Benediction Online

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Path of Discipleship

When we started using the Revised Common Lectionary for our Sunday readings some of you asked what was different about it, and I was very vague. One of the differences is that sometimes, like today, we have a choice for the Old Testament reading. The one I didn’t choose is the story of Elisha deciding to follow the prophet Elijah. At that time, Elisha was ploughing a field and when he decided to follow Elijah he slaughtered twelve yoke of oxen – that’s 24 cattle – used the traces and plough to make a fire on which he cooked the animals and gave them to the people to eat before he followed Elijah. Talk about burning your bridges! Not much chance of going back to farming after that! Presumably, though the text doesn’t say so, this was a sacrifice and covenant ceremony indicating his commitment to discipleship.

The reading we actually heard was at the end of Elijah’s life and ministry when he is on his final journey. He keeps giving his disciple, Elisha, opportunities to pull back, but having made his covenant, Elisha has no intention of turning away from the journey.

In the gospel reading, Jesus too is on his final journey. We are told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Along the way several people think they will join him, but each one has something that’s getting in the way. One of them wants the security of a settled life, one wants to make sure all his affairs are in order, one wants to say goodbye to his friends.

So the two readings provide contrasting examples of discipleship. On the one hand, Elisha determined to follow his teacher even after his death, on the other aspiring disciples who are quickly discouraged.

Which are you?

The Christian life is one of discipleship. Disciples are those who follow, who are learning, who are modeling themselves on their teacher. As we deepen our faith, as we continue to walk in the path of Jesus of Nazareth, so we can expect to become more like him and also to meet challenges like the ones he met.

I’ve always enjoyed those self-tests that you can take in women’s magazines – are you truly in love? do you have self-confidence? are you stressed out? or How stressed out are you, really? The reading from Galatians is a self-test. On the one side is a list of the sins of the flesh – on the other are the gifts of the Spirit. Where are we? How are we doing?

The language of ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh” is such odd language it makes it seem as though this list is really for someone else. But by the ‘desires of the flesh’ Paul meant something rather more than physical desires; he meant the behaviors and attitudes that are natural to our existence apart from God. In contrast, the gifts of the Spirit are those attitudes that come from our new life in Christ. Our baptism has translated us from the reign of this world, ‘the flesh’ into the reign of God, ‘the spirit’. That’s a done deal. But the spiritual journey, discipleship, is making that a reality.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul puts the contrast between the ways of the world and the fruits of the Spirit firmly within the context of loving our neighbor. I think that is really the bottom line for us too. Most of us don’t battle the temptation to engage in sorcery or fornication, but ‘enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy’ strike much closer to home. It is easy for us to make jokes at the expense of others, especially those who disagree with us. It is easy for us to harbor resentments, especially when we feel morally, or even spiritually, justified. It is easy for us to criticize. Paul is saying that there is no place for these in the Reign of God.

The fruits of the Spirit in contrast include patience, kindness, and generosity. So this is a quick self-test; how far are you on the path of discipleship? To what extent do patience, kindness and generosity mark your life? are you gentle and self-controlled? Are your home, your conversation, and your relationships marked by love, joy, and peace?

I know I have a long way to go.

It is tempting to step aside and say that I’ll follow Jesus when I have less to do, once I’ve finished my studies, once I’ve tidied my office or cleaned up the yard. I’ll be better able to practice generosity and self-control when we have a different President, or when the issues in the Anglican Communion are finally resolved in the way I want them to be. It’ll be much easier for me to be kind and peaceful when the one or two really aggravating people in my life move somewhere else.

That’s not the path of discipleship. Walking with Jesus means acknowledging that I have to change my own attitude; acknowledging that when I get angry or irritated it is no-one’s fault but my own. It is not up to me to change anyone else’s behavior, but it is up to me to change my own mind so that instead of getting angry I can demonstrate joy, peace and kindness. James and John wanted to rain brimstone on those who wouldn’t accept them. But that isn’t Jesus’ way. Jesus’ path is the path of gentleness and self-control.

It is the path that the Holy Spirit leads us on. We are not alone in this – the Holy Spirit is with us and will not only inspire and guide us but also provide the power we need to make the changes. Sometimes there will be overnight miracles, but most of the time it’s daily discipline, taking one step and then another. Sometimes it seems as though we will never learnt to forgive, never find forgiveness in our hearts, but the Holy Spirit works with us and we have our baptismal promise that we have been freed from the power of sin.

The path of discipleship demands total commitment. It requires that we hold nothing back; that we keep no part of life back and say that that is ours, not God’s. It is a path like Elisha’s that keeps taking us further than we expect. It is also a path that is quite different to the path that everyone else is walking on. It is, however, a path that is greatly blessed.

This is the path to spiritual fulfillment. This is the path that has been described by mystics and seers. This is the path that brings life and health and a deepening knowledge of divine love. It is a path that beckons to you.

In the words of Robert Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveller,
long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could …
then took the other …
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference”


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