(1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62)
Jesus tells his would-be disciples, “Follow me!” And he doesn’t take any excuses. When one man says, “Let me go first and bury my father,” Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead…” Is that harsh? But I suspect that this man’s father had still to die, with plenty of life left in him. We do need to recognise family responsibilities, but not as simply another reason for saying why we’re not ready just yet for taking action. There’s an urgency about Christ’s call, so much that Jesus tells the man who wants to go first and say goodbye to his family: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the
.” kingdom of God
How do you respond to the call of Christ? How do you make any decisions? How do you balance responsibilities, commitments, vocation and calling and set them against the person you are? - and the person you could be?
These are all issues I’ve been pondering again recently. Partly because this weekend is the anniversary of my ordination - what do I make of my calling as priest and deacon 32 years after the event? But also in the light of my experience of facing surgery and then having it cancelled, re-scheduled and cancelled again - and then being asked when or even whether I wanted to go ahead with it. After I’d psyched myself up for several months and planned who was going to be affected by my taking time off for several weeks to follow - and after I’d eventually had eight hours waiting on the ward for the operation to take place, half that time feeling rather silly in a theatre gown and thigh-length surgical stockings - I do understand why it was all called off, but it’s no easier for that to contemplate going back again. So everything is off again for the next few months.
Meanwhile I’ve pondered - and lots of people have been talking to me about their experience of health issues. There are those who have found themselves at the mercy of unforeseen complications - someone who’d had an operation which should have taken 40 minutes but it had actually taken five and a half hours; surgeons can’t plan for that. And people who’d found there was no alternative. Most succinctly someone was telling me he’d only been in hospital once in his life: “They came and asked me to give my consent for the operation, so I asked them what would happen if I didn’t sign. To which they said, well… you’ll be dead within 24 hours.” He signed - and I’m glad to say is now in robust good health.
It makes it easier to make a decision when you know there’s no alternative.
But what about the choices you have? My experience is perhaps a bit like people who’ve been booked up for a hot-air balloon flight. They may be apprehensive, but they’re ready for it. But then the flight gets cancelled on the day because of weather conditions. So they book again - and it gets cancelled again. And then they’re running out of days when there’s any availability, and it’s inconvenient, and the weather might be wrong again. What is going to get them back in the basket?
Or yesterday I was watching people on a zip-wire over the Tyne, jumping off the top of the Baltic to fly across the river to end up on a scaffolding tower in the middle of a car park. Two of them were people I knew. “Look, he’s on the edge and he’s got his legs over the side,” the daughter of one of them exclaimed. I can imagine that moment - looking down to the ground, looking out over the river, looking at that thin cable which is all that separates life and death, and thinking “why did I sign up to this?”
I’m glad to say they got safely across - and no regrets.
What will make us jump? The leap of faith isn’t just for a short flight in a harness with all the safety procedures in place. “Follow me,” says Jesus - and it will have implications for the way you live your life… for the rest of your life. So it’s not surprising that some of the people Jesus encounters make their excuses. “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Can you plough that furrow? When people come to make arrangements for the Baptism of a child, do they see that it’s not just a half-hour service?.. It’s the beginning of a life-time, life-long project. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” St. Paul says in today’s New Testament reading. Paul isn’t always easy to understand. What he’s saying here is that living the Christian life isn’t just a matter of following rules - and it’s certainly not a matter of picking and choosing which rules to follow. There’s actually only one rule, “one commandment” - “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But that’s a rule to apply in every part of life and throughout your life. He warns us about all the things we shouldn’t do: avoid “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But it can be still more difficult to do the things which are positive - and these are the things that are really necessary: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
The good news is that it’s not all down to our own efforts. Jesus calls us to follow, to set our hand to the plough - but it’s his Holy Spirit who will guide us and strengthen us.
I’m struck by the enormity of the calling - to set out and to keep going… that is what Christ asks of us. Over 30 years since my ordination I’m still working on it. I hope I’m getting there. And I want to end by saying that the most significant thing I have learned in all those years is that we don’t get there simply by our own efforts. Too long perhaps I’ve dwelt on an image like that of the man in the picture inside your pewsheet. How much effort he seems to be putting into the task of ploughing! You’d think he was pushing the plough himself. Well, he does need to keep his oxen going the right way, his is the responsibility of guiding the plough. But we need to remember in our case that it’s Christ who goes before us, and God who supplies us with the grace we need. We simply need to follow.