Sunday, June 26, 2016

Follow me!

A Sermon preached on June 26th, Pentecost VI at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

I Kings 19: 15, 16, 19 – 21, Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25, Luke 9: 51 – 62

This morning’s readings are scary, and not just for the oxen that ended up as the main course at Elisha’s farewell dinner! They sound scary for all of us who want to be followers of Christ, as the conditions of being a follower and disciple sound very harsh indeed: nowhere to lay our head, a complete break with family and tradition, a complete break with our past. I don’t know about you, but I would find all of them very difficult to achieve.

And yet, there is no question that we are called to be disciples. As I mentioned in my newsletter corner last month, the Anglican Communion released a guide for Christian life and formation titled “Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making” earlier this year. It was discussed and adopted at the ACC meeting. According to the authors, “Discipleship is the very essence of Anglicanism. Anglicanism, from its roots in Celtic and Augustinian spirituality and shaped by the European Reformation, has always been a lived-out (not a purely intellectual or spiritualized) faith. It is about following and living the ways of Jesus.”[1]

So, if there is no escaping the call, can we renegotiate the conditions? Do we need to? Perhaps they are not as onerous as they sound. Let’s start with the Old Testament story of how Elijah calls Elisha to follow him and to become “prophet in his place.” The first thing we need to know is that Elijah is exhausted and possibly even disillusioned. He has done all God has asked him to do: defeated the prophets of Baal, survived a famine, tried again and again to reform the kingdom of Israel – but all to no avail. Just a few verses earlier, when God asks him “what are doing here, Elijah?’ he answers “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:13-14) God’s reply – as we heard this morning - is go home, anoint two kings who will “sort out” Israel for me and anoint your successor “as prophet in your place.”    God sees that Elijah can do no more, God allows him to resign his mission, because God will never ask us to do more than we are able to do – though that is almost always much more than we think we are capable of.  

Then when Elijah calls Elisha – by throwing his mantle over him – Elisha accepts the call, but asks to be allowed to “kiss my father and my mother,” to say farewell, to conclude his previous life, albeit in a hurry. Sure, Elijah says: off you go, I’m not holding you back. This is good for Elisha and his family, though bad for the oxen, who get turned into a celebratory meal. Burning the yoke not only provides fuel for the fire, but is a sign and symbol that for Elisha there is no coming back. His old life is over.

This sounds a little more like my own story – but without the oxen. My call to the ordained ministry, which is of course only one way of being a disciple, and neither the only or the best, was much more gradual. I did take time, much more time than Elisha had, to make the transition. Elisha did not have to study theology, I did. Heidi and I also wanted to make sure that the timing of the change was good for our children, that they could finish school first. I did not want to leave my family behind, as I hope you understand. But there was never any question about me following the call. Still if I compare my process with Jesus’s reaction to those he calls or who say they want to follow him, than I did fall short.

Let’s have a closer look at the three interactions in the gospel. In the first, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus seems to warn him off: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57-58) And that is just what it is, a warning. Don’t follow me for your own gain, Jesus says. There is no particular reward for following me. On the contrary, I can’t even guarantee you a bed for the night or a home to go to. If you follow me, you are embarking on a journey without knowing where it will end. To follow me, is to fulfil the Old Testament call – from Leviticus - ‘to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul’ (Deut 10.12–13 et al.). That is not to say that this journey, and the experience, and the companionship as such will not be rewarding, but just that that should not be the motivation.

I hear an echo if this in Paul’s words to the Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (5:13) We have the freedom to choose – self-indulgence and short-term gain, or service in love, which as it is mutual – slaves to one another – brings a much greater, lasting benefit to us and to the world. 

In the second encounter, Jesus calls the person. “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-60) On the surface, this is a huge demand.  In Jewish tradition the dead were and are to be buried without delay, and making sure that your father is buried, would be a very important filial duty. It is a deliberate exaggeration on Jesus’s part, meant to shock and shake people up, and not to be taken literally. Jesus is not against family and tradition, unless they get in the way of proclaiming the kingdom of God. If a family wants to prevent someone from following Christ, because they belong to another religion, or perhaps to no religion, then that is when they get in the way. 

Traditions too are not good in themselves. As Christians, we will find ourselves both defending some traditions that society wants to abandon, as well as making the case for change. How do we decide? We have what Paul calls the summary of the whole law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14) and as people who “live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (5:25) Look at the fruits, look at the possible results of our actions: anger or love, quarrels or joy, dissensions or peace, jealousy or generosity, idolatry or faithfulness? That will tell you what to retain, what to discard, and how to decide. My one comment today on the Brexit vote is that in my observation too many people were motivated by strife, jealousy, anger, and envy, and too few by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness. I hope we learn our lesson.

Finally, someone offers to follow Jesus, but sets conditions: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62) Surely we can say farewell. Yes, of course we can, Elisha did, I did. The purpose of this interaction is to remind us not always to be looking back and second-guessing our decisions, once we have taken them. If you were ploughing a field in ancient Palestine, you were leading the oxen with one hand, and guiding the plough with another, if you looked back you could be certain, that the unruly oxen would lead you off track and that your furrow would be anything but straight and pointing in the right direction. If you follow me, Jesus says, I need your complete commitment and focus; I need you to proclaim the kingdom and to live as if you were in that kingdom. 

Follow Jesus out of your love from him and your neighbor, follow Jesus regardless of what your family and society think, follow Jesus with full commitment. These are the conditions of being a follower and disciple of Jesus. While they are still not easy, I think they are achievable. Therefore, I hope that when we sing our Communion hymn later in the service: “Will you come and follow me, if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?” that your answer is a resounding, confident: 
Amen, so be it!

[1] Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making: An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation, The Anglican Consultative Council, (London; 2016), 126

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