Galatians 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62
It’s never easy trying to be a good Christian. Speaking for myself I believe it is the hardest, most difficult thing I have ever tried to do; and if I ever succeed, you’re all invited to the party. BYOB. Bring one for me. And I don’t think it’s going to get any easier in the near future. Some world leaders are openly talking about the ‘next pandemic’, the next ‘lockdown’, almost as if this is our new reality and we should just shut up and do as we’re told. Prices for everything are going up almost daily. Taxes and rents will go up. Corporations are openly attacking workers’ rights and using the last pandemic as an excuse to charge as much as they can for everything and cut peoples wages and benefits. Our political servants seem to be infected with the belief that we are here for their benefit not the other way around. So, what I’m trying to say is that, it could be, that tough times are coming if they’re not already upon us and it is not going to get better any time soon.
So what does this have to do with us, with the church, or today’s readings. Some might say the church should not get involved in politics and I have to say I have a lot of sympathy with that. It has always struck me that it is never the preacher’s job to air his or her own personal opinions and political beliefs from the pulpit and that, I very much hope, is not what I’m going to do today. Tell me after if I fail, please. But I do believe that as a community, as the body of our Lord Jesus, as brothers and sisters in Christ, set apart from society but still in society, we should look at what is going on in the world around us and accept that sometimes it is going to affect us in a way that changes or harms our community. People are scared and scared people can make bad decisions. As life gets harder we get more tired and tired people can make bad decisions. As things get harder tough decisions are forced upon us and this can sew discord.
But what can we do about it? Well perhaps we might get some help from today’s readings. In the Gospel readings we see Luke portraying our Lord Jesus telling people straight, how difficult the chosen path can be. The Samaritans try to block our Lord Jesus and His disciples react pretty much as I think I might have reacted had I been there. You poke me, I’ll poke you right back, which apparently, I’m not supposed to do. But our Lord Jesus hasn’t come to correct or punish. He has come to save and time after time we see our Lord Jesus meet opposition without retaliation as He does here. Our Lord Jesus has not come to punish but to save. Luke then goes on to point out the costs and difficulties of discipleship. Homelessness is sometimes the cost. Rejection is a cost many of us have had to bear since we announced our faith openly.
Jesus tells us that no excuses for delay are accepted. If you’re going to do it then do it; let the dead bury their own dead. There can be no turning back in the service of our Lord Jesus. Once you’ve accepted the task get on with it and do it to the best of your ability. If you try to plough a field looking over your shoulder the whole time then none of your furrows are going to be straight and your harvest will be significantly reduced. This is not a good thing. We are justified, which means we are acquitted, declared as righteous, in the eyes of The Lord our God, by our faith, through the once for all perfect sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. Simply believe and you will be saved. But our works are also important. There are those inside and outside the church who dispute this but as with everything I try to tell you I am guided and limited by the evidence as far as I am able.
Work itself in general, as opposed to works, which is a slightly different thing, is a God-ordained thing. The Holy Spirit tells us through psalm 104: 19-23, “He made the moon to mark the seasons, And the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey. And seek their food from God. The sun rises and they steal away; They return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labour until evening.” Work is an integral part of our reason for being. Work in general is one of the main reasons the Lord our God created us in the first place.
But works is different. There are three main uses of this term in the Bible. The works of God, which in the Old Testament are presented as the evidence of the Lord our God’s supreme power, authority, wisdom and benevolence. The OT defines God by what He does, by His activity. The works of our Lord Jesus, by which He revealed that He is the son of God, the Messiah. In Matthew 11:2-6 where John the Baptist has his moment of doubt. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing he sent his disciples to ask Him ‘are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me. The works of the believers, that’s us, by which we demonstrate the divine activity of the Holy Spirit within us. The evidence of living faith as James emphasises in James 2; 14-17, What good is it my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. So, it’s never easy being a Christian in the first place; even in the good times. It can only get harder if the times get tough. The wise man sees trouble coming and plans ahead. He builds his house upon the rock, not the sand. We build our church upon God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not upon our own efforts.
So how are we going to react if times do get tough? Well let’s take a look at the reading from Galatians. Galatians is one of Paul’s first letters and it is a bit of a marmite letter. You love it or you hate it. Luther said it is the best book in the bible. Some people refer to it as a ‘crucifixion epistle’ or a ‘thorny jungle’. It is full of emotion and we don’t like that do we? It is too personal; Paul tells us more about himself in this letter than any other; it is too intellectual, because Paul was after all an academic Jew, a Rabbi, and some of those academics do love to make things as complicated as they can. But today’s reading is all about the love. And if we can’t or don’t approach the world and each other with love then what are we doing here. Paul tells us about our freedom and then, like a good leader, warns of the dangers of that freedom. Freedom always comes with a cost, a sacrifice; and if we are going into a time of hardships and difficulties, and I really hope I’m wrong about that, then we must fight to keep our freedoms and fight even harder to remember that we are a community, a family, a church, founded in love based upon love, set free by love. But this is not a Hollywood film. This is the real world. All those things are great, but you have to work at it. Verse 15 of the reading, But if you bite and devour one another [in partisan strife], be careful that you [ and your whole fellowship] are not consumed by one another. Paul talks to us about the desires of the flesh and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We must always keep in mind the truth that we are humans and humans can sometimes be quite horrid. We can also, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit be quite marvellous. But the fruit of the Holy Spirit is Love, joy, gladness, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.
We are coming out of a very difficult, and for some of us a very dangerous, stage of our journey towards our God and the difficulties and the dangers are still there. They are in the background at the moment, but they are still there. We are trying as a church to get back to normal, whatever that was, and this means we are in a time of transition. A time of transition would be difficult enough but I worry that it is about to get more difficult because of the difficult times we may be facing in the world in general. A time of change, and nobody likes change. We are all humans and humans see change as a challenge, possibly a dangerous challenge.
But there are also those who see a time of transition as a time of opportunity, a time to try something new. This can cause conflict. A time of biting and devouring. But we are blessed with the Holy Spirit, and if we allow the Holy Spirit to reside within us and speak within us, we will get through this time stronger and better than we went into it. Just remember, the Holy Spirit is the perfect guest. He won’t impose. He won’t shout instructions. He only comes in where He is invited and welcomed. He will know if you want Him to leave. Never ask Him to leave, because He won’t ever come back. We can and I am certain we will get through whatever the future holds for us. This is a good church. I am grateful and happy to be a part of you. But let us remain vigilant and together. Because what we have here is something we would all regret immensely if we allowed ourselves to let it slide away from us. And that is so easy to do. All we have to do is believe in ourselves instead of God and we could lose it all. You can’t hold out your hand in welcome and fellowship if you’re patting yourself on the back.
Now I’m going to read you a poem, which I hesitated to do because it could very easily be seen as hubris but after a lot of thought I decided to take a chance and I read it to you in the hope that it might help someone in the future.
My soul is in darkness, my heart lost in pain
As I realise, I’ve let God down again.
The people around me all say “I’m impressed”
But God, who knows better, I’m sure I’ve distressed.
When will I learn to master my greed?
When will I see I have all I need?
I cannot forgive my thoughtless misdeeds.
I cannot pull up all my wildly sewn weeds.
I tell God “I’m sorry” for causing Him pain.
I tell God “I’m sorry,” but I’ll do it again.
I beg for forgiveness and mercy for me.
I beg for a place in eternity.
I beg Him for strength to turn from my sin.
I beg “get me out from the mess that I’m in.”
I’m talking to God, I know that He’s there.
I pray that He’s listening, I’m sure of His care.
The answer I’m given is simple and clear.
The answer I’m given reduces my fear.
“Don’t stare at the bad things, remember the good.
Step back from yourself, see the trees and the wood.
Everyone sins, no-one’s perfect you see’
the way that God made you is the way you must be.
To do good or bad is the choice you must make.
To care and repair, or be thoughtless and break.
Don’t judge yourself, for that’s not your place,
Don’t judge your friends, or the whole human race.
Just do all you can to stay free from sin.
Just follow God’s plan from the mess that you’re in.
One step at a time, that’s the best you can do.
And each step you take I will be there with you.”