Don’t look back!

Don’t look back!

Second Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 19. 15, 16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62 (view all)

A sermon for the first Eucharist of the Revd Matt Davis as priest, and the Revd John Thorne as deacon.

Well, I thought that with Matt priested and John now a deacon, I would be able to sit back and relax this morning, but instead I’ve ended up as the ‘guest preacher’. Let me explain: A couple of months ago, I told Matt that, as is the tradition for a new priest’s first Eucharist, he could invite anyone he wanted to preach this morning. 

So he went away to think about it, and a week or so later came back and asked me! I have no idea how far down the list I was, I don’t want to know, but if this morning’s sermon isn’t any good, it’s entirely Matt’s fault for asking me. 

If it’s a good one, however, it will be of course be entirely down to the skill of the preacher!

What me standing here does highlight, though, is how easy it is for us to get lulled into a sense of routine in our life as a church, and in our individual Christian lives. Each Sunday the preacher stands up, some Sunday’s they’re better than others, but life goes on anyway, and the routine continues. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of routine — rhythms of prayer, worship, fellowship that keep us going and sustain us in our faith.

But at the same time, it is true things can all too easily become stale and mundane — as we go through the motions week after week, we can lose sight of the wonder that perhaps drew us to Christ in the first place. We can plod along, autopilot engaged, and in the process miss some of the incredible opportunities that God has for us in our lives. 

So, why should our faith be more than routine? How can our eyes be opened this morning to the wonder of following Jesus, and the incredible opportunity that faith in Christ presents to us? How can we live for more? 

Well, if we are to do this, we must take the challenging words in this morning’s gospel seriously — to follow Jesus with everything we have, without holding back, ahead of our need for warmth and shelter, even ahead of our family relationships. 

He tells us,

No one who puts a hand to the plough, and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

What an intriguing picture, and one that we can easily make sense of — one person this week, when I mentioned this in conversation, said ‘of course, otherwise you’d get wiggly lines!’ 

But Jesus is actually making a reference, the same way we might reference a film or a book, to a story that those around would have known well — the calling of Elisha in our Old Testament reading. 

Elisha and his master, Elijah, lived in an age of half-hearted worship — where there were plenty of prophets and priest floating around, but their allegiance to the King and their political ambition took precedence over doing God’s will. We’re told at one stage that Elijah is the only faithful one left.

But Elijah is getting on a bit, he’s coming to end of his life, and needs an apprentice — someone who will follow his example and take over his ministry once he is gone.

In which case, Elijah could not hope for a better, more dedicated, apprentice than Elisha. We see the first sign of this when he is called to follow — he is ploughing in the fields along with many others, and not only does he not look back, but he destroys all his equipment so he couldn’t go back even if he wanted to! The animals are slaughtered and eaten, using the plough and the yoke, as firewood.

In fact, Elisha’s name would go down in the history books for his whole-hearted devotion to his master, and it is because of Elisha’s whole-hearted passion, that he inherits all of Elijah’s prophetic gifts.

So, Jesus tells those who would be his disciples, you must have the devotion of Elisha, and even more besides.

It is so easy, in our lives, to allow our identity as Christians to be part of who we are, without allowing it to be all of who we are.  Even as a priest, it is easy to sink into a routine — to give some, but not all of myself, to get over-comfortable, to see ministry as a job rather than a vocation.

But the reality, especially in the times in which we now live, is that in our world today there are plenty of admirers who think Jesus was a good teacher, a good example, but what is needed, perhaps more than ever before, are devoted, passionate, daring, whole-life, followers. Christ calls followers, not admirers. 

This is why we have so much cause to celebrate in our Ministry Area today, why for me yesterday was such a joyful occasion. Because, in Matt and John, beyond everything else, beyond all the gifts they each bring, at the heart we have two devoted followers of Jesus Christ. 

If there’s one thing that I can say about both Matt and John whole-heartedly, it is that they are passionate followers of Jesus. And they make mistakes, and they will make mistakes. They might stumble over the liturgy, they might occasionally make the wrong decision or say the wrong thing, they might occasionally preach a duff sermon. But they are passionate about Jesus, and about seeing his kingdom come in our Ministry Area, and their devotion is an example to us. I look at them and their faith is an example to me as their Incumbent.

However, that devotion isn’t on our behalf, it isn’t that they are devoted so that we don’t have to be — it is an example, a challenge, to imitate. 

Paul tells the Galatian Christians,

For freedom, Christ has set us free… For you were called to freedom, Brothers and Sisters… [so] through love become slaves to one another.

We are set free to serve, set free to worship, set free to love others. Set free because when we give our whole selves, the fruit of the Spirit is able to grow within us as a gift to the world — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. 

As two devoted disciples, Matt and John have done and will do even more great things in our Ministry Team, but imagine how much more we can all do together! 

Imagine a whole family of Christ’s followers, who are unwilling even for a moment to look back and count the cost, but are willing to press ahead together into all that God has for us. To grow his kingdom in our communities through devoted acts of love, through inspiring expressions of joy, through extravagant acts of generosity, through unshakable faithfulness and self-control. 

Imagine the impact that could have, imagine the freedom it could bring, imagine the transformation for those who are the last and the least. Imagine the joy and wonder and awe of all that God could do in us, and through us, by the power of his Spirit. 

Let’s set ourselves on that path together, my friends — and for God’s sake — let’s not look back! 

For his enthronement as Bishop of Winchester in 1975, John V. Taylor, one of the great heroes of mission for Matt and myself, wrote this prayer. I used it in a sermon earlier this year before Lent, but I want to finish with it again today. And as I do, I wonder whether you might close your eyes with me, and if, as you hear the words, you find yourself agreeing, perhaps you might pray with me in your heart: 

Lord Jesus Christ,
alive and at large in the world,
help me to follow and find you there today,
in the places where I work,
meet people,
spend money,
and make plans.
Take me as a disciple of your Kingdom,
to see through your eyes,
and hear the questions you are asking,
to welcome all with your trust and truth,
and to change the things that contradict God’s love
by the power of your cross
and the freedom of your spirit.
Amen.

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