✠ May I speak in the name of our loving God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We now live in a country deeply – and openly – divided. My sermon isn’t directly about that, but there is a message in it about love and positivity, which I hope will resonate with you – whatever side of the divide you are on. When I chose my text, I didn’t expect it to resonate in quite the way it might, this morning: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is so steeped in the Hebrew scriptures that he can hardly open his mouth without quoting or half-quoting them. When two strangers offer to follow him but want first to say farewell to their families, Jesus seems to be telling them to get their priorities right. He recalls the story of Elijah and Elisha but is harsher than Elijah: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Or maybe he is just saying, with Elijah, “Yes, go do that, I want people following me who are not distracted by what they should have but haven’t done. Once you follow me, that’s it. No second thoughts.”
On the one hand that’s simple to understand. On the other, we have to find a way in our everyday lives to follow Jesus. And to us it seems that he didn’t have to decide whether to turn his mobile off at meal times, or whether parking on a yellow line was wrong, or about any of the small, protective white lies and self-deceits which we practise in order to manage corporate working life. Somehow, we think, modern living and working with other people tips us over the edge – not far, nothing mentioned in the ten commandments, but we know deep down that we are sinning. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, looking at many of the psalms, these mighty mini-sins are as old as the hills. Just as the psalmist often felt his foot slipping, we’re constantly looking back, even though we say we want to follow Jesus. So then we don’t feel fit for the kingdom of God, and stop trying. Again, nothing major, but enough small stuff to make us dissatisfied with ourselves and shifty when we approach God in prayer.
Maybe that’s Jesus’ point. Even if you slip up on the way, you have to keep your eye on the kingdom of God – that’s the goal. If you focus on your sins, you’ll lose sight of it, even if you are focusing in despair rather than enjoying the sinning to the full. Yes, we have to acknowledge our sins to be forgiven, but to do so to the extent that we forget the mercy and love of God becomes another self-obsession.
And this is where we meet Paul. He is often trying to explain why the Jewish Law is made redundant by Christ’s death and resurrection. A few weeks ago we heard him declare that if the Law still holds, then Christ died in vain. At times he seems to claim that just naming sins gives them reality – and certainly the many, many rules that were counted part of the Hebrew Law made it very easy to be in the wrong. He is anxious to be clear that Christ sets us free from this anxious, tickbox approach to sin.
However, with the Galatians he is warning them against imagining that a redundant Law means a free-for-all. The two laws Jesus gave us – to love God with all our heart and our neighbours as ourselves – have an effect that even millions of laws never could. They ask us to keep our eye on our loving God and his creation, and to love both. The by-product of this is that if we do, then we will hate to hurt them, and we cannot be self-serving.
Great psychology: it’s so much easier to do something – to love – than try not to do something – in the case of the old Law, many somethings. I’m not being facetious when I compare it to dieting. Anyone who’s tried it knows: it’s so much easier to “do one thing different” than focus on “not eating”. The thing you are trying not to do assumes massive proportions and power. But if you are honestly trying to love God and your neighbour, then you won’t waste too much time beating yourself up about some of the things you haven’t managed to do – giving them more power over you; and you are far more likely to be busy doing positive things to express that love.
What’s more, Paul says, if you do that you’ll be pushing the open door of the Spirit. The polarity he first presents of the flesh versus the spirit is in fact not a simple opposition: body versus soul. The word Paul uses means something more like “our worldly self”, which makes better sense with the end of the passage. It is our worldly self, operating without the guidance of the spirit, which results in self-serving but ultimately self-destructive behaviour. The virtues he names, the fruits of the spirit, are fully incarnational – you need human hands to perform them – the flesh and spirit are not opposed. But once we operate with the spirit, our hand is on the plough, our eye is on the destination of the team across the field, and even if we slip, we get up again and keep going.
We’re not going to get everything right, but in the coming week, let’s focus on the goal and on the love – and less on what’s wrong or what we shouldn’t be doing. As the song says, “accentuate the positive” – and the spirit will be right there pushing the plough alongside you.