Our Old Testament reading comes from the first book of Kings, which in Hebrew means The Kingdoms of Israel. The Old Testament understanding of the word “kingdom” was very different from what we understand it to mean today. For us a kingdom is the geographical area ruled by a king or queen, but in the ancient Hebrew world it referred to the authority of the monarch himself who had absolute power over his subjects. He was believed to stand as representative between his subjects and God. For this reason, the character and behaviour of the King shaped the society during his reign. We may not be kings or queens, but as followers of Christ how we behave, and act is important because we represent what it means to be a Christian at work, in our families, and with those we encounter. How we are, can influence and shape our communities.
In ancient Israel, a king was anointed by a prophet, and today, as well as anointing two kings, Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as a prophet to be his successor. Elijah and Elisha were very different. Elijah was a fiery, challenging preacher and many believed John the Baptist was Elijah come back to life. Elisha’s ministry, however, was more pastoral with some similarities with the ministry of Jesus, as Elisha raised a widow’s son back to life, and he fed 100 people with a few barley loaves. When Elijah called Elisha to be a prophet Elisha was performing a very menial task. If you look at the picture on the front of your service booklet, you will see he was ploughing the fields behind twelve yokes of oxen. Elisha was not standing at the front of the oxen like a great leader. We are told he was with the twelfth yoke of oxen so he was at the back. God often calls people who are at the back, those who may not envisage themselves as leader, or who seek to have a public role. When Elijah called Elisha, we are told he gave up everything to follow Elijah as his servant, as did Jesus first disciples to follow Him.
In our gospel reading Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem which results in his death, resurrection and the worldwide mission of his apostles. He is continuing to call people to follow Him, and most of his teaching is about Christian discipleship. Jesus is being very honest about what this entails. To the first man Jesus describes himself as homeless and is saying “count the cost”. I used to think Jesus was being a bit harsh in not allowing the second mand to bury his father, but it has been suggested his father was not dead or even dying. The man wanted to make sure he collected his inheritance. He was more concerned about losing out materially than being with his father. This was a crucial moment in that man’s life, an opportunity for him to move from spiritual death to life, and by his failure to follow the promptings of his spirit he missed it. Psychologists say when we have a fine feeling if we don’t act on it straight away we are less likely to do anything, the emotion then becomes a substitute for the action. We may feel prompted to send a message of thanks, sympathy or congratulations to someone, but if we put it off until tomorrow it will probably never be done. Jesus is stressing the importance of following the stirrings of our hearts immediately. His message to the third man who wanted to say goodbye to the people at home first, was for those who are living in the past, looking backwards to the good old days instead of moving forward and accepting life as it is now.
Jesus invitation to follow him into a new and radical lifestyle was too much for those three men, and that challenge is extended to us today. But what could accepting Jesus invitation mean. Well in our New Testament reading from Galatians the apostle Paul says we are called to be free, and the concept of freedom is something which is very much longed for in our society.
It has been said that the three main themes in Galatians are: legalism, liberty and licence. Many religions have laws to be obeyed and even within Christianity at times there may be the idea that we can somehow earn our way into God’s Kingdom by obeying laws and doing good works. Entry into God’s Kingdom, however, is a free gift given to those who believe in Christ through the grace of God. The Commandments given to us by Christ are that we love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. So we have to be aware of slipping into legalism, a reliance on laws, which will enslave us and take away that freedom we have in Christ. On the other hand, if we are not careful we can slip into too much licence, what Paul calls “the works of the flesh”, and that is the theme of today’s reading where we have a list of very negative attributes which can result from too much self-indulgence where we can end up being in bondage to our own desires. The path of liberty is a narrow path indeed, but a path we can follow by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Following Jesus into a new lifestyle can involve a radical change in mind-set. Our mind is a very powerful God-given tool which can help us greatly if we choose to use it for the good. Several of the vices listed in today’s reading arise from a lack of love and acceptance for ourselves as we are, part of God’s creation made in his image, and a discontentment with our God given lives. Rivalry, jealousy and factions can arise when we compare ourselves and our circumstances unfavourably with other people. This can have a devastating effect on us, seriously compromising our ability to love others, which will prevent us from embracing the new life in Christ with joy in our hearts When we love ourselves and our neighbours, however, we can embrace and accept ourselves and our lives as they are, as does Christ, so we are able to focus on the good things in our lives. We will then experience the fruits of the spirit within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is a truth which will set us free.