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Sunday, July 21, 2013

The better way

Texts: Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52; Col 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42

A few years ago I saw a film which I hesitate to recommend because it was depressing even by my own rather bleak standards.  Requiem for a Dream is about four adults—an aging mother and her son, his girlfriend and their best mate—who live in Coney Island, New York.  It is a film about the desperate blandness of their lives and the way they try to spice that blandness with artificial sweeteners, namely television, diet pills, and heroin.  It is about their thirst for trust, hope and love in relationships, and their utter failure to find it.  It is about the way in which drugs come to anesthetise the protagonists against the pain of their failure and, more tragically still, about how their drug-taking renders them incapable of actually recognising the presence of faith, hope or love when it is standing right in front of them.  Requiem for a Dream  is one of the saddest, bleakest films I have ever seen, and I wish to God that it were only fiction.  But it is not.  You know, and I know, that substance abuse is so common in modern, western societies, that there is barely a single household that has not been effected by it in some way or other.  Statistically, I would be on pretty firm ground in assuming that there are families in this very church who have experienced the hell of a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, stolen away by the demon bottle, or the demon syringe, or the demon slot-machine, or whatever.

Now, I am not an expert on addiction and its treatment, and would never claim to be.  I know very little about the biochemistry or social-psychology of how and why particular individuals lose their capacity to face life apart from the aid of their favourite drug.  Nevertheless, I would seek to make a contribution to the debate, a contribution which is specifically theological in perspective and is therefore, I would argue, exactly what is missing from the usual analysis.  In summary, my contribution would go something like this: (A) that the prevalence of substance abuse in modern western societies can be read as a sign and a symptom not of sick individuals or families, first of all, but of a more general malaise or sickness in Western culture as a whole; and that (B), this malaise or sickness, which afflicts us all in one way or another, may be understood as a deep, deep grieving, a grief attending the loss of a cosmic story which was able to tell us (1) who we are, (2) where, and to whom, we belong, and (3) how to live a life that is not only happy, but also good.  Let me repeat all that in case you missed it.   The wide-spread prevalence of substance abuse can be read as a sign and a symptom not of sick individuals and families, first of all, but of a sick culture, a culture that is grieving the loss of a cosmic story which was able to tell us (1) who we are, (2) where, and to whom, we belong, and (3) how to live lives that are happy and good.  

As I see it, our own cultural situation is not entirely different to that of Israel in the 8th century BCE, at the time when the prophet Amos was preaching.  We live in a dog-eat-dog society where anyone is fair game because few of us know, or want to know, the answers to those three cosmic questions any more.  The strong exploit the weak because they no longer know, deep in their bones, that they are God’s handiwork, created for a communal sharing, with every other creature, of the bounty given us in creation.  The weak allow the strong to treat them so because they no longer believe, deep in their bones, that they belong not to the market or to the owner of the farm, but to each other, and to each other in a God who enfolds and dignifies us all.  And the very fact that there are those who are weak and those who are strong bears witness to a forgetting that one’s own happiness is tied up with the good one renders another, that the other has an ancient and primeval claim on me such that I can never be happy myself unless I also seek the good or happiness of the other.

I venture to suggest, therefore, that we are living (again) in that time of famine that Amos prophesied for Israel, a famine not of bread or water first of all, but a famine with regard to the word (or story) given us by God.  Each of us feels, do we not, a hunger and a thirst for something better—a better way, a better country, a better life?  Yet most of us, even many who call themselves Christians, wander through the wastelands of our society without finding that better something.  What we find, more often than not, is mere chimeras and dreams.  At first we are enamoured, attracted by a bright comeliness that seems novel or new.  But after only a short while we begin to realize that the newness we saw was nothing more than a pizzaz we longed for, a pizzazz  never really there in the thing itself, save only as a mirroring or reflecting-back of our own wish-fulfilment.  Let me suggest, therefore, that there is a rather simple reason why most of us never find what we are looking for:  that we lack a story which is able to tell us what we actually need, and therefore how to recognise what we need when it comes along.  If we don’t know what to look for, how shall we ever find it?  We live in a culture which has largely lost its capacity to know what it needs.  That is a great loss, and very painful loss.  It is a loss that can make you want to anesthetise yourself against the pain of being lost.  Everyone has their favourite drug.  For some it is endless hours of television, web-surfing or romance novels.  For others it is casual sex, or alcohol, or heroin.  Whatever your addiction, isn’t the motivation always the same, deep down?  Isn’t it to anesthetise yourself against the pain of not knowing who you are, to whom you belong, and how to live a life that is good and happy?

Well, what can the preacher say to a culture such as this?  How might the Christian theologian address the pain and the grief at the heart of it all?  My answer may not seem profound to you, it may sound far too simple.  Yet it is profound, I suspect, in its very simplicity.  What the preacher can do is nothing other than he or she has always done.  To tell the story of Christ, and to live as though this story were true for all creatures.  Let me repeat that, lest it seem too simple.  To tell the story of Christ, and to live as though this story were true for all creatures.

According to St. Paul, the story of Christ is not just one story amongst others one may choose from the smorgasboard on offer.  It is the meta-story, the one story is which all other stories find both their origin and their fulfilment.  The whole universe, he says, was created, and continues to unfold, within a material body which is cosmic in scale, and yet has a personal name:  Christ.  Christ, he says, is the larger and far more ultimate reality from which, and in which, the universe was created.  Christ, he says, is God in material form.  He is the universe, and yet he is much more than the universe.  For the universe is, in a sense, independent of God.  It moves according to a will other than God’s.  Very often, that will is the very contrary of what God intends.  And yet, even in that independent movement, the universe depends upon God for its very existence.  So God, in the materiality of Christ, seeks to reconcile the estranged independence of the universe with God’s own will and way.  By suffering the estrangement of the universe in Christ’s very real and human suffering on the cross, God establishes a way of reconciliation:  if we will give ourselves utterly to Christ, and trust ourselves to his way of living humanly toward God, then the ways of creature and creature will be rejoined.  Having emerged from God in the beginning we may, with all creatures, return to God through the creaturely Christ who is also the very humanity of God.  Though we are sinners, adrift in the consequences of our creaturely choices, God has not abandoned us.  The mystery of human existence, according to Paul, is that even when we are furthest from God, Christ has traversed the distance between us.  ‘Christ is in us’, and therefore there are legitimate grounds for a hope that we may enjoy a glorious future with and in God.

The great thing about this story is that is answers those three deeply human questions I referred to earlier.  It tells us who we are:  God’s creatures, free to be what we choose to be, even sinners who run from God’s purposes, and yet we are never beyond the reach of God because we share our material existence with that of Christ.  The story also tells us, therefore, to whom we belong.  We have our home in God, ultimately, because it is God, paradoxically, who guarantees our freedom from God.  We belong, also, to other people and to the whole creation, because it is Christ who knits us all together in a body of mutual interdependence and co-operation.  If one suffers, all suffers; if one rejoices, all rejoice.  Finally, Paul’s story tells us how to live good and happy lives.  By entrusting ourselves to the way of Christ, by refusing to privilege our own lives over that of our neighbours, we shall find a freedom to live deliberately, to be free from the compulsion to gain the world because we understand that the world is only gained by letting it be.  In Christ, after all, God gains the world back again, of its own free will, by letting it be other than Godself.

Now this stuff is dynamite, I reckon.  If we were to know and believe this story, and then live our lives as though it were true, the world would change.  It would be transformed.  We would no longer need to forever live in shock, or in grief, or in an addicted stupor.  We could live our lives as though they mattered.  As though they mattered to God.  Because we would know that they do matter to God.

But this is the catch, see.  The preacher may be telling the story, but that’s no guarantee that anyone is listening.  In the Christian tradition, there is only one preacher worthy of the name, and that is Christ.  By the Spirit he comes, in every new moment, to tell his story anew.  In his words are life, and health, and peace.  The words of this preacher are food and drink for the hungry soul, food and drink that are able to satisfy because they have a genuine substance, they are real in a way that the contrivances of ‘reality-tv’ would struggle to imagine!

Yet one must listen carefully to hear these words, if they are to do their healing.  You actually have to spend time with them.  There’s no point in rushing around like Martha in Luke’s story, thinking that you are serving the Lord just because you want to.  How do you know that you are serving the Lord unless you actually take the time to listen to what Jesus says?  That is the substance of prayer after all:  not talking to God, first of all, but listening for the word of the preacher, of Christ, as he comes to your stilled and silent soul in the gentle companionship of the Holy Spirit.  How will you know who you are, to whom you belong, and to what your life is ordained unless you devote serious time to a prayerful listening for the word of Christ in the word of Scripture?

Now, this preacher has come amongst you with only one real priority.  Not to set the church alight with the warm glow of his charismatic personality.  Not to start a whole heap of new mission activities, especially if they are really there to make us feel that we are relevant before the eyes of the watching world.  God forbid!  No, what I have come to do is simply this: to teach you how to pray, and to remind those of you who already know how to pray to return to it again.  For in prayer is our salvation, and the salvation of our world.  In prayer we shall hear and know and begin, finally, to live the truth of the gospel:  “Christ in us: the hope of glory”. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Prayer and love

Texts:  Amos 7.7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10. 25-37

Today I want to share with you a great puzzlement of mine, a puzzlement which arose from a particular set of historical circumstances, circumstances which may well have shaped my life and thinking more deeply and profoundly than almost any-thing, or any-one, else.  'Why is it', I ask myself, 'why is it that the Beatles released ‘All You Need is Love’, that song of all songs, and then, and then broke up as a group?' . . .   It is a puzzle, is it not, this predilection in human beings for separating those things that God intended to be together.  I mean, let's think about it for a moment.  Love and sex . . .   Work and vocation . . .   Christmas and being happy . . .  Toil and rest . . .   Lennon & McCartney . . .   Hey, even Michael Jackson and being an African American!   I mean, what is it with us?  What is it that makes human beings want to pull things apart?  Why does the experience of equilibrium, balance, harmony scare us so? 

Now, we're a bunch of Christians here today, and we are just as prone to blowing things apart as anyone else.  Perhaps even more so.  Because the people of God have an alarmingly persistent capacity to blow apart the most fundamental relationship of them all, the chord that sets the tone for everything else, simply this:  being with God . . .   and doing God's work.  Being with God . . .  and doing God's work.

Picture the people the prophet Amos was dealing with.  These were seriously mixed-up people, I'm telling you.  Amos complains that the leading citizens of Israel, the priests of Yahweh amongst them, had become traffickers in human flesh.  'They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals', he says.  'They grind the poor into the dust' he says.  But all the while, as this is going on, what are these same leaders up to?  Well.  They're keeping up appearances aren't they!  They're heading out to the holy places of Bethel and Gilgal to offer their sacrifices and their songs of praise to Yahweh!  Needless to say, God is not impressed.  In fact, he's very, very, upset.  'I hate, I despise your festivals; I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . .  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream'.  Now, fairly obviously, the religious folk of Amos' time had a problem with hypocrisy. The leaders of Samaria had separated the worship of God from the doing of God's justice.  They thought they could fill their cupboards with the produce of other people's labour and still turn up to church; they imagined that God wouldn't be overly concerned with their slavery auctions so long as they continued to tithe.  They were wrong!  That's fairly obvious in hindsight.  But have you ever considered how it is that they came to lose their way in the first place, how it was that deeply religious people turned into colonizers and slave-traders? 

To ask that question is to step down from the high pulpit of the prophet and ask why, for example, Martin Luther King, hero of faith, was unfaithful to his wife on more than one occasion.  Or why the church missions, committed to the welfare of Aboriginal people, colluded in the removal of children not just from their parents and communities, but from each other as well.  To ask such questions is to withdraw the pointing finger of hindsight and turn, instead, toward the mirror of one's own self.  ‘How is it that I, a person committed to Christ and his work, do the things that I do and say the things that I say?  Because, surely, many of those things that I do, and fail to do, are not after the way of Jesus, whom I claim to follow!’

Let me suggest an answer to that question, an answer that comes from my reflections not only upon Scripture and upon the behaviour of others, but also upon my own life, my own behaviour, my own sin.  Christian people become instruments of oppression and abuse when they cease to pray.  Let me repeat that.  Christian people become agents of abuse when they cease to pray.

'Wait a minute', I hear you say, 'those people in Amos' time prayed a lot.  They were always in church praying and singing hymns.  Yet, it obviously had no effect on what they did.  So how do you figure that?'  Well, let me suggest to you that there's a great big difference between making a lot of noise in church and praying.  Indeed, making a lot of noise is often (but not always) the very opposite of prayer.  But rather than rush at what I mean here too quickly, I'd like to put on the brakes for a moment and invite us, instead, to attend to that parable which we head from Luke's gospel earlier on.  And to hear it, perhaps, in a different key than you've heard it before.

I want to make just two observations about the parable this morning.  There's much more that could be said, but this morning I want to limit myself to just these two things.  First, did you notice the question the lawyer didn't ask Jesus?  You'll remember they'd been speaking about the two great commandments: 'Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself'.  'Do this, and you will live', Jesus had said.  And then the lawyer asked 'Who is my neighbour?’, which is a perfectly fine question, except that it betrays a fatal kind of arrogance about the side of the equation he perhaps should have asked about.  'Who is my God?'  This lawyer, you see, was a faculty member of the local theological school.  You know, the prestigious one.  In Jerusalem.  On the hill.  Next to the temple.  He knew all about God.  Or thought he did.  He'd probably written several books on the topic.  So why ask about something he already knew everything about? 

Second, did you notice that Jesus didn't actually answer the lawyer's question—the one he asked, as opposed to the one he didn't ask?  The lawyer asked 'who is my neighbour?', and Jesus replied not with a definition of the neighbour, but with a story about how neighbours behave - about the being of a neighbour, if you like.  Now why would he do that?  Why would he deliberately sidestep the lawyer's question like that?  I submit to you that the story of the good Samaritan is actually an answer to the question the lawyer failed to ask:  'Who is God?'  And I submit that Jesus told the story because this lawyer, despite all his learning and his knowledge, did not know the answer to that question.  That God is like a Samaritan.  God is the stranger who has mercy on us, even though we are God’s enemies.

How do good men and women of God become abusers?  By failing to understand that God is one who has mercy.  By not, in other words, ever really experiencing the grace and mercy of God for themselves.  Oh, we may have the theory of grace down pat.  We may know the bible verses off by heart.  We may even sing about God's love week by week in church.  But somehow the truth of that grace, that mercy, has never really taken root in our hearts.  We have never allowed ourselves to face the sheer givenness of the gift: we have never allowed ourselves to confront the possibility that we might actually accept God's acceptance of us.  And so, not being able to accept ourselves, and love ourselves, we fail to love others.  With the same plumbline we use to abuse ourselves, we abuse these precious others that God places in our path.  And we do so, very often, without even a shade of awareness that we do it. 

There is only one real solution to the problem I have described.  And I am convinced of this more and more.  We must dedicate some special time each day, each week, each month, each year, to what the mystics of the church call the prayer of the heart: a prayer that consists not of telling God things, or presenting God with a shopping list, or even saying the daily office, valuable as it is.  The prayer of the heart is simply becoming still enough to hear the voice of God in Scripture.  The still, quiet voice at the centre of all things, the voice whose nature is always to have mercy, to offer grace and forgiveness, to heal the wounded soul.  The voice that speaks not in English, or German or even Italian, that most divine of languages, but in the soothing language of love's silent gaze.

God has ordained that the work of God should flow from a deep and abiding being with God, from a veritable baptism in the love which holds all things together in Christ.  Doing and being, mission and ritual, politics and prayer.  What God has joined together let no one separate.  That is how we may become citizens of light.  That is how we may finally bear fruit for the word sown in us: by bringing such things back together again.  And folks, I say this in all seriousness:  our future as individuals, as families and communities, and even as a nation, depends on our doing so.

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's, Mount Waverley, in 2004.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Taking pride in Christ's cross

Text: Galatians 6.7-16 

There are many things in life which people like you and I take pride in.  Our work.  Our kids and grand kids.  Academic or sporting achievements.  Our gardens or our mechanical skills (I stand in awe of anyone with mechanical skills!)  But today I'd like to reflect on what it means to take pride in the cross of Jesus Christ.  In the passage we read from Galatians, Paul says this:
May I never boast of anything save the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the life of the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision in anything; but a new creation is everything! (6.14, 15)
What's Paul on about here?  What is this concern he has with those who take pride in their circumcision more than in the cross of Jesus?  And what value could this rather bizarre and ancient controversy have for our contemporary life in faith?  Well, I'd like to have a go at answering those questions, but we'll need a little background first.

When Paul wrote to the Galatian churches in 54 or 55 of the first century, he did so with a clear purpose in mind.  Apparently some of the folk in the region had begun to teach that one had to obey the Jewish law in order to find salvation.  In particular, these teachers encouraged their followers to be circumcised, as a sign of their belonging to that community, the community of the Jews and of the Jewish law.  Paul's letter is a serious attempt to expose the futility of these claims.  

For Paul, you see, the Christian gospel proclaims a complete and permanent freedom from the Law of the Jews through the crucifixion of Jesus.  The Law, he argued, is double edged.  It is good in that it reveals the ethical standards of God for human beings. And these standards are very important.  But the law is also bad because not one of us is able to entirely obey the Law. The Law functions, in fact, to condemn us:  to sentence absolutely everyone to death as people unworthy of a holy God.  Paul's good news chimes in at precisely this point.  Through the law I am condemned to death.  But if, through baptism, I die with Christ himself, I then also rise with Christ, leaving the power of the Law for condemnation behind me.  Through the living Spirit of Christ, I am enabled to participate in a new life of freedom with Christ which is no longer subject to the crushing weight of the Law.

Now this is a seriously climactic move!  In one fell swoop, which has reverberated through the ages, Paul dispenses with the religion of law and social status; in its place he urges us to embrace a spirituality of death and re-birth in Christ.  Can you hear the difference there?  Can you discern how the landscape has changed forever?  

Let me reframe this whole discussion by bringing it into the present.  We ourselves live in a very religious society.  Karl Marx rightly said that the main concern of religion is social control.  Each person is raised to their allotted path in life, pre-destined to be bigger, better and more worthy than the generation before.  The religious person is mainly concerned with whether or not they're 'doing the right thing' in the eyes of their community, their elders or their peer group.  The religious person gains self-esteem and a sense of purpose from the positive feedback of that community.  So, as long as you do as you are told, you’ll thrive.  That’s the promise, at least!  

But religion fails, of course, when a person finds themselves either unable or unwilling to live up to the goals and expectations their community has allotted them.  Let me share with you a personal example.  From a very young age I was told, by a complex system of media and gossip, that I will have made it in life if I were able to buy a large house in the suburbs and drive a nice car—if, in fact, I were able to join the middle-class.  The funny thing is, that when I went to university on a scholarship and started hanging out with middle-class folk for the first time, I found that they weren’t very happy.  Many of them, even as students, already had nice cars and were well on their way to owning their own homes.  Yet they felt a constant pressure to do even better than that:  to own more, to have a better job, a better body and more prestigious credit-card than the other bloke, to have travelled more extensively and squeezed in more ‘experiences’ than the other person.  Even at University, many of the people I met were already being crushed under the weight of those expectations.  Some of them folded under that weight and thought themselves utter failures. Others gritted their teeth and set out to be happy in the terms their parents and their community had allotted for them.  But they, and most of us, never get there.  We never become good enough, or affluent enough, or good-looking enough, or credentialed enough, to be happy or content.

Paul suggests that if we really do want to move on from that point, we need to let go of religious concerns, the laws and concerns of our society and culture, and embrace the life of the Spirit.  Now, ‘letting go’ is like a dying, and that's why Paul is forever talking about crucifixion with Christ.  Note that Paul does not suggest, as some preachers still do, that the death of Jesus is able to achieve our salvation apart from what we ourselves do in response.  It is not simply the fact that Jesus dies in our place that is able to save us from the terrible weight of religion, but also our willingness to participate  in that death by dying ourselves.  In chapter 2 of Galatians, verses 19 and 20, Paul says: 
Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.  The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 
What saves us, according to Paul, is our willingness to surrender every religious rule or aspiration that may have pushed us along, every socially-constructed behaviour or symbol which may have defined our sense of worthiness up until now.  Like Christ on the cross, in our baptism we are stripped of any status or power we may have possessed as a result of our conformity to religious rules or socially defined paths towards status or achievement.  We acknowledge, in a rather horrifying moment of clarity, that the sum total of all these things is nothing.  They are unable to save us, to liberate us from either guilt or the ever-present spectre of failure.  They are unable to fill the void, to bring contentment, to make us whole.  The American singer John Cougar Mellencamp put it well a few years ago when he sang 'There's a hole in my heart that I can't seem to fill/ I do charity work when I believe in the cause but my soul it troubles me still'.  

At that moment, according to Paul, salvation arrives as from another place.  When all our own achievement comes to nought and nothingness, Christ arises to face us with a word of surprising grace: you are forgiven, you are loved, you are free . . .  But I hesitate at this point.  I am reluctant to talk of grace too quickly.  I suspect, you see, that many of us have been taught about a rather cheap kind of grace, a grace that arrives apart from the gospel injunction to take up one's cross and follow after the way of Jesus, a grace that tries to skip over the necessary experience of emptiness and void which John of the Cross called the 'dark night of the soul'.  Don’t get me wrong, grace is real, it is powerful, and it is freely given.  But it is certainly not cheap.  In order for God to come to us as the healer and the liberator of souls, we must be prepared to lay ourselves bare.  We must let go of every religious pretension, every cultural certainty, every economic doctrine, every aspirational rule.  Then, and only then, when we have been stripped bare of every skerrick of cultural capital . . . then we may be ready to receive that mystery we call grace.

And so I ask you today:  what is the circumcision in your flesh which you rely on for your salvation?  Is it your attendance at worship?  Is it the fact that you're heterosexual rather than homosexual?  Is it your generosity or charity towards others?  Is it your self-effacing nature?  Is it that fact that you've worked hard to provide for your family, or remained faithful to your spouse?  Or is it, more nakedly, your caste or position in the social pecking-order?  Whatever it is, hear this word of God today:  'neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!' 

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in 2004.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The decision

2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62

At the heart of Christian life is the decision, the decision to follow Jesus.  When you were confirmed in baptism you made promises to God, to yourself, to the church.  You promised to turn from evil, to embrace Christ, and to give yourself over to God for whatever God should will and wish for your life.

Baptism represents a crucial moment of decision.  A decision to accept God's call on your life, a decision to be crucified with Christ to all that maims and destroys, a decision to be raised with Christ to a higher mode of being all together, a life more alive.  But being baptised is no guarantee that the decision will hold.  It is God's pledge to you, and yours to God.  But, just like a marriage vow, the pledge of baptism is not worth the paper it's written on unless the parties to the vow choose, and re-choose, and re-choose again to be faithful to what they have promised.

The drama of choosing and re-choosing is evoked marvellously in the story we read just now about  Elijah and Elisha.  Here we find them going on their last journey together, a journey which ranges not just from Gilgal and Bethel, to Jericho and the Jordan, but also through the mythic story of God's dealings with the people of Israel.  When Elijah declares that he will leave Gilgal and journey to Bethel, Elisha knows that he is being presented with a fundamental vocational choice: to either take up the mantle of his master, or to lay it down in refusal.  You may recall that Bethel was the place where the patriarch Jacob wrestled with God during a dark night of decision.  The editors of 2 Kings invoke that connection because they want us to know that Elisha is approaching a struggle of equally epic proportions.  Like Jacob, God has called Elisha to serve him.  But that service is not an easy one.  The easier path will always be to run away from what God has ordained.  In the story we read, Elisha chooses to go with his master, which represents a first step on the journey to his destiny.

But having made the choice, the choosing is not over.  For having arrived at Bethel, Elijah then announces that he will be moving on to Jericho.  Again Elisha is confronted with the choice:  should I stay or should I go?  Should I stay here in the safety of my brother prophets, or should I follow this man into whatever strange paths God may have planned?  The allusion to Jericho as a destination gives us a little clue about the kind of plans God has in mind for Elisha.  He will follow after the way of Joshua, the man who crossed the Jordan to take possession of the land of Canaan for the Hebrew people.  His mission will be to close down the rule of might and establish the law of justice, to oppose the worship of idols and champion the worship of Yahweh.   Again, we read that Elisha chooses to follow his master.

But even then the choosing is not over!  When Elijah announces that he will move on toward the Jordan river, Elisha must choose once more.  Will he take on the mantle not only of Jacob and Joshua, but also of Moses, the one who confronted the power of Pharaoh and led the people to freedom through the Red Sea? Will he be the one who confronts the political powers of his own time with the message of God?  Will he be the courageous one, the man who holds the law of God to be higher than any other power, even that of the civil authorities?  Will he be the one who is willing to lay down even his own life for God's cause?

Well, the penultimate moment of decision arrives when, having crossed the Jordan River, Elijah is preparing to take his leave.  His life's work now completed, Elijah asks his best and brightest disciple whether there is anything that Elisha would ask of him.  Now.  I want us to pause for a moment at this point.  Because I really think that the full import of what Elisha says here is seldom understood by preachers.  And perhaps I am one of them.  But listen to what Elisha says:  "Master, I would have a double portion of your spirit".  Now most of us, I think, are inclined to hear those words as, in some sense heroic, the appropriate response of a pupil towards his dying master.  Many of us imagine, here, the heir apparent taking on the mantle of his mentor in some kind of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade kind of scene.  But what WAS this spirit of which they spoke?  And what were it's effects? 

The spirit that motivated and empowered Elijah was, of course, the Spirit of God.  In the parlance of the Hebrew Bible, this spirit was 'ruach', a mighty wind which came sweeping into a person's soul and carried them off to danger and torment for the sake of Yahweh.  I repeat, swept them off to danger and torment.  In asking Elijah for a double-portion of his spirit, Elisha effectively petitions God for a life like his master's, only more so:  a nomadic life where no place is really home; a political life confronting the powers that be; a life which often sinks into depression because the people are deaf to God's word.  Hear what I am saying!  The coming of God's Spirit makes a man a fool.  It makes him turn his face towards Jerusalem, where his enemies are waiting for him.  It makes him preach a gospel of peace and compassion which makes absolutely no sense in an economy where the way to security is to step on someone else's head.  It sets him apart for a life of financial insecurity and social ambiguity.  If you don't believe me, think of Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero, or the martyrs of Timor.  Or, indeed, think of Jesus Christ.

'Well', I hear you ask, 'if that's what the life of a prophet is about, then why did Elisha take it upon himself?  And why should I take it upon myself?  I don't want to be a prophet!'  Well, the bad news is that if you've been baptised into Christ then you've received the very Spirit which Elijah received!  God has therefore called you to be his prophet in the world.  Ironically, the good news is exactly same. . .  that anyone who has been baptised into Christ has received the very Spirit which Elijah received.

Confused?  What I mean is this.  When the Spirit comes upon the church, she ordains us for a difficult mission, but she also imparts those intangibles which the apostle Paul calls 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and discipline'.  Not apart from the danger and difficulty, but in the very midst of them.  That's the mystery of the Christian God and the Christian way of life.  Our God is a crucified God, a God of love who lays down God’s life for our sake.  So, therefore, is any life given over to the way of that God in the world, the way of love.  Yet, at one and the same time, a life vulnerable to God's sufferings also opens onto the wide open spaces of contentment and peace which also belong to God.  Somehow the two go together.  Somehow, by living differently within this bleared, smeared world, we become signs and sacraments of a different kind of world: a world in which the weak are not exploited for profit; a world in which people are valued and cared for simply because they are people.  Therefore, despite the crap we cop, God also gives us what can only be called a 'mystical apprehension' of that other world, even as we live in the midst of this one.

So let us return to where we began: the decision.  The decision to follow Christ is one which needs to be made over and over again.  In the beginning we think we see the benefits of Christian life pretty clearly.  All looks pretty rosy, and so we dive in.  Just like when we first fall in love.  But when the tough times come, when our faith puts us in an awkward position—socially, commercially, politically—we experience the real cost of faith, and so many of us wonder whether we've made the right decision. 

If that's you this morning I can only address your uncertainty out of the experience of my own faith, and the testimony of faithful people down through the ages.  I testify that's its only when I was forced to re-choose the way of Jesus in the midst of a difficult time that I actually found out what love, joy and peace were all about.  It's only when I was at the brink of tossing my faith away that I gained a glimpse of that beatific vision which makes it all worthwhile.  So that now, when I pray that prayer of the church that we will recite at the end of our service – Wesley’s ‘Covenant Prayer’ - I often find myself weeping.  Not so much with the grief and the pain of a prophet, but with an inexplicable joy at the sheer gratuity of God's love.

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in 2004.