For freedom Christ has set us free. What a remarkable thing for the apostle Paul to say. I wonder what he meant by it.
Monastic formation is a formation into freedom. What do we mean when we say that?
Keep these questions in mind as we continue …
As the story is told in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has reached a turning point in his earthly life. He has firmly established his direction and purpose towards Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. He continues teaching as he goes; in our reading this morning, he draws lessons from the encounters he has with various people along the way.
Perhaps the Samaritans interpreted Jesus’ resolution as yet another rejection by a Jew of their place of worship, and I suppose that might be why they did not welcome Jesus. James and John, those Sons of Thunder, presume to be able to call down fire from heaven, as the great prophet Elijah had done more than once.
Our reading this morning does not give the content of Jesus’ rebuke, but we do know that Jesus had previously instructed the Twelve on how to deal with rejection. This involved shaking the dust from their feet and departing with a word of warning, rather than destroying those who rejected them.
I am told that some ancient manuscripts of the gospel text contain an additional verse. In this, Jesus says to James and John, “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings, but to save them.” Jesus’ purpose is to save even those who reject him.
You do not know what spirit you are of. We are in the season after Pentecost, when we contemplate the implications of Jesus sending his Spirit into this world after his Ascension out of it to return to his Father. In a sense, it is a time when we might consider what spirit we are of.
We are called to freedom, the apostle Paul tells the Galatians, but, as he continues, it becomes clear that this is not a suit-yourself, do-as-you-please sort of freedom. So, what sort of freedom does he mean? Paul urges his readers not to use their freedom for self-indulgence, but rather to serve one another in love. To live by the Spirit of God, then, is to allow ourselves to be set free from self-obsession, to have our awareness expanded to include the lives of all those around us. It brings the freedom to make choices that will open us to more of God’s life, rather than choices that will merely bring instant gratification.
This does not necessarily come naturally to us, and so, in his Rule for monks, St Benedict says that the novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead [us] to God. This typically involves a certain disillusionment.
In his encounter with three potential disciples in the second half of our gospel reading, Jesus seems to be the model for St Benedict’s precept, teaching the hardships and difficulties that might lead each to God. Following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem will require a serious commitment.
However, I think whoever put the lectionary together shows a certain sense of humour here, by including the story of Elijah’s calling of Elisha alongside Jesus’ proverb about not putting your hand to the plough and looking back. Elisha was literally ploughing when Elijah came to him, and turned back from following Elijah to say goodbye to his people, before again setting out to follow Elijah, and this does not seem to have been a problem in his case. So, perhaps Jesus is cautioning his would-be followers about things that could get in the way, rather than making rules to be obeyed.
The apostle Paul tells the Galatians that when God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, it created a certain tension in our lives, a tension between what he calls the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Self-indulgence which entertains the passions and desires of the flesh might be a very natural inclination, but it can have very unhappy consequences, as detailed in a long list of possibilities provided by Paul. Sometimes, it seems almost as if the Spirit has a mischievous sense of humour, allowing us the freedom to choose but not to escape the consequences of our choices.
So, how do we learn to make better choices? St Benedict in his Rule talks about the good zeal which … leads to God and everlasting life, the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. This doesn’t sound like much fun, and it isn’t always, but it is one of the ways of being guided in community by the Spirit who gives us life, and it’s a great strategy for learning not to get our own way all the time.
The fruit of allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit includes that well-known list the apostle Paul provided to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These quite wonderful consequences are so satisfying to experience in ourselves and from others.
St Benedict puts it this way: The good of all concerned … may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.