Preached by Leslie Spatt on 26th June 2016
How do we best help to build the Kingdom of God?
Following and being followers isn’t easy. There’s a temptation to gather a group of people around oneself and then lead them for lots of different reasons: to be at the centre of adulation or being looked up to as someone important, to use personal charisma to achieve something significant, to accumulate power both for good and for bad, for altruism in trying to make the world a better place. Jesus was tempted by all these things. I wonder if it’s possible not to be a leader but “only” a follower?
God has asked Elijah to single out Elisha as the one to eventually take his place as prophet – to symbolically call him as a follower by throwing his mantle over him. Elisha is fine with this but just wants to wind up things at home and say goodbye before radically changing his life forever. By destroying his oxen and equipment, the tools and symbol of his current life and then going to join Elijah, there’s no going back on his decision. He’s made an irrevocable commitment to being initially a follower and later a leader.
Like Elisha, all of us are followers – of Jesus, of his teachings we find in the Gospels, of someone we believe will bring us into a new and complete relationship with God and each other. And some of us become leaders. But we hear some very hard words in the Gospel reading this morning. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Does Jesus really mean that if we’re half hearted about it all, give up when things get tough or want to keep hold of things from the past that we’re not worth being one of his flock? He almost seems to be discouraging potential workers for the Kingdom by pointing out only the disadvantages of following him: don’t indulge in revenge if you’re badly treated; be prepared to be socially and even physically homeless; if you join me you’ll have to leave everything behind. Hard words then and still hard now.
Following could take an easy path for those of us who want someone else to make the decisions, to be passive and part of the crowd, to perhaps avoid responsibility; get out, make excuses or change our mind if we find we don’t like what being members of that particular crowd involves. To stay on the fringes, perhaps volunteering to get involved once in a while or committing to a short term project; and definitely having an escape hatch or a Plan B.
But Jesus is having none of that attitude – if you sign up to my calling, he says, then I expect you to trust me, to stay faithful and live with whatever happens on the journey, not to give up halfway if I ask you to make unpleasant sacrifices or to let go of your security blankets. He won’t put up with excuses.
Well, leaving aside the controversy about whether nor not Jesus actually said the exact words we hear this morning – that’s an argument mostly for the nit-picking academics and Biblical literalists, neither of which I consider myself – the underlying meanings of the entire Gospel reading are more important than the literal words on the page. They have to do with dedication, with making life changing decisions knowing that things might get difficult or we might be tested. Unlike Elisha, Jesus doesn’t want us to even say goodbye or look back to our former life, to say farewell to those at home. We need to face forward, into the future and live with our decisions both individually and corporately, make them work however hard that might be.
Dedication is really quite a scary word. It implies giving oneself over to an ideal, a person, a goal or purpose – with a focus and single-minded-ness which can take over one’s whole being. Commitment is a bit less overwhelming, while “involved” isn’t quite on the same scale. None are really big business when it comes to a lot of present day life; which seems obsessed with the “now”, with instant gratification, with celebrity and glitz of the moment rather than having to really work at and for something. As a colleague reminded me a while ago, one definition of that wonderfully comforting fry-up called “English breakfast” is that the chicken is “involved”, and the pig is “committed”. But neither is “dedicated” to only providing breakfast!
In another parish where I work, there were two Iranian Muslim women who, having been coming to church for a while, asked the vicar about baptism. They knew, as Muslims, that a decision for Christian baptism and actually going through with it would change their life radically – and very likely prevent them from having any future contact with their families to protect both themselves and their loved ones. For a Muslim, converting to another faith is punishable by death. The baptismal promise “I turn to Christ” was for them a real dedication which meant they couldn’t look back, ever. That’s a choice which probably nobody in this congregation has had to make. And would any of us have the courage to do it? Following Jesus is costly, it might mean being ridiculed by workmates or the target of discrimination. The price might even be our life.
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ It’s not a threat of being barred from heaven if we stumble or fail or even fall away from the path of the plough. Being human, we will indeed do that repeatedly. Look ahead with hope and trust, says Jesus, not backwards with regrets. It’s associated with what the word metanoia means, which is usually badly translated as ‘repentance’. Metanoia is changing the direction we’re going, changing the sources of our fulfilment and happiness. It can indeed be difficult to part with the safety of our security blankets and move into the unknown. Are commitment and dedication always meant to be safe? Whoever said being a Christian was easy?
When Jesus calls us, what’s our response? Do we offer excuses, ask to first bury our dead…our “whatever” things which tie us to the past …and then join up. Or might we develop a sense of detachment from that which prevents us giving a wholehearted “yes” to building the Kingdom – a detachment which allows us to enjoy what we have but not depend on it, or cling to it at all costs, or let what we possess dominate our lives. It’s the willingness to let go.
We need to develop the courage and determination to hand over our lives to God, and find the spiritual and emotional strength to part with any bits of us if needed. This might mean giving time, money or expertise in the physical sense; or letting ourselves trust, hope, pray and have faith – even in the absence of any tangible presence of God “doing something” with or to us. Jesus warns that if we follow him we might be asked, symbolically or in reality, to have nowhere to lay our heads; to live without the security of safe comfortable surroundings unlike foxes who have holes and birds who have nests. But would that be so bad if sharing what he calls home is actually the Kingdom of God?
Jesus offers us eternal life in all its fullness, not some vague time in the future but now, here; and more importantly to bring others into that eternal life by following the way he shows us. Proclaiming the Kingdom is what we’re called to do; both as followers of Jesus, and as leaders gathering up people to do his work in the real world. Let’s remember that dedication and commitment are indeed scary, require hard work, trust and faith. But also know that we don’t need to be afraid of taking the risk of giving ourselves over to God.
Consecrate your gifts, O God, as you lay them in our hands and breathe them into our minds and souls. Let us dedicate ourselves to use them, not after our weakness, but in your strength, and glorify you in all their use.
Creator, redeemer, sustainer; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bring us closer to you in love, that in our many and varied ministries we may share in your mission for the coming of the Kingdom.