works of the flesh
By Linda Rex
June 26, 2022, PROPER 8—As I was preparing to write this blog, I began to hear a noise outside my window. The fury of a thunderstorm was being unleashed, dropping heavy raindrops and tiny pellets of hail on the concrete. The thunder growling from the sky caused the cat napping nearby to raise her head and stare at the sheets of rain flying sideways by my window.
This was a timely event because I had just been reading the gospel account in Luke 9:51–62 where Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, was passing through Samaria. He had sent some disciples ahead of him to prepare a place for them to stay, but they were rejected by the people in that city. James and John, attempting to be helpful, were indignant and asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and consume the errant ones. It’s understandable where James and John got their nickname “Sons of Thunder”!
Jesus’ response to their request isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it coincides with the apostle Paul’s message in our New Testament reading for this Sunday, Galatians 5:1, 13–25. Paul contrasted the works of our flesh—things like outbursts of anger, strife, dissensions, and factions, with the things of the Spirit—things like kindness, peace, patience, and self-control. The apostle reminded his readers that we live by the Spirit—our true life is in Christ by the Spirit, but we are meant to walk by the Spirit—our daily existence is meant to be walked out moment by moment in every situation in the Spirit, not in our flesh.
Our automatic human response to things like rejection, abuse, or disrespect may resemble that of John and James—we may ignite with passionate fury, seeking the harm of the responsible party. But Jesus’ response is different. Here, he just moved on to another town, recognizing that he could not do the job which he had been given by his Father in that particular town. And he began to talk with his followers about the cost of discipleship.
In the gospel passage for today, Luke described three separate responses to Jesus’ call to follow him. The first person gave an emphatic commitment to Jesus, that he would follow the Messiah wherever he went. But Jesus pointed out that, unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah didn’t have a place to stay at night. His disciples had requested a place to stay but had been rejected—would this person be willing to accept such rejection and continue to follow Jesus, especially if it meant doing without the basics of life?
Bring this forward to today: As the cost of filling our gas tanks here in America begins to double or triple and the prices of our groceries skyrocket, we are faced anew with the question, will we trust God to care and provide for us? Will we continue to follow Christ when it seems that he isn’t going to make our life easier or more comfortable? What price are we willing to pay in order to follow Christ?
The second person who was asked by Jesus to follow him requested that Jesus allow him to bury his father before he did so. Though Jesus would not want us to harm or neglect our families, the reality is that we often make elaborate excuses for not simply obeying Jesus’ command to follow him. We find reasons that we cannot do as he asks, and we excuse ourselves by reasonable arguments as to why we should be able to continue on our way, unhampered by Jesus’ calling upon our lives.
In essence, Christ was saying to the man, “Let the spiritually dead take care of the physically dead. You go and proclaim the good news. That is the more urgent task.” We can care for and love our families, and still share the good news with the world while we are doing it. Jesus was reminding his disciples that there is an all-encompassing priority about the gospel. As he said elsewhere, seek his kingdom first, and all those things we’re concerned about will be provided.
The third person Luke described in this passage asked if he could first say goodbye to his family before he followed Christ. The disciples would have remembered that Elisha had asked Elijah this very thing when he was asked to follow the prophet, and Elijah had permitted it. But Jesus was describing an even more radical commitment to himself, one in which all took second place, including the customary expectations of society and family.
Jesus told this person that someone who begins to plow needs to keep looking forward, and not look back. Today most people in our nation plow using large equipment. Back then though, there was a single plow, possibly pulled by animals. Unless the person guiding the plow kept their eyes on where they were going, they would not create a straight row, thus ruining the possibilities of a good harvest. If they turned to look back from where they came, the row would end up horribly crooked and their efforts would be fruitless—a good picture of what happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus in many ways is like walking by the Spirit and not by our flesh. The spiritual reality is that true life has come in the sending of the fire of the Spirit. The Spirit’s indwelling is the life the Christ in us, bringing us into fellowship with the Father. We live our lives in moment-by-moment dependency upon and in relationship with God by the Spirit. We follow the lead of the Spirit and in doing so, we follow Christ. We listen to and heed the living Word of God, Jesus, as we, by the Spirit, drink in of the written Word, allowing God to speak deep into our souls, moving us to obey.
We don’t turn back to gaze upon the spiritual death we once were living in, but keep our eyes focused forward on the living Word Jesus. He has set us free—so we live free, abandoning our past associations, plans, and deeds, and we embrace the new life he has given us by the Spirit. Jesus has moved us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We have no desire to go back to our slavery to evil, sin, and death. So we keep our eyes on him, our mind and heart fixed upon his, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us, no matter the cost to ourselves.
This is a challenging passage for us today. Our world is changing. Times for many are getting more and more difficult. It is a struggle for some to simply find something to eat or a place to live. The good news is we are not doing any of this on our own. We have a Savior who dwells in us and with us, who knows what it means to be homeless and hungry, to be despised and rejected, and yet be held in the midst of the Father’s love. In the midst of the fury of the evil one’s efforts to kill, steal, and destroy, he holds us in his care and will lead us safely home. As we follow him in faith, he will finish what he has begun in our lives. Praise God!
Heavenly Father, as things get harder and harder for us, continue to keep us in your tender loving care. Thank you, Jesus, for understanding us so well and for holding us steadfastly in the Father’s arms. Grant us the grace by your Spirit to pay the cost of discipleship you ask of us, faithfully enduring to the end. Amen.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But He turned and rebuked them, …. And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ ” Luke 9:51–62 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/calling-fire-from-heaven.pdf ]