St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel–1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Galatians 5:13-25
There’s a story about a mother who pounded on her son’s bedroom door one Sunday morning: “Wake up, son. It’s Sunday morning and we need to get ready to go to church.”
“Aw, Mom, let me sleep,” the son replied. “I don’t want to go to church today.”
“I don’t really care whether you want to—you are going to church. So get up!”
“I said I don’t want to go to church. Give me one good reason why I have to go to church.”
“Well, I can give you several good reasons,” said the mother calmly.
“But the most important one is that you’re the Rector and they’re paying you to be there.”
Now, what makes us laugh at this story, of course, is that we might expect such an exchange between a mother and a juvenile child, but not with an adult son. Yet, there are a great many adults who can empathize. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said on one occasion, “If you took all the people who fall asleep in church on Sunday morning and laid them out end to end … they’d be a lot more comfortable.” Now, what might this say about Mr Lincoln’s experience of corporate public worship?
So, let’s face it: Even though about one-third of Americans attend some place of worship on any given weekend, many of them are not having a very good time. Many are there because, if they were not, someone whose opinion of them matters a great deal would think less of them. Many are there because, if there were not, they would feel horribly guilty. Many are there, but feel like hypocrites, because they don’t really believe much of what is said and sung and prayed during the service. And many are there, for whatever reason, but are bored out of their minds, and the end of the service cannot come soon enough for them.
This is certainly no fun for anyone involved, is it? But, at the risk of sounding defensive of my professional turf, I don’t think it’s because church services really are boring or meaningless, although I’m sure some are. Rather, I think some of us experience public worship as boring or meaningless or even stupid because we see it as a thing unto itself, with no relationship to the “real world” of our everyday lives. It’s what we do; we habitually compartmentalize our lives. Business is business and personal is personal and family is family and religion is religion. In the course of a person’s life cycle, each of these items moves up and down on the priority list, and if we live well, we’re able to keep them in some sort of healthy balance. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Yet, this conventional wisdom can get us into some trouble if we’re not careful, because it can lead us to see Christian faith and practice—following Jesus in the community of his church—it can lead us to see Christian faith and practice as something we can do part-time, one more item on our to-do list, one more priority we can juggle against all the others.
In the nineteenth chapter of the first Book of Kings, we find an incident that could serve to confirm us in such an attitude. It’s time for the great prophet Elijah to move on to his heavenly reward, and the Lord instructs him to recruit a younger fellow named Elisha to take his place. Elisha responds, more or less, along the lines of “I would love to come and be your disciple, Elijah, but I’ve got responsibilities, things I need to take care of first. Can you hold the position for me a little while until I can break free of my obligations?” The older prophet is not wild about this request, but in the end, he grants it.
Jesus, however, appears to be somewhat less flexible than Elijah. Following Jesus is a full-time job. It’s not for the fainthearted or the casual part-timer. For a Christian, discipleship is not just one more priority to be balanced in a healthy way against others, it’s not even the top priority on a long list, it’s the only priority. This doesn’t mean that Christians don’t have families and jobs and money and household projects and vacations. It means that all these other things are placed at the disposal of and integrated into the vocation of Christian discipleship.
In Luke’s gospel we read of two would-be disciples. One is enthusiastic about being called by Jesus—“I will follow you anywhere,” he says—but Jesus perceives that he is naïve, and is entering into discipleship the way the Prayer Book tells us not to enter into marriage—“lightly and unadvisedly.” He’s not taking account of all that will be demanded of him as a follower of Jesus. The other one is willing, but he’s distracted by worldly obligations—“First let me go and bury my father.” Now, that sounds like a perfectly innocent request, and Jesus’ response “Leave the dead to bury their own dead”—sounds a little cold, actually. And if we leave things at this sort of literal level, we’ll just remain perplexed.
But the point should not be lost on us: Christian discipleship is not something we can just work into our schedule. It has to be our schedule if it’s going to mean anything at all or make any sense to us. Jesus wants us to accept him on his own terms, rather than the terms of our assumptions. And when we do so, there is no escaping the fact that he calls each of us—he calls me and he calls you—to costly and demanding discipleship. He calls us to deny ourselves and walk the way of the cross. I won’t kid you—it’s not a stroll in the park. It means learning to act counter-intuitively in a number of different ways. It means surrendering some human impulses that feel pretty natural—and even right and good.
The apostles James and John learned this when they asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven on some towns that had treated them badly on a mission trip they had just gotten back from. All Luke tells us is that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” Revenge—getting even, righting a wrong, getting back for an injustice—this is a basic human instinct. But discipleship demands that we leave it by the side of the road as we take off after Jesus. That’s what St Paul means when he writes the Galatians about putting away the “works of the flesh.” And the desire for revenge is just one ready example of the sorts of behavior the world accepts as normal but Christians are called to renounce.
Now let’s go back to that unwelcome Sunday morning wakeup call, and to those millions of sleeping parishioners laid end to end for their comfort at President Lincoln’s request. What are they missing? Why do think the whole thing is guilt-inducing and unbelievable and boring? What they’re missing is that they haven’t said Yes to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as a disciple. They haven’t said Yes to St Paul’s invitation to put away the works of the flesh, to live radically and counterintuitively. As a result, they have just enough religion to make them miserable, but not enough to give them joy.
When we answer those calls, however, we begin to experience religious practice—things like prayer, self-examination, fasting, and stewardship—we begin to find religious practice fulfilling, we begin to experience Christian faith—growing deeper in our knowledge of the things of the Lord—Christian faith becomes an integrating experience, and we begin to experience worship—coming together with fellow disciples every Lord’s Day—we begin to experience worship as endlessly fascinating. The liturgy comes alive, prayer is energized, and relationships in the church community become precious beyond words. It’s as if the lights have come on for the first time ever in a dimly-lit room.
Have you decided to follow Jesus?