Love, joy, peace – marvellous! – patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the fruit of the Holy Spirit. God within us offers us these wonderful qualities. Love, joy, peace – what more could we want? Well, how about a little self-indulgence? And are we never to be allowed to gratify the desires of the flesh? Carousing – that can be fun.
The trouble with St Paul here in this morning’s Epistle is that he’s painting a black and white picture. The desires of the flesh are all bad, he implies: they lead to fornication, licentiousness, idolatry and so on, ending with drunkenness and carousing. Well, of course they can lead to these things, but not necessarily.
And St Paul continues, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” That suggests that passion and desire are sinful, and down the ages that has caused real anxiety and distress for many believers, sometimes leading them to lives of misguided abstinence. It’s also partly what led to the rise of the miserable Puritans in the 17th century.
Most of us are not called to a life without passion and desire, a flavourless sort of life. Evil passions and evil desires – of course there’s no place for them in a Christian life, but normal human passion and desire are natural and good, part of God’s gift of life to us. It needs to be said.
But let’s turn to today’s Gospel. It tells us of other qualities, which Jesus had and which we also ought to have as his followers –courage and endurance.
Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. He did not have divine foreknowledge of precisely what was going to happen to him there – that would have been contrary to his humanity. But he could read the signs of the times and predict that his final conflict with the authorities was approaching. He realized that it was bound to involve him in suffering, both emotional and physical, and that the inevitable outcome could only be his own death.
At that stage he could easily have turned his back on the way which earlier he had chosen for himself. He could have melted away into obscurity to lead a quiet and peaceful life: there’d always be plenty of work for a carpenter back in Nazareth. But no, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Let’s never forget the bravery of Jesus. It wasn’t just the courage he showed in that last holy week of his life and especially on that last day, but the courage and endurance of those last months when he resolved with total commitment to head towards Jerusalem, come what may.
And really we can add to that his endurance during the whole of those three or so years of ministry when, in spite of many happy and enjoyable occasions with friends and with strangers, basically he was homeless, a wandering teacher, prophet and healer. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And they wouldn’t give him anywhere to lay his head in that Samaritan village where he’d asked his disciples to find lodgings. That seems a little odd as St Luke’s Gospel normally champions Samaritans as foreigners who do the right thing. It was a Samaritan rather than the Jewish clergy who’d come to the aid of the man who was mugged on the Jericho road. The one leper who returned to thank Jesus after they’d all been healed was a Samaritan. But this incident underlines the division between these two peoples.
The shortest route for Jewish pilgrims travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem was through Samaria, but most pilgrims made a detour as they were far from welcome there. The Samaritans had their own religious centre on Mount Gerizim, and they considered it an insult that people should pass through their territory to reach a rival temple in Jerusalem.
James and John – remember Jesus had given them the nickname Boanerges, Sons of Thunder, reacted in an Old Testament way. “Exterminate them,” they said. But Jesus told them they should have known better by now. That’s something else Jesus had to endure, the slowness of his disciples to get the point. But – what about us? Are we any better at taking on board new ideas, new directions from God?
Anyway, they pressed on to another village, and on the way Jesus encountered three others. “I will follow you wherever you go,” said the first. “Will you really?” answered Jesus. “Could you endure this constant being on the road with no fixed abode? Foxes and birds have permanent homes, but I have no guarantee of a place for a proper night’s sleep. It’s easy to be a follower of mine in comfortable Colwall, but could you plant your footprints in mine on the way that leads to the cross?”
Then to someone else Jesus said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “First let me go and bury my father.” Well, that seems a reasonable request; indeed for the Jews it was a sacred duty to provide a decent burial for a parent who died. So Jesus’ response seems offensive: “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Did he mean, “We needn’t worry about those who’ve died; they’re safe in God’s hands: it’s the welfare of the living we need to care about?” Or, “Don’t keep looking back to the past: it’s today that counts?” Or was it, “In spite of our obligations to those who are closest to us, we must let nothing stand in the way of our following him? To follow me is a full time and unconditional commitment.”
However, I think that the man might not have actually meant that his father had actually died but simply have been using a common and rather dramatic way of saying, “First let me sort out the thing I really ought to get done. I can’t follow you now, Jesus, there’s other things I have to see to.”
And the third man too, he also put Jesus off, again, for a very plausible reason, to say farewell to those at home. But Jesus is uncompromising: once you’ve started ploughing, there’s no turning back.
It’s very difficult for us today to grasp the sense of urgency in the New Testament, which must be a reflection of how it actually was at the time of Jesus’ ministry and in the early days after the Resurrection and Pentecost. There was an air of now is the hour; decisions can’t be put off; today is what counts; tomorrow will be too late.
Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem: it was crisis time. Prophets almost always foreshorten the future; Jesus himself thought that not only his own demise but the end of all things was near at hand. St Paul and the others also believed and proclaimed that the end of the whole world was imminent: there was no time to be lost.
Two thousand years later we just can’t feel the same way. Some people do of course – the end is nigh; prepare to meet thy doom, at such and such time, on such and such a day. We dismiss them as cranks, but in New Testament times they would have been taken seriously.
And Jesus here is saying that those who would be his followers must do so with immediate and total loyalty. They must have the courage and the endurance to leave behind all security and ties of duty, even to family.
In several parts of the world where it is really dangerous to be a Christian such critical and stark choices still apply. We should pray for them; that they will have the courage to choose for Christ and the endurance to remain true to him in a hostile environment.
How different it is for us here in Colwall, most of the time. We can freely and openly come to church to worship God, and read our Bibles and say our prayers at home, and we don’t have to leave behind family and friends. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is in our community or where we work, among our friends and neighbours and colleagues and above all within our family that our Christianity is expressed. Here we can exercise patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and love and joy and peace, the gift of the Spirit.
Today, because it’s in Petertide (it was St Peter’s Day yesterday), is the Sunday for ordination. And this morning in our own cathedral in Hereford twelve people will be ordained by Bishop Anthony - the service is just about to start. Since the 11th century at every ordination of priests has been said or sung the hymn, originally in Latin, Veni Creator Spiritus, but fortunately since the Reformation in English:
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire; Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart:
Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life and fire of love; Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight:
Anoint and cheer our soiled face with the abundance of thy grace: Keep far our foes, give peace at home; where thou art guide no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee, of Both, to be but One; That through the ages all along this may be our endless song, Praise too thy eternal merit, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We have been given the fruit of the Spirit. Let us make sure we don’t let it go mouldy, but devour it eagerly: patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Then shall we not only possess for ourselves, but also bring to those around us peace and joy and love. Then shall we all be ministers of the kingdom of God.