TEXTS: Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
On the way to Jerusalem—actually, on his final trip to Jerusalem—Jesus called a man he met on the road, saying, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Another man came alongside Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And to him, Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Decades later, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, describing “the works of the flesh” which would keep a person from inheriting God’s kingdom. He mentions all kinds of things. To us, some of them—like idolatry and sorcery (and perhaps even orgies)—may not sound all that tempting. But then he goes on to list sins like:
- jealousy (ever cursed another driver because she found a parking spot before you did?);
- enmity and strife (is there somebody you’re not speaking to right now?);
- fits of anger (ever wished you could call down fire from heaven?).
And as for “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality … rivalries, dissensions, divisions … drunkenness” … Let’s not even go there!
Today’s two Scripture readings kind of hit like a sledgehammer, don’t they?
Between the severe demands of Jesus reported by Luke and the withering list of all-too-familiar sins laid down by Paul … Well, am I the only one who feels uncomfortable?
Oh, to be sure, Paul tries to moderate things by also listing a whole bunch of good stuff, which he calls “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But when I really think about that list—and consider how often I fall short in almost every category—it makes me feel even worse.
On a website run by the University of Göttingen, a Lutheran bishop named Luke Bouman recalls a conversation he once had when he was a parish pastor. Listen to the story he tells:
He sat across the table from me at a local fast food establishment. This deeply spiritual young man was talking to me about a decision he had made. He would go to medical school rather than seminary. I nodded, thinking that it was a good decision for him. But something made me wonder, and I probed for the reasons behind the decision. It was then that he started talking to me about his faith journey during college.
“I attended one church,” he began, “where the people talked a lot about serving others. But when it came right down to it, none of them were doing it very much. They were serving each other, serving themselves, but there was so much to do in the community—and they ignored all of it. I went to another church for a few Sundays in a row, and suddenly I got a letter from the pastor telling me that I was a member.
“When I asked her about it, she said that, since I already had a church, I would be an associate member of her church. I just don’t get it. I don’t want to be part of a church with such low expectations. I don’t want to be part of a church that makes it “easy” for me to be Christian. I want to be part of a church that challenges me to think, to act, to be so much more than I already am.”
I began to respond that there are more than two congregations out there when he cut my response short.
“Not to be rude or anything, pastor—but can you honestly tell me where I can find the congregation that I’m looking for? I want one that wants to make disciples, not members. If I am going to give my time to something, I want to know that it will be well-spent, that I will make a difference in the world. So, where is that church?”
I drank in all that he said. I knew the pastor of the “church of the three-Sunday member rule.” She had bragged to others about how many new members she had, that people were looking to belong and her church was growing. I wondered what she would say to my young man. I thought of my own congregation in Austin, Texas, which had nurtured this young man’s faith and inquisitive mind. Would they even measure up to his expectations? Most of Christendom, I suspected, would fall short. As a rule, most Christians don’t want to practice the difficult and demanding faith that is Christianity. They don’t seem to want to work that hard.*
Again, I ask: am I the only one who feels uncomfortable? I know that Christianity is a “difficult and demanding faith.” I know it’s hard to practice. None of that is news to me (or to you, either, I expect). And when we hear passages like those the lectionary offers for Proper 8, Ordinary 13 … perhaps all they do is make us feel like failures.
Is perfection really what Christ demands of us?
I remember another conversation. I was party to this one—some years ago—along with several other United Church members who had gathered as a committee to do some work on behalf of the Presbytery. Somehow the topic of other denominations came up, and I made a favourable comment about a well-known, large, evangelical congregation in Calgary—basically stating my admiration for the good work they do. I may even have said that some of the finest people I know are members there.
But my praise of that Christian group seemed to irritate one of those present.
I guess she thought that—not being United Church folks—they must be too “religious,” or something. Actually, I think she was offended because she figured that all evangelicals are overly moralistic, narrow-minded, and preach a higher standard than they practice (aren’t you glad mainline Christians never do that?).
Anyway, she sort of capped off her tirade by saying, “I could never belong to a place like that, because I’m not a hypocrite!”
Yes, she actually did say that. “I’m not a hypocrite!”
I didn’t have the nerve to say it out loud, but I thought to myself: “You’re not?”
Then, my next thought was: “I know that I am.”
And yes, I am.
I don’t like it. I do not aspire to be a grade-A-number-one hypocrite, but … Well, I know that I am.
I claim to follow the Prince of Peace, but I am often belligerent. I know that Jesus calls us to care about the poor and work for justice … but then I’ll buy clothing from Bangladesh because it’s so much less expensive. And I very seldom even think about whether the coffee I’m drinking has been fairly-traded.
To get even more personal about it … even though Jesus tells me to “turn the other cheek,” my first impulse is often to punch the other guy’s lights out! Don’t worry—I haven’t actually done that for many, many years (but I still think about doing it, sometimes).
I wonder if my friend from that committee ever wants to punch somebody’s lights out. And I wonder where her shoes were made … Ah, but there’s another one of my many shortcomings; I harbour resentments for much too long.
But again, I wonder: am I the only one? Actually, I know I’m not. Over the course of some 20 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard lots of people speak of how inadequate they felt as Christian disciples.
I don’t think most of us would dare to say that we’re “not hypocrites” … would we? Most of us—if we’re not seriously deluded—are aware that we do not always live up to our own standards.
Sometimes we’re rude. We hurt others’ feelings—on purpose.
Sometimes—perhaps out of fear—we are less than honest.
Sometimes we shirk the responsibilities of discipleship—or even simply those of church membership—saying that we’re too busy, too tired, too short of cash, too offended because of what someone else said or did … or that it’s somebody else’s turn, because we’ve done too much already!
Ouch. Please don’t think I’m scolding you. I do that stuff, too. I think we all do … sometimes. And make no mistake about it: when it comes to saying, “No. Please ask someone else” … occasionally, we have to do that, or our heads will explode!
My point is just this: there’s none of us perfect.
Even the apostle Paul—who compiled that long list of sins in chapter five of Galatians and said, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—had in mind people “who do such things” habitually, and without a single pang of conscience. How do I know that? Because of Paul’s own testimony about himself. This same Paul spoke about having a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7) because he struggled with pride. He called himself “the least of the apostles” because he had persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9).
More than that, listen to the testimony Paul makes about himself in his Letter to the Romans:
“… I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:15, 18).
Paul is pouring out his heart and soul here! He goes on, saying: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24) And then he answers his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25)
Who will deliver me from this body of death? Who will deliver us from our weaknesses, our addictions, our pettiness and pride? Who will deliver us from our fears and failures and foolishness? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul understood what we need to understand: we are saved by grace, because of what Christ has done for us. We are saved not because we are perfect, but because God is rich in mercy and loves us with a great love (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Jesus told us that, too—more than twice. Sure, on his way to Jerusalem to die on the cross, Jesus has set his mind upon what lies just ahead of him. We can forgive him, I think, if he’s a little bit cranky! In chapter nine of Luke, Jesus is telling us where he is going, what he has done, and what he is doing. It is Jesus who chooses to journey without a permanent address—without a home in which to lay his head. It is Jesus who has left his mother to be cared for by others in her old age. It is Jesus who has left the bench, hammer and saw of the workshop—and not looked back. At this point, those who come saying they want to follow him need to know what they’re getting into.
But this Jesus who sounds so harsh is the same Jesus who said he came not to congratulate the righteous, but to rescue sinners (Mark 2:17). He knew what he was getting into, as well. Sure, he said, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”—but consider this: he welcomed Peter back, even after Peter had denied him three times. He put Peter’s hands back on the plough and told him, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16). Peter may not have been fit for the kingdom of God—but he got that way!
So can you. So can I. We can—if we don’t give up. If we trust God to lead us. If we pay close attention to the lessons the Spirit teaches us. And if we stick together—if we encourage one another. That last point is really important. Paul emphasized it in just about every letter he wrote. Stick together. Care for one another. That’s what discipleship is really about. Put up with one another … even when you feel like punching the other guy’s lights out!
Or, as Paul himself put it, just a few verses later in his Letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ … And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:2, 9).