Lectionary 13C (June 26, 2016)

Jesus calls. Jesus preached, Jesus in the sacraments, Jesus in the New Testament calls, calls us to look at ourselves and how we live, and to ask the question: Is the Church following God? Our Scriptures this morning ask this question. In Galatians, Paul shifts from his famous arguments about works-righteousness to his own ethical framework. In Luke, Jesus deals with four distinct varieties of potential followers. And in 1 Kings, Elijah puts the choice starkly before Elisha.

Elijah is an All Star Prophet on the move. He has confronted the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He’s been blamed for a drought. (Prophets are doing something right when they get blamed for natural disasters.) He’s raised a child from the dead. He’s presided over a showdown between God and Baal (which God won). God has more in store for him. God says, “I’ve got a couple of kings I want you to anoint, and I want you to pick up an intern: Elisha.” God didn’t specify an order, and Elijah finds the intern first. It is set to be a scene straight out of a Coca-Cola commercial. Elijah throws his Prophets jersey to Elisha, Elisha runs after him, but then he says, “Let me kiss my father and mother, and then I will follow you.” And Elijah says, “That’s not how this goes; you follow or you don’t.” “I need to say goodbye.” “What are you, Chicken?” “But, my mom and dad…” “Buck! Buck! Brawk!” The question “am I following” is clearly before Elisha.

Paul faces the same question of following in his letter to the Galatians. Lutherans love Galatians because it deals so forcefully with our refrain: Justification by Grace through Faith. Our works do not save us; Christ saves us. We do good works because Christ saves us and makes us able, and because now that we are forgiven we want to do good things. That discussion tends toward the hypothetical. Our conversation on justification or on any theological matter often is removed from reality. When we don’t test theology in reality, that theology is only half-finished. Our favorite parts of Galatians—the ones Lutherans love to cite—are already past; Paul’s argument is not yet concluded. He has to explain how his gospel works. It is, ultimately, why he writes Galatians.

The Galatians want to follow God. Scholars disagree on the details. What seems likeliest is that Paul usually formed his churches with “god worshippers,” non-Jews who believed and attended synagogue but did not keep kosher and who still performed pagan rituals. These new Christians ceased their old pagan lifestyles. The question arose: how do we follow God? In the church of Galatia, some argued that they should convert formally to Judaism and keep kosher. But that was never part of Paul’s gospel, and indeed Paul has argued for most of this letter that keeping those outward observances and governing our lives with these behaviors is dangerous. It draws us away from Christ. It makes regulations into idols. It makes the gospel all about following the rules. The Galatians still want to follow God, and the Law looks ready made for following.

We, too, want to follow God. Or I am assuming we do. We like to have some sort of assurance that we are on the right path. Are there benchmarks we can hit? Are there things we can do? The Law is full of lesser commands like this. Leviticus 17:10. “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from my people.” Right? No more rare steak. And if we don’t like the laws, we can make up our own. I lost track during the recent Human Rights Ordinance debate of how many in the opposition mentioned their success in business and attributed it to how well they had kept God’s commandments. They felt commanded to discriminate against customers who didn’t conform to certain parts of Leviticus 18, or else risk losing their blessings. Now, according to Leviticus 20, people who fail to live up to Leviticus 18 are to be put to death. But the Law prescribes death for a lot of things we like to do, so maybe we’ll make up a law forbidding floral sales.

Paul’s response in Galatians is that only one commandment fulfills the Law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Yes, you can do the things the law commands and obey its rules. But those things aren’t radical enough to fulfill the Law. Only loving our neighbors fulfills the Law, and that is the work of the Spirit, who is with us because of Christ. Our cherry-picked dietary or purity laws won’t fulfill the Law. Even obeying the whole Law won’t fulfill it. The Spirit, whom Christ has given us, compels us to love our neighbors as God loves them—and only in that is the Law fulfilled. Folks will say, “‘Love your neighbor’ sounds all nice and stuff, but you’re just trying to avoid God’s hard truths.” Paul replies, “No, you’re the one avoiding the hard truth. The hard truth is: Our works do not save us; Christ saves us. The hard truth is Christ has given us the Holy Spirit who loves our neighbors and compels us to love them. Wanna follow God? Live by the Spirit. That’s the hard part.”

Life in the Spirit is hard to define. Luke gives us some idea as to what it is not. He throws four kinds of disciples or potential disciples at Jesus. First: the avengers, James and John, who when the Samaritan village won’t welcome them want to call down fire from heaven. Jesus replies: “God, no! Why is fire from heaven your first reaction? I was just going to put some graffiti on their Welcome sign.” You don’t get to tell people their time for repentance is up. We’re always giving people a chance to repent. Second kind: those who say they want to follow and have no concept of what it means. A guy says he will go wherever Jesus goes. Jesus replies, “I’m gonna be honest: there are times when I envy the wild animals.” Life in the Spirit is not necessarily a path to prosperity. Third kind: those who are asked to follow but cling to the dead. Maybe literally they have a funeral to attend, maybe they just cannot let go of their old, dying life. When we cling to what is not Christ, we aren’t living in the Spirit. Fourth, and last: those who want to set the conditions. “I will follow you, but first…” Jesus replies, “This is not a bargaining session. You want to fulfill the Law? Receive the Spirit and love your neighbor.” We don’t decide who our neighbor is or the day and hour at which we will or won’t love them. It is a life that is busy, and active. A life lived on the way, as Jesus is on the way. This scene opens with his embarking upon his long journey to Jerusalem, and to death and resurrection. We will follow him every Sunday between now and November, just as we are called to follow him every day between now and our own resurrection.

Jesus calls us like Elijah calls Elisha. Elisha faces that stark choice: follow as God commands, or do not. He tries to cling to his old life. Elijah tells him what he thinks about that. So Elisha lets the Spirit go to work. He says goodbye to his old life, and immediately begins the love of neighbor to which God is calling him. He slaughters his oxen. Then he uses the gear as fuel for a cook fire. Kind of hard to go back to the old life when it is all gone. He’s not done, though. He takes that cooked ox, and gives it to the hungry. After a brief attempt to cling to his old life, Elisha lives in the Spirit and fulfills the Law. I imagine Elijah kept at his “Buck! Buck! Brawk!” routine for a while, until he could tell what Elisha was doing, then waited patiently until Elisha could do this thing for his neighbors, before finally saying, “That’s what I’m talking about; now, let’s go.”

Jesus preached, Jesus in the sacraments, Jesus in the New Testament calls us like Elijah called Elisha: are you following? Trinity follows when we let the Spirit compel us to love our neighbors with the love of God. Trinity follows when we provide a place for ESL and Al Anon meetings, and when we offer our neighbors yoga. Trinity follows when we don’t set conditions on who our neighbors are and when we serve them, and instead offer ourselves for the night so that homeless men have a place to sleep. Trinity follows when we don’t treat life in the Spirit as a path to prosperity, and instead faithfully share what has been endowed to us. Trinity follows when we don’t decide everyone else’s chance to follow God is gone and it’s time for fire from heaven, and instead emblazon our building with radical signs of welcome. Trinity follows when we gather as those who are washed and fed. When we splash in the water, drink the wine and eat the bread, Jesus asks us, “Are you following?” and in the same breath says, “Yes, you are.”