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Holy Lives: St. Irenaeus of Lyons

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, 30 June 2019
A Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS

Luke 9:51-62 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The Gospel of the Lord.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


Today’s gospel is the turning point in Luke. It is the beginning of what is generally known by Bible students as the travel narrative. The Lord Jesus sets His face to travel to Jerusalem where He will be crucified. Now, you will remember that the Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizim in the old northern kingdom of Israel, so, then, Jesus’ setting His face to go to Jerusalem, where Jews worship, causes the Samaritans to reject Him. There is about a thousand years of bad blood between Samaritans and Jews since Solomon inherited the throne of his father David. We could say more, but the key thing to note is the antipathy between Samaritans and Jews makes the legendary feud between the Hatfields and McCoys to be just a little dust up. Even though Jesus is the long-promised King from David’s family, the Samaritans reject Him because of an old feud.

So, then, the disciples, who frequently appear not to be the sharpest knives in the drawer, take this as an opportunity to show their love for Jesus by being willing to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans. You will remember that the prophet Elijah did that very thing in 2 Kings 1 not once but twice to the soldiers of the king whose capital was Samaria, and Elijah called for King Ahaziah to drop dead. He did, because Ahaziah called on help from Baal-Zebub instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Please note: the will to power is seductive, and the disciples find the thought of being able to destroy those who reject Jesus to be delicious.

Notice how simply Luke reports Jesus’ answer. He turned and rebuked them. It is not the mark of Christian discipleship to call for the destruction of those who reject Jesus. Judgment will come to all of us, and, at the end, our hope is not in our own righteousness but in Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The Lord God alone holds the power to destroy those who do not want His help. Jesus has an appointment with death in Jerusalem. He will take the wrath of God upon Himself.

Holding On

As Jesus keeps moving towards His death in Jerusalem, three different people could have followed Jesus, but they didn’t. They were holding on to their present lives and loves so tightly that they would not go with Jesus. In each instance, there is something or someone that stands in the way of following Jesus. These are illustrations of turning God’s gifts into idols. At issue is the first commandment: You shall have no other gods. There is great love in that commandment, because the people and things in our lives make lousy gods. They will fail us, because they and we are not God. They cannot deliver us. Holding on tightly is an obstacle to following Jesus.

Now that falls not easily upon our ears. We Christians can be seduced into thinking: “Well, I love Jesus and….” You fill in the blank. Jesus and family. Jesus and country. Jesus and church. The problem is that God does not want to be first. He wants to be only. Then, the response is, “Well, aren’t family and country and church (usually meaning, ‘my church family’) all important? Doesn’t God put us in families, countries, and congregations in the first place?” And, the question is really rhetorical. Yes, obviously. But following Jesus means not knowing where He is leading us next. And that is the very reason why going with Jesus means not holding on.

If we knew that tonight or tomorrow our dearest loves were going to die, it would be unbearable. If we knew that this country, secured by the blood of patriots with all the freedoms we have enjoyed for 243 years, were to disappear in the next few years, it would be unbearable. If we knew that the congregations and the denomination we have loved were soon to be defunct, it would be unbearable. And, yet, we Christians know that the end of all things must come. We all die. The old world is passing away. The end of the story is Christ making all things new at last.

Everything is not gray. Everything is not both/and. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, all roads do not lead to the same place. Good and evil are not compatible. We cannot both go and stay. Jesus tells this to three would-be disciples. The Son of Man has no place to lay His head in this life. Fidelity to God cannot be compromised by fidelity to our loves. When we go with Jesus, we go not knowing what comes next but knowing the ending is life beyond death!


Irenaeus was born into a Greek Christian family in Smyrna, which today is known as Izmir, Turkey. He was taught by the famous martyr Polycarp, who was a student of St. John, the Beloved Disciple, one of the sons of Zebedee. He also studied under Justin Martyr in Rome. He was sent as a missionary to the Celts in what is now France and became bishop of what is now Lyons after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius persecuted the Christians in Gaul and killed their bishop. Irenaeus was taught and guided by Christian martyrs. Nothing is known of his death other than the approximate date. Irenaeus was also likely martyred. When you go with Jesus, it leads to the cross. The enemies of the Crucified have no restraints. Their niceness is temporary.

In his most famous work Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote words which we Christians ought to take to heart: “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.” Irenaeus reminds his readers that the Lord Jesus warns His disciples against wolves in sheep’s clothing. He explains what is wrong with false teachers: “… collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in Scripture], they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense.” Heretics misuse God’s Word.

Already before the canon of the New Testament had been defined as the 27 books we have, Irenaeus summarized the Christian faith in this way: “The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory”

Irenaeus listened to the Gnostics who misused the Scriptures. In fact, discovery of a Gnostic library by archaeologists in 1945 has confirmed that Irenaeus accurately described the false teaching of those who were leading people away from following Jesus. He reminded his readers that there is such a thing as the truth faith: “She [the Church] also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.”

Those who suffered and died with Christ as early Christian martyrs, like Irenaeus and his teachers, point us back to the Lord Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Buried and raised with the Lord Jesus in Holy Baptism, they did not give in to the fear of those who could kill their bodies. They did not think of Christian doctrine as mere words but rather as the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). They followed Jesus without looking back. They went towards eternal life.

Dear ones, there is forgiveness of sins always and only in the name of Jesus, the Crucified. He speaks forgiveness in His Word and gives us forgiveness as we receive His true Body and Blood. When you have been buried and raised with Jesus, your life is set apart. Baptized into the only righteous One, you have been made holy for Jesus’ sake. No matter what happens, you are His!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert
Holy Lives: Irenaeus


“O Lord, Make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns, with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 616).


Luke 9:51 “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

St. Cyril [early 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt]: “This means that after he would endure his saving passion for us, the time would come when he should ascend to heaven and dwell with God the Father, so he determined to go to Jerusalem. This is, I think, the meaning of his ‘set his face” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 166).

Luke 9:55 “But he turned and rebuked them.”

St. Cyril of Alexandria: “It would be false to affirm that our Savior did not know what was about to happen, because he knows all things… He did not want them to be offended when they saw him suffering. He also wanted them to be patient and not to complain greatly, although people would treat them rudely. He, so to speak, made the Samaritans’ hatred a preparatory exercise in the matter. They had not received the messengers …. For their benefit, he rebuked the disciples and gently restrained the sharpness of their wrath, not permitting them to grumble violently against those who sinned. He rather persuaded them to be patient and to cherish a mind that is unmovable by anything like this” (167).

Luke 9:58 “… but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

St. Cyril of Alexandria: “It is easy for anyone that will examine such matters accurately to perceive that in the first place there was great ignorance in his manner of coming near. Second, it was full of excessive presumptuousness. His wish was not simply to follow Christ, as so many others of the Jewish multitude did, but rather to thrust himself into apostolic honors. This was the following that he was seeking, being self-called. The blessed Paul writes that no one takes the honor to himself unless he is called of God… This man … thrust himself into what was above his rank” (168).

Luke 9:62 “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

St. Cyprian [3rd century martyred Bishop of Carthage]: “The Lord warns us of this in his gospel lest we return to the devil again and to the world, which we have renounced and from which we have escaped… Lest anyone, either because of some desire for wealth or by his own charm be persuaded from following Christ, he added, ‘He that does not renounce all that he possesses, cannot be my disciple’” (169).

Luke 9:62 “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

St. Basil the Great [4th century Bishop of Caesarea]: A person who wishes to become the Lord’s disciples must repudiate a human obligation, however honorable it may appear, if it slows us ever so slightly in giving the wholehearted obedience we owe to God” (169).


1. Who and what do I refrain from giving up in order to follow Christ? How much do I withhold?


(Read this aloud daily until everyone in your home can say it from memory.)

Table of Duties

Certain passages of Scripture for Various Holy Orders and Positions, by Which These People Are to Be Admonished, as a Special Lesson, about Their Office and Service

For Parents

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

For Children

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Ephesians 6:1-3) (Luther’s Small Catechism).


1. Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.

2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

3. During the summer months (especially fathers!), bring your household to the services of God’s house. If you are on the road, worship while you are away and bring back the bulletin for Pastor Zumwalt to see. Do this for accountability and to let the pastor see what other congregations are doing.

4. Are you reading “The Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher? Discussion continues chapter-by-chapter on Sundays at 9:45 a.m. in Room 117. We discuss Chapter 2 on June 30.

5. Parents and children, practice your Baptism by mutually dying to your selfishness for the sake of each other. Recognize the real presence of the Lord in each other by cherishing each other enough to ask for and to offer the forgiveness you were given as you received His body and blood at the altar.

6. Hang a crucifix or cross opposite your pillow so that the last sight you see before turning out the light is your Lord’s cross and the first sight of the new day calls you to prayer.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”

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