religious movement for a few days?

My own interpretation of the text depends on the verses that follow in St. Luke’s Gospel. In those verses, another prospective disciple asks if he might simply say goodbye to his family before joining Christ’s traveling group. Jesus replies: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Christ seems to be saying that the first concern of his followers should be God’s Kingdom. Nothing should diminish this commitment. It’s all right to be devoted to your family—but the Kingdom of God still comes first.

Thus the man who wanted to attend his father’s funeral seemed to be denying his higher duty to follow Christ. Faced with his pledge to act on behalf of the future God has planned, family obligations come second.

The last text in the lesson makes the point most clearly: however drawn we might be to the past, we are meant above all to serve the future: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

These texts show the weighty implications of faith. For example, the texts may give us a different perspective on what some Christians call “family values.”

Families are undoubtedly supported by Christian tradition. We are commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures to honor our fathers and our mothers. The New Testament says that, when Jesus was dying on the Cross, he asked his disciple John to care for his own mother.

But family values aren’t ultimate, because even the best human families aren’t perfect. In fact, the Old Testament illustrates this imperfection by presenting many dysfunctional families—beginning with Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who murdered his brother and including the numerous sons of Hebrew kings who tried to take power from their fathers.

Even Christ’s own family didn’t always function smoothly. At one point, Jesus “rebuked” his mother; another time, he ignored her cautionary advice. On still another occasion, the family of Jesus was annoyed with his preaching.

These texts don’t deny the worth of our blood relations. Indeed, if families weren’t important, their frailties wouldn’t matter. But the Bible reminds us of the limits to be placed on our devotion to family.

There’s a second message that emerges from these texts, and it’s related to the first one. The relatives we’re born with aren’t ultimate because nothing in the past is as important as our future link to God’s Kingdom.

Some of you attended a debate we held last month in a local bar. I admit that having the event in a bar was something of a gimmick! We could have considered the same issues in our assembly hall; we chose the bar because we thought it would seem less “churchy” and therefore might attract a different crowd.

However, the topic debated was genuinely fundamental to Christian interests. The proposition we considered was: “Resolved: The Anglican Communion is too progressive.”

I argued that the proposition is correct, while the former Archbishop of Australia took the position that Anglicanism isn’t too progressive.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I thought my arguments were better! But I have to agree that the Archbishop was right about a point that he made at the very beginning of the debate.

He claimed that it is of the essence of Christianity that it always looks forward.

We believe that Jesus came to earth to begin to establish God’s realm of peace and justice. So we are always looking for signs of the Kingdom. And speaking of family values, many of us feel, for example, that the movement for gay equality is a sign of the Kingdom.

And we also believe that it’s our duty as Christ’s followers to be agents of change who further that process. No wonder that at every service we have in the church, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”

This is why Jesus says that his disciples aren’t supposed to “look back.” After all, by definition, progress comes in the future, not the past!

So we can’t rest on our merits; we can’t bask in the accomplishments of previous generations of Christians—we may think, for instance, of Christian abolitionists and other advocates for human rights. It is the duty of our generation to work for God’s Kingdom in the days and years ahead.

But I think that the Archbishop would agree that we don’t only look for progress. After all, Jesus also told us that we do sometimes need to look back.

Christian funerals often include the Eucharist. And the communion service centers on two commands made by Christ himself. The commands are to eat the bread and to drink the wine. And when we eat and drink, we are to act, Jesus said, “in remembrance.”

In this case, it is fine to recall the past. Remembering the grace of God in Christ helps us to face the present, and it prepares us to work for God’s future in Christ’s name.

For that matter, this look back to the life of Christ is also a “celebration of life.” For when we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate Christ’s life.

We enter that divine life—that was shared with us, from ages past—and nourishes us as we advance into the future that is God’s.

And now unto that same God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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