Next weekend Bishop John will be presiding at the ordination of five priests and nine deacons. These fourteen people have heard and responded to God in a particular way. Some have been called to self-supporting ministry while continuing in their workplaces or homes. Others have been called out of their previous work or context to serve God in new places and ways of living. Please remember to pray for them all this week as they prepare for ordination.
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings focus on the more dramatic callings to ministry. Elijah summons Elisha to leave his ploughing behind and become a prophet. Jesus uses this story among others to try to put people off following him, by emphasising the demands of travelling with his band of disciples.
(It’s one of the odd features of the gospels that the church rarely imitates. Jesus often highlights the difficulties of being one of his followers by stressing the demands. The church often seems to hide or minimise the demands and differences to make it easier to join. Perhaps there’s something to think about there.)
Dramatic changes, of course, make for more engaging and memorable stories. And perhaps you’ve got one of your own. However, for many of us, life is a lot less exciting than that, and our faith more a story of ups and downs and daily fluctuations of enthusiasm, faith and prayerfulness. We are in the middle of what Paul portrays as a struggle between the desires of – in his words – the flesh and the spirit.
Just in using Paul’s words there, I’m risking being misunderstood. In English, the sins of the flesh is a phrase with a long pedigree. They’re usually taken to be the kind of sins that put you on the front page of the tabloids: especially if you’re in the public eye. But that’s not quite what Paul says. Yes, the usual suspects are there in his list: fornication (a word that seems to belong to a long-lost world of Victorian morality and bible bashing) and licentiousness and so on.
But there are other words there that we don’t normally associate with “sins of the flesh” – envy, jealousy, quarrels, enmities, factions, anger and more. Flesh – for Paul – clearly doesn’t mean what we often take it to mean. These are things we might think of as more spiritual or mental or emotional sins – if we even think of them as sins at all – after all where would the advertising industry be without a good dose of envy and desire.
Some words mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes flesh means meat, sometimes humanity, and sometimes as here, the natural way of the world organised around doing what we want, when we want to, without taking God or other people into consideration. Paul contrasts that with what he calls living by the Spirit. To be called to live the life of God’s kingdom, is to be called to live by the life-force, the organising animating principle, of God’s kingdom, which is the life of God’s own self shared with us through Jesus.
The desires of the flesh are about taking things for ourselves, the life of the Spirit is about giving of ourselves.
Today’s gospel reading marks a turning point in Luke’s story of Jesus. He has recently come down from Mount Tabor, where Peter, James and John saw him like a divine figure shining with God’s glory, and where, Luke tells us, he spoke with Moses and Elijah about his coming death which would happen in Jerusalem. Now, Luke says, he begins that final, if somewhat winding and lengthy, journey to Jerusalem: where what awaits is execution, the very opposite of glory in any human understanding of things. Jesus is the one who gives up his own wishes in order to bring God’s love and forgiveness to all, even praying for those who nail him to the cross.
For Paul, following Jesus in the way of the cross is all about self-giving. Instead of us living for ourselves as number one, taking what we want, when we want it, the Spirit of God’s self-giving leads us to put God and others first, and learn what it means in our own contexts to give generously of our time, our gifts and our possessions: indeed, like Jesus, of ourselves.
- “The desires of the flesh are about taking things for ourselves, the life of the Spirit is about giving of ourselves.” In what ways does this way of putting things help you understand Paul’s contrast between flesh and Spirit?
- What do you think your call from God might be about? (The first clue is often to look at what you’re good at, the second at what excites you, the third that it may have nothing to do with ministry in the church but be about everyday faith and life. After having followed the clues, ask how that might be used to help others.) Is there someone you could talk to about it?