There is an unmistakable connection between this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Gospel passage. Both are about call and discipleship. In the first, Elisha is called to follow Elijah and become his successor. In the second, an unnamed ‘someone’ professes a desire to follow Jesus. Between the two, however, there is this striking difference. Whereas Elijah is happy to let Elisha first bid farewell to his parents, Jesus seems to condemn the same desire in those who want to follow him, as something that renders them ‘unfit’.
This passage in Luke (and a similar one in Matthew) is easily taken to mean that serious Christian discipleship requires us to abandon family and ordinary life. This is how those drawn to monastic life have often interpreted it. Yet if this is right, the cost of discipleship is far too high for most people. Certainly, the vast majority of those who have called themselves Christians have not made this sacrifice. Are they self-deceived?
As we think about this issue, It is helpful to recall last’s week’s Gospel. There Jesus expressly tells the demoniac who has been cured, and who wants to follow him, to return to his family. It is enough that he should give thanks for what God has done for him. Acknowledging the redemptive power of Jesus, this episode clearly implies, is wholly compatible with fulfilling the demands of domestic life.
So how do we resolve the tension between the instruction to leave family behind and the instruction to return to them? The unnamed people in today’s Gospel profess their desire to follow Jesus ‘out of the blue’ so to speak. Do they truly know what they are professing? The instruction to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead’ puts their profession to the test. What lies at the heart of this test?
The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, also concerned with ‘call’ gives us a clue. “You were called to freedom”, he tells them, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence”. We easily suppose, especially at moments of high emotional or religious intensity, that what we like doing is the role we should have in God’s plan for salvation through Christ. This is self-indulgence. Accepting the discipline of the (often rather more modest) place we have actually been assigned is much harder. But that is what true discipleship means.
A great shift in theological thinking is to be observed between the Old and the New Testaments. For much of the Old Testament, God is conceived in ethnic or tribal terms; God is our God, meaning, the God with whom Abraham and his descendants have entered into an agreement. God agrees to show the Israelites special favour and protection, and in return, Israelites promise to worship God in the right way. When they don’t, retribution is certain to ensue. That is almost always what calls forth prophetic warnings.
Here and there in the book of the prophet Isaiah (three different prophets, probably) we catch glimpses of a less ethnic conception of God, but in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah clearly re-affirms the old restrictions, and condemns “a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good. . . sacrificing in gardens, offering incense on bricks . . . eating swine's flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels”. “I will repay their iniquities and their ancestors' iniquities”, Isaiah hears God say. Punishment always falls short of outright destruction, however, because just as wine can be made from a small cluster of grapes, so God can “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains”.
It is here we find the radical theological innovation of the New Testament. Paul, himself a Jew of the deepest dye, comes to see that the God we find in Christ Jesus transcends all ethnic and social divisions. “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, but now . . . we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God . . . there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring”.
This is the central topic of the first two readings, but it is not obvious how the Gospel is related to it. Yet the connections are there. “The country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee” takes Jesus into Gentile territory, and thus beyond the world of the Jews. This echoes Isaiah: “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, "Here I am, here I am," to a nation that did not call on my name”. Symbolically, the demons from which Legion is freed take up residence in pigs, traditionally categorized by Judaism as ‘unclean’. Yet that location cannot save them. Their final destination has to be the abyss in which all evil is destroyed.
The message is clear: God transcends the tribe that first discerned his purposes. Salvation is open to all. Yet, in an intriguing twist, Luke tells us that the presence of Jesus proves too alarming for the local Gentiles, and they ask him to leave their neighborhood. It is not only the Israelites, plainly, who can turn a deaf ear to God saying "Here I am, here I am”.
The Sunday after Pentecost is unique in the Church’s year. Whereas every other holy day celebrates an event or a person, Trinity Sunday celebrates a theological doctrine – and what is more, a doctrine that is very perplexing. The God in whom Christians believe, it holds, is ‘Three in One’ and ‘One in Three’. This seems to defy even the most basic principles of arithmetic.
How can anything be both three things and only one thing? Yet that is what the doctrine obliges Christians to hold. Furthermore, this is not some optional extra that we may or may not choose to go along with. Since the fourth century, when the Creeds were finalized, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been central to all the major branches of the Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed. There are Unitarian churches who deny it, certainly, but these have always been in a small minority.
Why has Trinitarianism been thought so crucial? The answer is revealed in part by this week’s readings. The Epistle and the Gospel comprise two short and familiar passages. The first comes from Paul’s most important letter – his Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this several centuries before theologians came up with carefully formulated doctrines, and over a thousand years before Trinity Sunday became a fixture in the Church's Calendar. So here, we must say, Paul is not advancing a complex theological proposition, but simply trying to capture, and convey, his own profound experience of what it means to be a Christian. Trinitarianism arises because in doing so, he simply cannot avoid talking about God, and about Jesus, and about the Holy Spirit, all in equal measure.
In this respect, however, the Epistle does no more than the Gospel passage itself. Like Paul, John wrote these words of Jesus a very long time before theologians set to work on them. Yet here too we find that if Jesus is to describe his mission properly, and convey his promise to those who believe in him, a threefold reference is inescapable -- the Father who sends, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit who remains. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity is certainly perplexing, but this is because it reflects a great mystery to which we are necessarily compelled, whenever we try to affirm the truth about Jesus Christ.
The English word ‘enthusiasm’ does not, generally speaking, have religious overtones. It is most likely to be used in the context of sport or some personal interest. But in fact it comes from Greek words meaning "possessed by a god". The special kind of zeal or ardour that results from divine inspiration is exactly what the disciples display in this week’s passage from Acts. Possessed by the Spirit of God, they displayed such 'enthusiasm' that passers-by stopped to stare, and concluded that people acting in this way in a public place must be drunk.
The Feast of Pentecost is observed six weeks after Easter and commemorates this event. Though it no longer has anything like the same profile as Christmas and Easter, even among practicing Christians, it is in fact the third major festival of the Christian year, and no less important than the other two. Why is it so important?
The answer lies in today’s Gospel. The passage begins with a request – ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. Everyone who has a feel for religion can hear the deep longing that Philip expresses. But Christ’s answer -- 'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’ – contains a salutary reminder. We can fail to be satisfied with the truth.
The Spirit that took possession of the disciples, John tells us, was expressly sent by Jesus – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. It is in Truth, Peace and Love that this Holy Spirit is to be found. While it is to be understood as a gift, it is not given ‘as the world gives’. The spirit of truth, love and peace raises human beings to their finest level, but it does not lay any store by accomplishment, popular endorsement, or vindication in the eyes of the world. All these are things to which both societies and individuals lend great importance. That is why we are so prone to reject the gift of Holy Spirit, and keep on looking elsewhere and for something else.
The lesson to be drawn is this. While we should work at being successful wherever God has placed us, if this truly Holy Spirit is to ‘abide in us’, we must not let our hearts 'be troubled' by worldly aspirations, or 'be afraid' of worldly failure. Peter's new found mission, of course, is a shining example of just what this means.
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