Toorak Uniting Church

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The tree and the fruits

Luke 9: 51 – 62     Galatians 5: 13 – 26
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
27 June 2004, 10:15am

Two weeks ago we heard how Paul was addressing some disagreements that had arisen in the Galatians’ congregation in his letter. We heard how some argued that new converts to Christianity should follow all the laws of Moses and others that the law of Moses was no longer binding and that keeping to the food laws and circumcision were no longer necessary to those who converted to Christianity from outside the Jewish faith.

Paul argued that after the death and resurrection of Jesus faith was the only thing that could bring anybody to God and to Christ. Keeping to the law could even become a hindrance to true faith is what Paul argues, because it could give people the false impression that trying to follow the laws of Moses would, in any way, bring them closer to salvation.

Salvation is what Jesus has done says Paul, and there are no extra requirements after that. On the contrary, God has made us free of those requirements and calls us to live a life of freedom and the Spirit, rather than a life that is regulated by laws.

People will have accused Paul of libertinism. If you let go of putting the requirements of the law upon people, won’t you end up with a chaos of immorality? Won’t it lead to people starting to do just anything they like, ending in disorder and confusion about what is ethical?

The history of the Church has shown that, if people take these statements of Paul too literally this will indeed sometimes lead to chaos and excess. During the reformation there was a group in Germany who made a point of giving up obedience to any law and declared themselves to be free from any restraints. They ended up in a big muddle of sexual excess, drunkenness and gluttony.
It was worse than the sixties!

That that is not what Paul intends is shown in the passage we read from his letter to the Galatians today. A life in the freedom of Christ is a life that has been liberated to something else than undirected gratification of desires he says. It has been liberated to life in the Spirit, to becoming one with Christ, to living a life worthy of Christ. Not because it is good at following the rules, but because it springs from the source of light and love itself and can’t but flow over from that.

He than sums up a whole list of things one should expect to happen in such a life, and a whole list of things that should definitely not be part of such living.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are named as characteristics of a liberated life in Christ. Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing things that can not be reconciled with such a life.

We may feel reasonably safe when we consider those lists in the situation of this congregation. Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing, all these things, they don’t happen in our congregation do they? Not often anyway. And if they do, and we know about it, we do not approve of them do we? So we should be safe.

And we practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and all the rest of them with passion, don’t we. Not that we always succeed, but mostly: People speak of Toorak as a loving, warm and friendly community where differences are discussed in a reasonable manner and where strife, envy and jealousy do not enter into our communal life. We disagree on some things, but at least we are polite about it and we seek to control ourselves when we encounter people with different points of view.

Perhaps we have learned something in 2000 years, perhaps we are, for the largest part, good Christians, following in the footsteps of Jesus by being reasonable, sensible and nice.

What would Jesus have said to us if we had encountered him on the road he is travelling through Samaria? If we had offered our loyalty and expressed our desire to become followers of him? And what would our reaction have been?

"Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."

Or: "Let the dead bury their own dead when we wanted to go and bury one of our parents before we came?"

Or: "don’t say goodbye to your loved one, leave, today, with me, for an existence of uncertainty and persecution.

They are three statements that are hard to reconcile with the Christian lifestyle we have developed over two thousand years of practising good family values and economic stability.

Never anywhere to settle in and be content, burying loved ones not a top priority, taking the feelings of your family into account before embarking on a bit trip not something that needs prime attention.

Can this be Jesus? Should we be taking these words seriously, and if we do, aren’t they in direct contradiction with the life of joy, peace, kindness and generosity led by the Spirit as Paul pictures it?
Footloose and inconsiderate is closer to the mark!

The context in which these words are spoken may help us to understand them better.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And we all know what is going to happen there. It is not a happy journey with Jesus fully conscious of where he going and what is going to happen. He travels through Samaria. A place hostile to Jewish pilgrims. Even then the west bank was a place where Jews weren’t safe and where first century newspapers regularly reported attempts on their lives.

The Greek uses the same word used in the Old Testament for the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Jesus pictured here as the new Moses, leading his people to freedom and God’s Kingdom. On his way to be "taken up" the same word used for the ascension later on in Acts.

To Luke Jesus is on an exodus journey towards heaven, his face turned towards Jerusalem with determination. On that journey he encounters hostility. There is no room for him, as there wasn’t any room for him from the start, not in Bethlehem where he was born, nor in Nazareth after he’d grown up.

His disciples are really angry at the treatment they receive in Samaria. They want to stand up for Jesus and do something about it. Let fire and brimstone rain from heaven they say, referring to something Elijah has done in his time when he called the fire of heaven down on a group of soldiers that would not believe him to be a genuine prophet. But Jesus refrains from any violent action and continues on his way.

It is in this context that those difficult and confronting words are spoken.

Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man……
Let the dead bury the dead….
No farewell for those at home….

Words that radicalise the impact following Jesus has on any life. Making the following Jesus something different than a matter of trying to be nice and succeeding most of the time.

Our life in Christ receives it’s most serious threat from the inside I think. From complacency and a certain indolence where the journey in Christ is concerned.

We may be well prepared to call down fire from heaven in defence of what we see as the indisputable values of Christian life like John and James. We may be wanting to follow Jesus and live a life where the fruits of the spirit grow on the tree of being obedient and good, but where the passion and the urgency of really following Christ are absent and our Christianity is lukewarm.

If you are serious about following me says Jesus it means you’ll never settle in and always be at odds with the world. Like I was. Living a life of righteousness, love and peace will always cause clashes with an ordinary, ordered life. Because you are living towards a new order, a new life, a different future, there is no way you can be wholeheartedly content with what is here and now. There should be a yearning towards the New Jerusalem, an unrest about the here and now, not only on your own behalf, but on that of the whole world that needs salvation.

Following Jesus is not just a matter of decent living and high moral standards. It is that as well. But most of all it is giving up on all that and be liberated to a life that is full of Christ, a life completely focussed on living the life of love.

Eyes on the road to Jerusalem and beyond, travelling with an urgency that does not allow for any diversion, even the most innocent and appropriate diversion.

If you’re ploughing your field you have to keep looking forward otherwise the furrow will not be straight and the growing of whatever you are sowing will become very difficult. Following Jesus requires concentration and dedication is what Jesus says.

You’re free says Paul. Jesus has done it all. Free to live the life of God, free of other commitments and laws that may bind you. You’re free to bear the fruits of the Spirit on your journey with Christ. Not impeded by anything but the urge to live towards God’s Kingdom and become Christ in the world, for others.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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