Jesus doesn’t come off as very nice in this morning's passage, does he? This morning when I was rereading it I thought of the hymn – What a Friend we have in Jesus – not this morning! Just look at how he treats these people who want to follow.
He tells the first person who wants to follow him – well, you’re going to be homeless and I doubt you’d choose that. To another whose father has died, who presumably is in grief or at the very least simply wanting to fulfill his responsibility of burying him – Jesus says, let the dead bury the dead. Imagine I said that when someone came to me to plan a funeral.
And to the third who only wants to say goodbye to his family before he leaves, Jesus – Jesus tells him, forget it – no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Wow. Does he have no compassion? Does the kingdom of God (and we might want to get clear about what that phrase means) really mean we have to leave everything and everyone behind?
No and yes. Both and. First of all, you guys know as well as I do that Jesus sometimes gets pretty extreme in his examples and metaphors to make a point – doesn’t he?
Think of the parables. Those hit you over the head stories that make no sense. "The kingdom of God is like the man who finds the pearl of great value and sells everything he has to buy it." That makes no sense - you can't eat a pearl, or live in a pearl, or wear - wait, you can wear a pearl, but not just that!
Sometimes choosing the kingdom of God – i.e what is lifegiving – is a extreme or makes no sense. And choosing to walk towards that can be difficult. Sometimes we have to let go of what is dead. Dead within us – or a relationship that no longer brings life. Sometimes the norms of our family – aren’t lifegiving. Our behaviors may be familiar – but that doesn't mean they are right or good for us.
You know the phrase – fake it til you make it? That’s what its about – its not about pretending. Its about doing what is right for us, healthy for us, lifegiving for us – even if it doesn’t feel that way at first. Practice makes permanent, regardless of whether or not that practice is perfect.
Life-giving behaviors – the behaviors that generate the kingdom of God, make it real, here and now – are the fruits of the Spirt – generosity, faithfulness, love, joy, peace, patience, self-control. Live by the Spirit – by those things, Paul encourages – that’s kingdom of God living.
We can too easily – and incorrectly – hear the excerpt of Paul this morning equate to: body = bad, flesh is bad – and spirit, spiritual = good. That’s not what Paul means.
How do I know this? Because God became flesh. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God – and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. A body, flesh that is full of God’s lifegiving spirit is good.
Flesh clearly isn’t bad! For it is how God came into the world (John 1) and how we are made – in God’s image we were created to live and move and have our being.
Paul is describing behaviors that drive out the Spirit from our bodies, our lives. Behaviors that lead to what former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls – "uninhabited flesh."
We know what Paul is talking about isn’t good for us. Greed, licentiousness, sexual exploitation, envy, etc. they are behaviors that cut us off from people (even when we’re with people when we’re doing them).
I do a fair amount of workshops as a Certified Daring Way facilitator – and in that work Brené Brown refers to them as numbing behaviors.
They keep us from feeling what we need to feel. Seeing what we need to see. Remembering what we may need to remember to deal with painful realities in our present. Those behaviors rob us of our spirit – they cause us to walk away from our values. They cut us off, from who we really are.
But the fruits of the spirit? Those are delicious! Peace, love, joy, generosity, faithfulness, self-control. Sign me up! I want that! Who doesn’t? Those are the characteristics of healthy relationships – with ourselves, and with others. Because its all about relationships – Trinity – mutually transformative relationships are the key – the heart of God.
The image of the first set of behaviors – the unhealthy ones – for me it’s a rubberband. A closed circle – a never-ending loop – that can stretch but will inevitably break.
The fruits of the Spirit though – that’s a spiderweb. A little bouncy – but grows outward – connects outward – draws things too it. That’s the sign of healthy relationships. Who doesn’t want to be around a happy couple? Who doesn’t want to be with good lifegiving friends. We want those fruits – we crave it.
You know – watch any commercial on TV or a print ad online or in a magazine – and no matter the product or the experience they are selling – part of how they are selling it is that if you buy it – you will have some of those fruits. I worked in advertising – I thought it was as evil as it was fascinating. And that’s how good advertising works.
Do you remember the final episode of "Mad Men?" When the ad exec is at a meditation retreat and in his meditation reaches a state of bliss, and the next minute his eyes pop open as he conceives of a TV ad for Coca-Cola, one which we all remember – "I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Drink a coke and it will bring bliss! It may get you to buy it – but – the thirst quench, doesn’t last. Paul is talking about structuring our whole lives around gifts that keep on giving. We can't buy them like a Coke - life with God isn't a transaction. Its a way of living that brings gifts that keep on giving.
You know this week – looking at the difference between a promise and a commitment. A promise is something specific – to do that specific thing. A commitment – is to a value – a purpose – something larger than a thing.
That’s what Jesus is talking about. You see the would-be followers have things, they’ve promised to do. Jesus wants them to understand they are committing their life to a whole new thing – and some of their earlier promises may even get broken.
When you look at your days – not your whole life – but your days right now – have you structured your days, your very precious time, towards those things that are life-giving fruits of the Spirit? What would that pie-chart of your life look like? You know sometimes we schedule vacation, but vacation isn’t even life-giving.