Trinity 5 - Looking forward on the path of life

A sermon preached by the Revd Ivo Morshead at St George's Campden Hill on 30 June 2013

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14. Gal 5:13-25. Luke 9:51-end

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem ... and.  As they were going along the road.  Luke 9 v 51 and 57

The last gallery in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy this year is given over entirely to six tapestries designed by Grayson Perry. They are strikingly modern with garish pink, white and blue colours, the story they tell is as old as the hills because they are a modern version of Hogarth’s Rakes Progress. The actual Hogarth paintings or prints can be seen in all its eighteen sketches, as I am sure we all know, at any time in the Soane Museum. Both Perry at the Royal Academy and Hogarth at the Soane show the progression from birth to death or near death of an individual because he followed the wrong way as he went along the path of life. 

This path for Jesus is clearly set out in Luke’s gospel. In the physical sense it is to travel to Jerusalem. Immediately after the birth narratives, comes Luke’s words Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. Immediately at that age he is taken by the spirit into the wilderness and tempted. The final test is when the devil takes him to Jerusalem and places him upon the pinnacle of the Temple and offers him the chance to prove beyond doubt that he is the Son of God by throwing himself off and be miraculously saved from harm for to quote ‘ He will command his angels .............. and they will bear you up and you will not dash your foot against a stone’. What an offer! what an easy way to avoid the path of the Cross, the path of apparent desertion by his friends, suffering in the body and betrayal by one of the twelve. Like the other two temptations this too was refused  by Jesus  and he returned from the wilderness filled with the power of the spirit to begin his journey to Jerusalem.

Such beginnings come to us all throughout our lives. The tapestries in the RA and Hogarth’s prints as with the picture of Jesus in Luke begin with birth and continue along the path of life with the effect of decisions made at crucial times. All of us no doubt can recall critical moments of decision, temptation, or accident that have helped set the course of our journey through life. The obvious ones involve choice of subject to study at school, the choice of friends we have made, the career that we have followed, and so forth. The list is endless some of which we can control, others, such as accident or illness, onset of old age, bereavement we cannot. The man in the Rake’s Gallery is depicted as knowingly following the downward path of dissipation leading to ruin. The gospels point us to follow the example of Jesus as he set his face towards Jerusalem, a road that was for him full of danger and pain and suffering, such as we all at times experience in our journey through life from birth to death.

In general people in the Old Testament did not regard death as their enemy but as a natural conclusion to life, their motto was that Yahweh was the God of life and what happens beyond the boundary of death remains out of his reach. Elijah, about whom we heard in the first lesson this morning, can be seen as one of the very few breaches of the wall of death from which faith in the resurrection developed later – of all people Elijah was expected  to  return in the time of the New Testament. Since he only departed rather than dying he did not need to be resurrected. Hence the link with today’s gospel with  the keenness of Elisha to take on the mantle of Elijah mirrored by the man who said to Jesus   as he was going along the road I will follow you wherever you go. Both Elisha and the man had to be warned of the cost of their offering of themselves, in the Old Testament Elijah told Elisha he had to stay with him right to the end when the fire and heat would surround them both, in the New Testament Jesus told the man who said I will follow you wherever you wherever you go. that the matter was too urgent for dilly dallying, that he must act at once and not make excuses to delay acting on his decision to follow Jesus along his road that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem.

From birth to death we follow, whether we like it or not a road of constant physical change. Most of us are or have been blessed with good health all our lives but we are dependent  on being part of human nature. The New Testament uses a Greek word sarx that covers a multitude of meanings but basically is the human body. Those familiar with the Greek New Testament will know that the epistle today from Galatians translates in verse 13 the word  as self-indulgence  do not use your freedom (from slavery to the law) as an opportunity for self-indulgence. The same Greek word is used four more times in this same passage we heard read but this time is translated as flesh. It is with this latter use that  Paul  contrasts with Spirit. Paul lists the shortcomings of the flesh we experience in the difficulty we find in self-control.  He contrasts  them with the positive attributes of the spirit which he calls the fruit of the Spirit, concluding in this morning’s lesson with the words  and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

It is this same Spirit of God that hums through the bible old and new. It was so vital in the eyes of Elisha to have this Spirit that he said to Elijah;  Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit (2K s v 9). The double share was usual in wills of  the time as the inheritance of the elder son. He was warned of how hard it would be to take on this spirit, this spirit epitomised in Elijah’s mantle which we can see over Elijah’s arm as he is carried up in his fiery chariot. As Elisha picks up the mantle that fell from Elijah, he grasps his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. In the destruction of his own clothes can be seen his recognition of  the new life that he had taken on.

It is after this pattern of putting aside the past that we take on a new life of the spirit again whenever we receive the absolution at this or any other church service. We absorb this new life by the reception of the bread and wine of Communion into our very bodies.   We need to reflect, confess and resolve to do better as we go along the path of life. We need to remember Jesus words from this mornings gospel; No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. The message of the bible and in particular the Gospel of Luke speaks of moving forward with urgency. Moses in the Old Testament, in spite of terrible setbacks, never stopped his momentum in leading the recalcitrant people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. Whenever things got bad for them they moaned and groaned complaining that they should never have left the certainty of their life of bondage in Egypt in exchange for all this excitement and change that their journey to the promised land involved.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem ... and.  As they were going along the road.  Luke 9 v 51 and 57

May we ponder on these words today. We  are all going along our road of life at whatever age or state we have arrived at now. The disciples were following Jesus who had set his face to Jerusalem. It was a tough journey but interspersed with resurrection moments of healing of the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the 5000, raising Lazaraus and the child from the dead, weeping with and comforting the bereaved. The spirit in contrast to the way of the flesh epitomised by Perry’s tapestries in the RA and Hogarth's Rakes Progress in the Soane Museum, calls us to walk the way of  the spirit and bringing  forth those fruits of the spirit set out for us by Paul today, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness and self-control.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem. May we follow with urgency and commitment.