We are freed from the constraints of the law and the heavy burden of trying to be good in a moral sense so that we can fully engage in the process of growth in the gifts of grace, the fruits of the spirit, by seeking to grow into our fullest and truest self. We are being initiated into the deep life giving freedom that comes out of surrendering to life in the Spirit of God that enlivens and nurtures our true self. And this is good news not only for us but also for our neighbours as we find that love is the fulfilling of the law. (RCL 2Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and Luke9:51-62.)
Let’s make our way to this freedom by engaging with each of the readings for a moment. The story of Elisha inheriting the mantle of the prophet Elijah is dramatic and exciting but some of us may not identify with such a melodramatic call or claim of authority. But it is interesting to consider the story in terms of the development of the individual soul and of the community of the faithful. For immediately following on from Elijah’s experience of God in the silence after the fire and the earthquake, the prophet is sent back to the people with instructions to anoint a series of people for different tasks including Elisha as a prophet. When Elisha is called he asks only that he can go home to kiss his parents goodbye which he is granted. And then for good measure he slaughters his oxen and using the wood from the plough he makes a stew to feed his family and friends (1 Kings 19:11-21). By doing so he is literally “burning his bridges” so that he cannot return to his former life. He then follows Elijah and serves as an apprentice until it is time for Elijah to go. At that time Elisha then asks for a double measure of his spirit (which is what an eldest son would be entitled to) and takes up the work of a prophet.
There are definite echoes in Luke’s account of the call of some late in the journey disciples. However they are told that going home to bury a parent or say farewell is a sign of not being ready. This really does seem harsh taken at face value. But we can understand it as a test and a kindness for Jesus has just set his face toward Jerusalem and declared that he does not have a foxhole or a nest in which to rest in so be sure that you are really ready to forsake conventional comfort and responsabilities before putting your hand to the plough.
It is interesting in an age when the version of the gospel that is often preached is that once we believe the right things about Jesus we can just go on about life in the mainstream culture as though we are not followers of an alternate kingdom. This portion of Luke’s gospel suggests anything but that. Following is costly and all consuming. Making Jesus Christ our priority will cut across our other priorities such as family/tribe and work/economic belonging. In the gospels each calling is presented differently: sometimes an invitation to come and see and check Jesus out first, sometimes the healed are sent back to live full lives in their own community giving glory to God where they are, and sometimes they are called to down tools and follow. And at different times in life I have experienced the call in all of those ways. There always seems to be more to surrender and more to receive.
Paul the mystic often catapults us into deep truth and growth by placing us in the middle of a dilemma and posing a paradox of competing truths. This week’s portion of the letter to the Galatians is the culmination of the topic of freedom that we began last week. In chapter five we hear Paul’s argument that in Christ we are called into freedom from the law. But, we are told, that our freedom is not for self indulgence but freedom to grow in the grace of the spirit. To highlight this choice we are given two opposing lists – the list of all the things we are not to use our freedom for and then the list of all the graces or gifts of the spirit that we are free to grow into. At first glance this can seem a sleight of hand and that really this is no freedom at all and just another version of being required to follow the law. And I am sure that there are people who feel pressured to show evidence of all sorts of gifts in an atmosphere of spiritual competitiveness.
However this dilemma is really a paradox in that we trying to hold freedom from the law on one hand and in the other hand the commandment to love and serve one another. Paradoxes can send us mad or help us break out of the small box of our own too small thinking. It is not either/or but both/and. It is not the law or love but rather a third way which is that love is the fulfilment of the law.
Having been freed from the dictates of the law and the heavy burden of trying to be good in a moral sense we now find ourselves fully engaged in the process of growth in the gifts of grace, the fruits of the spirit, where we are seeking to grow into our fullest and truest self. As children of love, heirs of the kingdom, we want to grow in love and we give ourselves to the discipline of being refined and proved, emptied out and filled, given complete freedom so that we can truly surrender to the discipline of spiritual growth. Paul is telling us that we are freed from the legalism of trying to obey the moral code so that we are free to grow in the love of Christ in whom we live and move and have our being. I don't know about you but while I am trying to be good, while I'm focused on the rules rather than on love, I can only appear to be good/successful for a time and then I slide into despair or anger or resentment. But when I feel the freedom of God's love for me I can trust life enough to surrender to the forces of love and then I am working and growing in a different way. Life is still full of discipline and work but it is entered into in hope and desire rather than fear of failure, one is growing toward the light rather than avoiding punishment.
Just as the disciples being called from their family and work commitments were about to become free from the daily constraints of ordinary life in order to give themselves over to an all consuming life of relationship with Jesus and the other disciples and become on fire for the kingdom. Just as we are set free from the burden of the righteous but impossible law in order that we are truly free to grow in spiritual wisdom and loving kindness. This is freedom but it is not easy, for there is no end to the journey, no point at which we can declare ourselves arrived and finished with the task of growing. This is not freedom to waste our life but the freedom to become most truly who we are. In freedom we are invited out of the small predictable life into expansive inclusive love of Christ in which there is no end.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come initiate us into your freedom.