Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday 30 June 2013 Ordinary 13

Possible Theme: Cost of discipleship (if focusing on OT/Gospel) // True freedom (if focusing on Epistle)

Sentence             You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence (Psalm 16:11)

Collect                  Lord Jesus, wherever you go
                                We will follow you.
                                Use us to light the world,
                                Through the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Readings         1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
                      Psalm 16               
Galatians 5:1, 13-25

                      Luke 9:51-62

(Note these are the 'related readings' rather the 'continuous readings')

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Elisha follows Elijah

The relationship of this passage to the gospel reading is enigmatic. Straightforward is the calling of a disciple (Elisha) by a master (Elijah), with the twist that Elisha will succeed Elijah. In the gospel would be disciples come to the master Jesus - ultimately disciples succeed Jesus in in his work on earth. Less straightforward is the character of the parallel between Elisha wanting to return to his parents before following Elijah and the would be disciples in the gospel wishing to undertake domestic tasks before following Jesus: does Elisha actually return to his parents, or not? Is Elijah's reply, 'Go back again ...' (v. 20) a way of saying to Elisha, either follow me or do not bother?

What is clear, however, is that Elisha does follow Elijah and does so after finishing with his old way of life. He burns the yoke of his oxen in order to cook up the oxen for food which he distributes to the people. Sometimes our discipleship consists of a complete break with the past.

Psalm 16 In the presence of the Lord there is fullness of joy

Just as there is a group of psalms called 'lament psalms' and another group called 'psalms of ascent', there ought to be a group of psalms called the 'lovely psalms'. If there were, then this would be first or second in loveliness!

David sets out the blessing of knowing the Lord, trusting the Lord, keeping close to the Lord and praying to the Lord. Life turns out well for David but he says it with brilliant poetry:

'The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
I have a goodly heritage' (v. 6). 

He would have said the same if he had been a Kiwi.

But it is not just that life is generally pleasant for David and that he is glad about the material comforts of that life. David feels secure and protected (vss. 1, 5, 7-8, 9-10).

The summary of this blessed state is the climax of the psalm. Summing up many parts of the New Testament which speak of blessing, it should be the profession of every Christian:

'In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore' (v. 11).

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Like many Pauline passages 'there is a lot here'. We could, for instance, embark on a sermon series (as many have done before us) on 'the fruit of the Spirit', one sermon for each of 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (v. 22-23). We could (and should) pause on the phrase 'Live by the Spirit' (v. 16; cf. 18, 25) since that phrase sums up the Christian life. Here I want to mention three matters in the passage but do so in full acknowledgment that many matters here are worth paying great attention to.

(1) Christian freedom (v. 1). 'For freedom Christ has set us free.' This acclamation  challenges us. Do we live in freedom as Christians? Alternatively, are there ways in which as Christians we live without freedom because we are bound by things which should not and need not bind us? In part, Galatians is Paul railing against all so-called Christians (not just certain Jewish Christians of his day) who add rules and regulations to the gospel of Christ. Here Paul does not rail against such opponents of true Christianity but appeals to true Christians who may be tempted to constrain the freedom Christ has set them free for (5:2-12 provides a specific case study). Many Christians (including this writer) find great comfort in following rules and regulations, sometimes even in creating them. Do we need to reconsider these rules and regulations so that we experience the full depths of the freedom for which Christ has set us free?

(2) Christian behaviour (v. 13-25). Yet the appeal for freedom to be lived out creates a dilemma for Christians. What is the nature of this Christ-ordered freedom? Is it freedom from every rule and regulation of all kinds so that I am free to do absolutely anything, even things which are sinful? Paul's clear answer is 'No.'

'For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not let use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another' (v. 13).

Christian freedom, Paul seems to be saying, is a freedom to do anything but or BUT exercising that freedom in self-indulgent living is to choose death (see vss. 14-15, 16-21). So freedom for Christians ought to be constrained in the direction of life. To choose life rather than death as an expression of our freedom means choosing to love one another, 'through love become slaves to one another.' Christian freedom involves a paradox: we are truly free of unnecessary rules and regulations when we becomes slaves to one another.

Although Paul then changes themes from freedom/slavery to life in the Spirit (vss. 16-25), he is pursuing the question of Christian freedom and the potential to understand that as freedom to indulge. From the perspective of life in the Spirit the answer is the same as above. Christian freedom is not being exercised when we 'gratify the desires of the flesh' (v. 16). This leads to Christian death or loss of inheritance (v.21). Further, it works against the work of the Spirit of God within us. Christ has set us free AND given us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works to constrain the exercise of our freedom in the direction of goodness, particularly love for others. Indulgence works against that direction.

(3) Christian power (vss. 16-25). Rippling through the same verses that bring us Paul's concern about how we exercise Christian freedom is Paul's concern that we understand the nature of divine power in Christians. If our behaviour as Christians is to be oriented in the direction Christ wishes us to follow, we need spiritual power to live well. Where does this come from? Earlier in the letter Paul has denied that that power exists in the law of Moses. Now he takes up an observation made in 3:2 about where the Spirit of God has come from. The power to live a godly life is first the power of the Spirit of God living within us.

So, Paul says, paraphrased, 'Live by the Spirit which God in Christ has given you (and not by the law which cannot give the power to live well).'

For the sake of clarity Paul spells out what this living by the Spirit looks like. First what it does not look like (fornication, impurity, licentiousness ..., vss. 19-21; and, 'conceited, competing against one another, envying one another, v. 26). Secondly what it does look like (love, joy, peace ... vss. 22-23; but we could add 6:1-10 to the picture).

In the course of all of this Paul makes another point about Christian power. If live by the Spirit is one general injunction, another is implied in these words,

'And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (v. 24).

A crucified 'flesh' (human nature) is dead. The dead do not exercise any freedom! 

Paul doesn't say it, but later commenters have observed with witty seriousness, once crucified, our flesh should not be resurrected.

Luke 9:51-62

There are two parts to this passage. The first part, 9:51-56 tells the story of the beginning of Jesus' intentional journey towards Jerusalem and death. Scholars call the whole section 9:51-19:28 the 'Travel Narrative'. This journey will be an actual journey from village to village (so in these verses) as well as a journey in discipleship for many of Jesus' most famous teachings are taught in this section, as well as much love parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

In 9:51-56 we find that Jesus' journey is not universally welcomed, a village of Samaritans in particular rejecting him, perhaps because of his Jerusalem-centric intention. (Samaritans did not honour Jerusalem as their preferred centre of worship, see John 4). This opposition is a sign of what is to come, including rejection in Jerusalem itself. James and John gallantly offer to help Jesus out by reigning down judgmental fire on the Samaritan village. Jesus' rejection of that offer is in keeping with his merciful character on display in Luke's Gospel.

Thus the journey is off to a challenging start on a number of counts and this sets the background for the next incident, vss. 57-62, in which the theme of discipleship is addressed by way of three dialogues with would be or 'wannabe' disciples.

In summary, a disciple is wholly committed to Jesus, without entanglements and compromising other commitments.

But the detail of the three conversations is worth pondering.

- each would be disciple understands what all disciples should understand: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. The first and the third each say, 'I will follow you.' The second engages with Jesus directly calling him, 'Follow me.'

- the first would be disciple has a deep understanding of discipleship. 'I will follow you wherever you go' (v. 57). Yet Jesus does not accept this. Why not? His enigmatic response seems to say to him (and to us as readers), 'Do you understand that where I go there is no security, no comforts, no prospects except the prospect (implied by the use of 'Son of Man') of suffering?' The would be disciple has reckoned with only some, not all the cost of discipleship.

- the second and the third would be disciples appear to be similar in procrastination, even though their reasons are slightly different. Jesus lacks sympathy for their (quite reasonable) appeals to family obligation. Discipleship is more important than the previously most important of human obligations and more urgent than any other pressing task. It requires focus on the task at hand, 'Proclaim the kingdom of God', with complete concentration and no backwards look to pre-discipleship life (v. 62).

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