Succentor - Revd Rachel Young
At this time of year, we’re in what’s called ‘ordinary time’ in our cyclical church year
We’ve celebrated the coming of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection and ascension; the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost and the reality of the Trinity. Now – as the introduction at the front of our service books says – we turn our attention to growing our faith; asking ourselves the question, ‘So what difference does it make to my life?’
All our readings this morning can tell us something about Discipleship – about what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Christ.
Jesus had notoriously high expectations of his followers and we heard some of them in our Gospel reading from Luke. His was an itinerant ministry and his disciples literally followed him; and at this stage of Luke’s story they physically went on a journey with him, as he ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ – his last and most important journey there. They were not to know, of course, what was going to happen there, only that he felt it necessary to put himself in the way of the religious authorities.
So when someone came to ask to follow him, it seems that this aspect of the lifestyle was too much.
Then someone else was asked by Jesus to follow him, but wanted to go and do the most holy and binding duty of a son – namely, to bury his father – and Jesus was not impressed.
The third person we hear of is someone who reminds us of Elisha, from our Old Testament lesson. When called by Elijah, Elisha asked to go back home and say goodbye to his parents. He went home, and using his wooden yoke as fuel for a fire, killed and cooked his oxen and they all ate – as a way of indicating that he was making a clean break with his present lifestyle. Then he went and followed him.
Jesus’ retort – that no-one begins to plough and then looks back – not only described common practice (for if you look backwards the next bit of your ploughing becomes crooked) but suggested that it’s not acceptable for his followers to do that.
So what is acceptable behaviour for his followers?
Well, the followers of Jesus were expected to go on a journey with him; Jesus expected that journey to be the defining aspect of their lives, so that the priority of other things in life was to be judged in the light of it; and that only what was in front of them was important – there was no need to keep looking back…
If these expectations are the framework for a life of discipleship, then where do we look for guidance about the lived reality of such a life?
Well, the letters of the New Testament are a good place to start, being as they are a record of how the early Christians worked out what it meant to be Jesus people in the decades after the resurrection.
Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is one such source.
It was written to set out his understanding about the role of the Jewish law in the lives of gentile Christians; because the Galatians needed guidance – it seems they were probably ‘biting and devouring one another’ and had to be warned by Paul about their behaviour.
The first verse of our New Testament reading sets out his position regarding the Jewish law:
“For freedom Christ has set us free.”
Jesus has set Christians free from the requirements of the law – but this freedom has to be used carefully.
We live in a world where freedom is being sought by many people, in a world where the ‘freedom’ of the rich 1/3rd of the world is a dream for many others.
This idea of freedom is about being free from oppression; being able to say what we like and go where we like while staying safe; and most importantly having personal autonomy, being able to choose for ourselves.
Paul’s idea of freedom is very particular.
He says that it has to be invested not in ourselves, but in showing love for others; in fact, by willingly becoming a slave to one another.
This idea is not only counter-cultural to us, it would have been to the gentile Galatians as well. Greek philosophers taught autonomy and calm detachment from the world; personal rights and privileges were familiar to them, too.
But Christians – then and now – are called by Paul to embody the commandment to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, as found in Leviticus 19 v.18 and in Jesus’ teaching.
The difference now is that we do not love because the law demands it, but because the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and produces fruit in us. Love is one of the fruits of the Spirit, the one from whom all others descend, the first in Paul’s list.
And love – in loving our neighbour – will help to build community, a new community that comes together because of the commitment of its members to following Jesus Christ.
Paul knows from personal experience – and we know – that it isn’t easy. He describes it by opposing ‘the life of the Spirit’ with ‘the desires of the flesh’. This ‘flesh’ is the negative force which works against all that the Spirit might want. Another translation for the word used for ‘flesh’ is ‘self-indulgence’. It has its own desires, it produces its own fruits and it engages in conflict with the Spirit.
Our lives can be the battleground.
The Spirit and the flesh can pull a person in opposite directions.
We can find ourselves behaving in ways we’d rather not –
like Paul admits to in his letter to the Romans when he says
“I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate...For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,
but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members...Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We know that we have to try again with relationships;
that we have to go the extra mile;
that we have to exercise self-control;
that we have to forgive someone
over and over (and over) again…;
that we have to swallow our pride
and let someone else flourish;
that we have to let go and let God work in our lives…
Discipleship is the crucible in which we learn how to live as Jesus people.
It lasts our whole lifetime.
We travel the road of faith with many others, with whom we build community – a new community, the church, in which its members seek to love others as themselves, to listen to the call of the Spirit of God and to go wherever she leads…a community that helps to build the wider community in which we are set.
As we come to meet God in the bread and the wine this morning, let us offer ourselves again as followers of Christ, receive the gift of freedom and ask for the fruit of the Spirit to help us bring in the kingdom of God in this place.