Living Water

Are there Bible stories that you just never tire of hearing? For me, it’s this week’s window, of the woman at the well. There’s so much to dig into here (so much, in fact, that I had people sit for the Gospel reading!). I knew that this reading is coming back up next Lent, so I really tried to pick one thing to focus on: the woman leaving her jar behind. This encounter with Jesus came in the middle of her mundane tasks but was so extraordinary that she completely abandoned what she was doing. What type of event or encounter would it take for me to do that today?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

She left her jar behind. I love that small detail from this long story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s encounter at the well. She left her jar behind. Presumably, she needed the water. She had come out to the well in the middle of the day, after all. You usually come to the well in the early morning, or in the evening, when it’s cooler. But she had come at noon. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t need water. But still, she leaves her jar, as she runs back to her village to share what she had found instead of water at the well.

It’s a wonderful detail in a story where we don’t have as many details as we’d like. We don’t know much about this woman, we don’t even know her name. We’re given a few details from her life, that Jesus recounts to her. She has had five husbands, and currently is not married. That’s all we know.

We wonder, and our imaginations begin to fill in the gaps for us. I’ve often heard this woman judged for her situation. As if she is somehow immoral. This woman has been either widowed or divorced five times over. We assume she bears at least some blame. But that’s our modern minds filling in the gaps of an ancient story. Women in Jesus’ time didn’t decide when they were going to get married. They didn’t have much say in the matter at all. And while they could be divorced, they couldn’t initiate one. If this woman has indeed been divorced five times, it wasn’t something she choose. And the most likely reason for it was that she hadn’t been able to have any children. Her story is much less scandalous than it is deeply sad, and lonely.

We don’t know her whole story, but Jesus does. Jesus knows, without being told, her past, and we can assume he knows more details than are shared. He tells her these things so that she might take him seriously. So that she can see he is indeed a prophet, and more than a prophet. But he doesn’t offer judgment. He doesn’t blame her or anyone else for her circumstances. He simply names the reality.

And I love how their exchange continues from there. In Jesus, this woman has found someone who knows her whole truth—and doesn’t treat her any differently because of it! He engages with her questions, takes her seriously, and reveals his true self in exchange. When she says that she believes in the Messiah, he responds: I am he. Except, in order to translate the Greek smoothly, we’ve added that extra word, “he.” Jesus actually says to her: I am. I am. It is more than a simple statement. It is the name of God. Jesus reveals his whole self to this woman, and he makes good on his promise of living water.

And she leaves her jar behind. She has received living water in the form of Jesus’ truth and acceptance. She leaves her jar behind and goes to share what she has found with the people of her village. But she leaves more than just her jar. She leaves her abandonment behind. She leaves her isolation behind. She leaves her rejection behind. She leaves them behind because she has found living water. She has experienced the salvation that Jesus brings. The new life of relationship with Jesus. She leaves the jar behind and goes to share the good news she has found. There was a lot stacked against her, but nevertheless she leaves it behind to share the story of what God has done.

What jars would you like to leave behind? What jars do you need to leave behind? What is keeping you from living into the future that God has prepared for you and sharing the good news of what God has done? What jars do we need to leave, trading our past tragedies and present challenges for the living water that Jesus offers? Maybe it’s a dead-end job or the difficulty of finding one. Maybe it’s an unfulfilling relationship or no relationship at all. Maybe it’s a past wound or fear about the future. Maybe it’s an illness, or grief, or anxiety, or guilt, or shame. What is it that you struggle with, that holds you back from accepting the living water Jesus offers?

Just as Jesus knew the woman, her whole story, Jesus knows us. God could tell us everything we’ve ever done. The things we’re proud of, the memories that bring us joy and love, and the things that bring us shame, worry, and pain. God knows our whole truths. And God is not deterred by them. God offers us living water. God offers us relationship. God offers us futures not limited by our pasts.

The water of life that Jesus gives can’t erase this woman’s past. It can’t take away the years of feeling shame, or failure, or worry. But it can offer a different future. A future where she is more than abandoned. More than shamed. More than ostracized. God’s well of water never runs dry.

We don’t know much about this woman at all. But we do know she ran to tell her village about Jesus’ truth and power, all the while wondering—could it really be the Messiah? Like the disciples left their nets, she left her jar to share the good news. In the Orthodox Church, tradition has given this woman at the well a name: Photini. It means the enlightened one. And she is celebrated as an Evangelist and Apostle.

She came to the well alone, for the daily task of retrieving water. She left without her jar, forgetting completely what had brought her there in the first place. And she returned with a multitude, to share the life that she had found. Her words invite us, today: Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. And still gave me the living water of salvation: relationship, belonging, and love. Come and see. Amen.

 

Advertisements

The Reckless Shepherd

Sometimes, Bible stories are so well known that we can take them for granted. I think the parables of the lost sheep and coin fall into this category. We’re so used to the story of the shepherd going in search of the one lost sheep that we don’t stop and wonder, “Is this really normal–or good–behavior from the shepherd?” I don’t think it is normal, or logical, behavior for a shepherd to abandon ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go in search of just one. And that’s the point. God’s love for us isn’t logical. It isn’t normal behavior. It’s extraordinary, tireless, and reckless. And thank God for that.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Which one of you,” Jesus asks, “that has a hundred sheep and loses one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until you found it?” Which one of you wouldn’t risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one?

Or, which one of you, Jesus continues, having lost a silver coin, a tenth of what you own, wouldn’t light the lamps and sweep the house until you found it? And having found it, which one of you wouldn’t call together your friends for a celebration that might cost more than the coin was worth?

Jesus poses these questions in a rhetorical way—making us think, who wouldn’t do this? But, when we pause and consider them, who would do this? Who would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness, in danger, all to find one sheep? Who would be so over-the-top excited at finding a coin that they would call all their friends together to celebrate? Is one sheep worth that much risk? Is one coin worth that much joy? This shepherd is actually pretty irresponsible. This woman is actually fairly wasteful. These characters aren’t the kind of people we’d put in charge of our flocks or our bank accounts.

These parables are two of three stories that Jesus tells in Luke fifteen. The third, taking up the rest of the chapter, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes, people even jokingly call this the “Lost Chapter” of Luke. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Jesus tells all of these stories to address a very specific situation that’s described in the first three verses of the chapter.

He has been attracting quite a few followers lately, from many different walks of life. And it’s starting to rub people the wrong way. The Pharisees and scribes, in fact, are grumbling that Jesus “welcomes tax collectors and sinners and eats with them.”

There’s a lot that we can miss here, because we don’t live in the same world as Jesus did. The Pharisees and scribes? Those are the good religious people of the day. They’re the church-goers, the service-project doers, the upstanding citizens, trying to do their best.

The tax collectors and sinners? Well, they’re not the upstanding citizens. When we’re told Jesus is eating with sinners, this isn’t sinners in the sense of “we’re all sinners, because we all make mistakes.” These are people whose habitual actions have put them on the fringes of society. It’s not that they’ve done something wrong once, or even occasionally. They regularly reject the cultural norms and rules of the good religious people. And the tax collectors, well they’ve sold out their own people to collude with the Romans.

And Jesus is eating with them! He is sharing table fellowship with those people. Eating together meant placing yourself alongside someone else. Our English word companion literally means someone you break bread with. Jesus is letting those people be his companions.

And the good religious folks just don’t understand. Why? Why those people? At the very least they should be made to clean up their act before they get a place at the table. They should change their behavior, stop being so objectionable. They just don’t see the value of those people. And if those people are invited, the Pharisees really don’t want to be at the party.

Whenever we read parables, we try to see who the different characters might represent. And the narrative setting for these parables can make it pretty easy. The tax collectors and the sinners are the lost ones—the sheep, the coin, the son. The Pharisees and scribes must be the ninety-nine other sheep, the older brother. They don’t need special attention, because they’re already part of the group.

Although, it’s interesting to turn the parable on its head. Could we not say that the Pharisees and the scribes are the ones who are truly lost? That they’re the ones who do not understand, while the tax collectors and sinners actually get what Jesus is all about? It’s the good, upstanding people who are cut off from what Jesus has to offer, who need to be restored to the community. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant, but it’s fun to think about.

And who are we in this story? Are we the lost? Are we the ninety-nine? Do we celebrate with the shepherd and the woman, or do we feel resentful of all the attention that one troublesome sheep has gotten? These are all questions that we could have an entire sermon about! It’s part of the beauty of parables—in just a few sentences a rich and complex story develops, inviting us to see ourselves and others through new eyes.

But as much as we can ponder whether we’re the coin or the friends, the one sheep or the ninety-nine, none of those things is the main focus in our parables. These aren’t stories about a lost sheep or coin, really. They’re stories about a shepherd who risks everything to go look, and about a woman who sweeps all night long to find. It’s the shepherd and the woman who take center stage. These are parables that, while they can teach us about ourselves, are mostly about God.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees and the scribes—and is telling us—what God is like. God is like a shepherd in charge of a hundred sheep, who notices when even one sheep goes missing. God is willing to risk anything for that sheep. He picks it up and carries it back to safety.

God is like a woman who has lost something valuable, who will stop at nothing to find it. She turns her entire house upside down, possibly creating chaos and confusion, just for that one coin. God does everything in these parables, for the sake of the lost. God searches, God seeks, God finds, and God restores.

And God rejoices. God throws a party and celebrates, because the lost has been found! The community is whole and complete again. It’s not just the one sheep that has been restored, the whole community has been restored to the way it is meant to be. The ninety-nine were not complete without the lost one.

The shepherd and the woman go to a great deal of trouble to find something that isn’t worth very much to anyone else. Because to God, there is no such thing as a person with no value. To God, there are no “those people.” There are no insiders and outsiders. Jesus understands that those on the outside of the community are so important to what the community should be. Without them, the community is incomplete.

And everyone is invited to be part of the celebration. Wherever you find yourself in these parables—lost, found, begrudging, or joyful—God seeks for you.. Recklessly so, even. God risks everything for you, for me, for each of us. And God wants nothing more than to celebrate with the lost and the found. With the insiders and the outsiders. With the Pharisees and the tax collectors. Together. May we give thanks for a God who seeks. A God who searches. And may we celebrate together the joy that is found in community with God. No insiders or outsiders, but all of us. Together. Amen.

Martha, Martha, Martha

Mary and Martha is one of those stories that tends to divide people. I’ll admit, I’ve always identified more closely with Martha than Mary. But while there are many things we can take away from this short story, I don’t think a harsh dichotomy is the point. This week, I chose to focus on the “why’s” in the story. Why is hospitality important? Why are any of our many tasks important? Why did Jesus tell Martha to chill out? (In different words, of course.) What do you think? Have you ever been so rushed and busy that you lose sight of what matters? How do Jesus’ words speak to you?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last year, at Vacation Bible School, one of our stories for the week was Mary and Martha. My leader’s guide had given me a fun little social experiment to start each class with. I met the classes just outside the Kugler Room and explained to them that we were expecting a very special guest today. Jesus was coming! And I needed their help to get ready.

Each class was split into four groups, and each group had an important task to help us get ready to welcome Jesus. One group would set the table, one group would sweep the floor and take out the trash, one group would wash and dry the fruit. And the final group had a special assignment, they were going to go with Lauren and Paige, my helpers, when we got in the room.

The kids got into the make pretend game and really worked hard at their tasks. That is, until they saw what the fourth group’s special assignment was. They went with Lauren and Paige to a bunch of pillows and blankets, snacked on some Goldfish and lemonade, and watched Veggie Tales on YouTube.

I was very quickly told that this was not fair at all. The kids demanded that I make this group help, or else no one should be working. “Don’t worry about them,” I said, “they’re doing exactly what I asked them to.” This response did not go over very well. But the experiment had worked! We had a room full of indignant and upset Martha’s and some very smug and self-satisfied Mary’s.

Kids have a built-in sense of fairness. They are very attuned to anyone getting more or less than they should, or not doing their fair share. As we grow up, we learn that sometimes things just aren’t fair, but still this story of Martha and Mary can rub us the wrong way. Who thinks Martha got a bad deal?

Why isn’t Mary helping? Surely if they both worked together, they might have both had time to spend with Jesus. Why does Jesus rebuke Martha like he does? She’s harried and overwhelmed, and she’s only asking that her sister help her out.

And, what is this stuff about Mary choosing the “better part”? Are some ways of being a disciple better than others? Isn’t this what Martha is supposed to be doing? Welcoming Jesus into her home, being a gracious host. Our first reading, the story of Abraham welcoming three strangers, is all about the importance of hospitality. About what a gift hospitality is. Abraham runs to make these visitors feel welcome. He rushes to make sure bread will be prepared, he kills a valuable calf, and presents them with a veritable feast. Far more than the little bread and milk he promised. The surprise comes when we learn that through this lavish welcome for strangers, Abraham has unwittingly welcomed God to a meal.

Hospitality, providing welcome, is part of showing love and care to those we meet. The book of Hebrews implores us: do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares, referencing this story of Abraham. In fact, the word used to describe Martha’s actions is even diakonia, service. It’s the same word that Jesus uses to describe himself: as one who came to serve.

So, what’s so wrong about what Martha’s doing? Why is she reprimanded? It’s easy for us, when hearing this story, to make it an either/or situation. If Martha’s wrong, then that means Mary’s right and vice versa. We’re tempted to take sides, to declare ourselves as Martha’s or Mary’s. We can easily take offense on Martha’s behalf, because maybe we’ve been in her shoes. Overwhelmed, overworked, and unnoticed. The work of hospitality is so often behind the scenes, unrecognized and underappreciated. But if all we hear in this story is Martha or Mary, or Martha versus Mary, we’ve missed something important.

Jesus doesn’t chide Martha for what she was doing, but for how she was doing it. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” Worried and distracted by many things. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Martha is anxious and overwhelmed by all that she has to do. She is busy, with a capital B. She is so busy being hospitable, that she doesn’t even have time for her honored guest. Have you ever passed up a chance to spend time with a loved one, with family or friends, because you were just too busy? When someone’s asked you how things are going, have you ever responded by saying how busy things are?

Busyness is a badge of honor in our culture. It’s the Protestant work ethic run amok. Busyness is seen as a virtue. It means you’re doing things, producing things, accomplishing things. Few people use all of their vacation days, if they’re lucky enough to have them in the first place. To not be busy is to risk being seen as lazy, indolent, or apathetic.

And it’s not that we shouldn’t do things. Often, like Martha, there’s nothing wrong with our tasks. The things we’re doing in all our busyness can be good and holy things. Martha was doing a good and holy thing by showing hospitality. Our work is so often good—we can use our work to do good in the world, to care for ourselves and our loved ones. The activities we do, they’re part of nurturing meaningful relationships. The chores we do and the errands we run, they’re part of taking care of each other. Maybe you fill your time with advocacy, or with service projects, or meaningful time with family and friends, or whatever it is you are called to do.

The things we do can be beautiful ways to love God and serve our neighbors. Martha’s tasks aren’t the problem. The problem is when the tasks themselves become the end goal and focus, rather than the means by which we love and are loved. Martha was so focused on getting her tasks done correctly, that she missed the fact that God was sitting in her living room, while she was in the kitchen. She was distracted. And anxious. And it made her lose sight of the one thing that really mattered. Busyness robs us of being really being present with each other. It keeps us from appreciating each other and simply dwelling in the company of God and our loved ones, like Mary.

I know you’re busy—I don’t want to give you one more thing to do. But I’m going to. Can we be attentive to the presence of the holy in our lives? No matter what we find ourselves doing, can we pay attention to God’s presence and purpose in all of our varied activities and responsibilities?

Instead of running from one thing to the next, or even planning the next thing while we’re still doing the first one, can we treat each of our tasks, no matter how simple, no matter how mundane, as if we are setting a table for God? Because God is present in every moment of our lives. God is always there, if we’re able to stop and pay attention.

What is it that God has given you to do? Each of us is blessed each of us with tasks and callings as varied as we are. They are a gift, a chance to serve and honor each other in love. And God is present in each of them. Sometimes we are all anxious and worried about many things. It’s part of being human. But hear the gift and invitation of Jesus: dwell with me. Be refreshed and renewed by God’s presence, so that we might serve in love. Amen.

And the Word became flesh…

Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s Christmas in July. This week at St. Paul’s, we began an eight-week series on our beautiful stained-glass windows. Our windows move around the sanctuary in chronological order of Jesus’ life (or as best as they could guess in 1880). So the first window up was the nativity window. I had a lot of fun writing a Christmas-esque sermon in the middle of summer, apart from all the stress and pressure of late December. What about you? Do you find new or different meaning when thinking about Christmas in July?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christmas Eve in my family was always crazy busy. In fact, it still is with Tim and my having six different services between us. But growing up was a whole different kind of crazy. My family was very involved in church, so Christmas Eve meant responsibilities. My brother and I would be acolytes or playing in the instrumental ensemble. My dad was in the choir, my mom always helped with the cookie and punch reception.

And beyond church, my parents had to navigate two families that required attention. My dad’s gathered on Christmas Eve, everyone opening presents and having dinner before going to Midnight Mass. We were always late to that gathering because our church service started at 7:00.

And when we’d finally get home after midnight, my parents still had more to do to make Christmas morning perfect for my brother and me. They’d wrap presents, make sure everything was ready to go, and of course set the coffee maker up, because Vince and I would definitely not sleep past six.

I know my family is not unique in the amount of obligations surrounding Christmas. The competing pulls on our time, the pressure to make sure everything is perfect, the desire to be in multiple places at once. It’s why when I thought to do this stained-glass sermon series, this was the window I was most excited about. It’s a chance to ponder what Christmas means without all the stress and busy-ness. It’s a chance for me to preach on Christmas without also having to organize three services and twelve different acolytes! Maybe we’ll see Christmas in a new light when we think about it the summer.

And really, why shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas in the summer? The date of Christmas is pretty arbitrary actually. It’s possible Jesus was born on December 25th, but we’ll just never know for sure. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates the birth of Christ on January 6th—the Feast of the Epiphany.

In any case, midwinter does work well for Christmas, because we celebrate Christ as the Sun (S-U-N) of Righteousness. Jesus, the prologue in John says, is the light coming into the world. A light shining in the darkness. And at least for Christians in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year, just after the winter solstice. The days are short, and the night darkness is long. But in the middle of that darkness, we declare that the darkness will not last forever. We celebrate Christ as God’s light coming into the world.

The incarnation, God’s becoming human in Jesus, could be described as God looking upon the darkness of our world—upon the hurt and suffering, the hate and meanness—God seeing that bleakness, and choosing to enter into it. Choosing to join us, as one of us, in love and solidarity. In light shining among us.

And what does light do? Well, one thing light does is reveal. We turn on the light to see what is actually in front of us. The light of the incarnation reveals to us who God is. Jesus tells us who God is. In Jesus we see revealed that God heals and forgives. God embraces outcasts and prays for those who hurt him. God understands betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, humiliation and death. Jesus tells us that God knows that—both as individuals and as a world—we need a Savior; and Jesus is that Savior. In Jesus we see revealed that God brings victory over despair, defeat, destruction, and death. In Jesus we see that God shares that victory with us.

As much as it reveals about God, the light of the incarnation also reveals who we are. God became human. Our humanity matters to God. Our fears and our happiness, our griefs and our joys—they matter to God. God entered in to a physical body. With everything that comes with it: pain, tiredness, joy, excitement. Our bodies matter to God.

By joining our humanity, by entering a body, Jesus made bodies holy. We often struggle with that. Our bodies can be frustrating to us. We’re often made to feel ashamed of our bodies if they don’t meet certain cultural standards. Our bodies can fail us. They break sometimes. They can limit what we’d like to do. But a body was once a dwelling place for God incarnate, so let us not forget that our bodies are beautiful, holy things.

All of our bodies. Jesus came, not in a strong body, but a weak one. A helpless baby, depending on others for everything. Weak bodies, dependent bodies, children’s bodies, are holy to God. Jesus came, not in a rich body, but in a poor one. Born in a stable, surrounded by the working poor and outcasts. Poor bodies are holy to God. Homeless bodies are holy to God. When he was just a baby, Jesus had to flee to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre. Refugee bodies are holy to God.

Living in the light of the incarnation means that these bodies matter. Worshipping a God who was poor, who was oppressed, who died an unjust death means that we cannot be indifferent to the flesh and blood bodies of the poor and oppressed in our midst. The bodies of war victims matter to God. The bodies of children in cages matter to God. The bodies of homeless men, women, and children in our city matter to God.

And what’s more, God wanted them to matter. God choose to enter a body, to become human. The creator of the universe willingly choose to take on our broken humanity in Jesus. Because of that, Christ is present in each of us, in our very humanity.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century monk and mystic, once wrote: “What good is it to me if Christ was born 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me? We are all called to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born.” God is always needing to be born.

Christmas happens once a year, but God’s presence in the world is needed every day. We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born. We are called to birth God’s love and grace in our lives. To testify to God’s presence in our lives and in the world. To be signs of that presence, shining in the darkness. Like Mary, we too are filled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God is present in us. Every week as we share in communion we take Christ’s very body into ourselves and we are transformed into the body of Christ as the church.

Let us bear Christ to the world. Let us testify to what Christmas means to us, every day of the year. God has come to dwell with us, to make all things new. God dwells with us; God dwells in us. To strengthen and uplift, to love and forgive. May we be formed as the body of Christ, broken open for the sake of a world in need of healing, justice, and love. Amen.

Discipleship: Not for the Faint of Heart

Yesterday was a special day at St. Paul’s–we had a pulpit swap with our partner congregation Mediator Lutheran, Philadelphia. So I preached this sermon at Mediator, and Pastor Regina Goodrich preached at St. Paul’s. We used the same texts, though: Luke 9, and Galatians 5. I wonder if the Spirit led us in similar or different ways?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My dad, before he went to seminary at age sixty to become a pastor, was a financial advisor. Growing up, I always thought it was just a fancy way to say he sold insurance. He did more than sell insurance, but selling—whether it was insurance, investment options, plans of action—selling was a large part of his job. And he was really good at it.

He often jokes that sales skills transferred surprisingly well to ministry. Because selling was just listening to people, he told me. It was making clients feel important and heard. Making them feel like their needs, their concerns, their questions, mattered. I think that my dad was probably so good at it, because he wasn’t just making his clients feel important, they actually were important to him. The things his clients were worried about mattered to him and he genuinely wanted to be of service to them. To be a good salesman, he told me, people need to know you care.

Can I just say, Jesus would make a terrible salesman? At least Jesus from this reading from Gospel of Luke would. I have to be honest, I don’t really like Jesus in this reading. He doesn’t seem to care about the people and their feelings, like, at all. He’s abrupt, insensitive, dismissive. And he’s doing a terrible job of marketing this whole discipleship thing.

Based on what Jesus has to say, who would ever want to come and be a part of this? According to him, following Jesus might make you unwanted in certain places. Following Jesus might mean you’re looked down on and have no place to call home. Following Jesus might challenge your relationships. Following Jesus might re-order your priorities.

If the Evangelism Team suggested putting that on the church sign, or on the flyers handed out in the neighborhood, I think we’d be looking for a new evangelism team. Come join us, no one will like you and you have to leave your family and friends behind.

And the things that these would-be disciples have asked Jesus for time to do, they don’t seem like unreasonable things at all. To bury one’s father? Surely Jesus isn’t against honoring our parents. There’s a commandment about that. To simply say goodbye to one’s family before leaving, possibly forever? Why would Jesus be so harsh?

But Jesus isn’t about a nice sales pitch. He’s not going to sugarcoat what following him means with taglines and glossy images of happy children. He wants these people to know: discipleship isn’t something to be taken lightly. Real discipleship has real consequences.

If we’re looking for a way of life that’s gentle and nice, Jesus’ way isn’t it. If we’re looking for a God who will respect our priorities; show deference to our social, cultural and economic boundaries; and keep our lives simple and clean, Jesus is not that God. If we want a spirituality that is comfortable rather than costly, and reliable instead of transformative, we should walk away now. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he’s trying to get this point across. Living as Christians in the world isn’t always the easy thing to do. To live in Christ is to live by the Spirit, and not by the flesh. Which is to say, to live for one another, instead of for ourselves.

Paul gives a long list of the works of the flesh—they’re almost all things that hurt the community, things that hurt our neighbors: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger. Even the ones that seem individual like idolatry and drunkenness—we know these hurt more than just ourselves. By contrast, the works of the Spirit build up the community instead of tearing it down. This is how we are meant to live in Christ.

In short, Paul is saying that following Jesus means your life is going to look different than if you didn’t follow him. Following Jesus means that you will value different things than if you didn’t. And I thought about my own life and wondered, is this true for me? Is it true for you?

Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus trump our plans and shape our lives, or do we instead shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?

How are our lives different as followers of Jesus than what they might have been otherwise? I once heard the question posed this way: if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Do we look at images of children being kept in tents with not even the bare minimum of care and turn our heads? Or do we speak up on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable? Do we respond to those with whom we disagree with anger and condemnation, like James and John? Or do we respond in love and kindness—which isn’t the same thing as agreeing?

Do we tear each other down with enmity and quarrels and factions? Or do we seek the best for our neighbors? Do we let ourselves be ruled by selfish desires? Or do we think of how our actions affect others? Would someone observing our actions think we lived by the way of the flesh or by the way of the Spirit?

When I take an honest look at myself, my answer would have to be, “both.” Sometimes God’s love is the driving force in my life, and sometimes I let it take a backseat to other cares and concerns. I think most of us would answer similarly. We all fall short of the ideal of discipleship laid out here, both by Jesus and by Paul. It’s good to be honest about that. Because if we don’t take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, we’ll never grow.

So, none of us is the perfect disciple. Even the actual disciples weren’t the perfect disciples. And honesty demands that we admit we’ll never actually achieve perfection. And we can either use that as an excuse to give up and stop trying, or we can hear the call of Jesus, bidding us to come and follow.

In the chilling words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus bids each of us to “come and die.” Those of us who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In our baptisms, we are drowned to self, and God raises us to new life. Life lived for each other and for the community.

Christ has set us free. Free from the selfish desires that threaten to consume and overtake us. Free from commodifying ourselves and others. Free from living only for the sake of ourselves. But Christ has set us free that we might be bound to one another in love. Free to live in the Spirit. Free to take on one another’s burdens and cares. Free to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Every day Christ sets us free. We are constantly needing to be reborn, released from our a life of selfishness and raised to a life of discipleship. Our journey as disciples is not something we ever finish. But we do not journey alone. Follow me, Christ says. Follow him in the way of the Spirit. We never walk alone. For Christ walks with us. Amen.