1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
At first hearing, our Old Testament story of Elijah calling Elisha to follow him and our Gospel story of Jesus calling disciples to follow him sounds as if they are contradicting each other: Elisha is told it is ok for him to say goodbye to his parents before answering Elijah’s call, while Jesus tells those whom he calls that it is wrong to do anything other than drop what they are doing and immediately follow him. That might be the case; maybe they are contradicting each other, but that is alright if they do. Each story is in a different setting and involves different people, and following God involves doing different things in different situations. Or, they might not be contradicting each other: Jesus does not forbid the people to do the things they request before following him – he merely uses the requests as an opportunity to make some witty points.
We don’t know for sure about the entire situations involved in the two stories, but just for the sake of taking a deeper look at the reading from the letter to the Galatians that we heard in between these two stories, let us assume that the difference between the people making their requests before answering their call to serve God lies in their motives for making the requests. This passage from Paul’s letter talks about two ways of living, or two motivations behind our actions, words, and attitudes. He names the opposing ways the way of the Spirit, and the way of the flesh. Those names might not be the best for us to use, because for many people, they seem to indicate that our bodies are bad. Perhaps some better names might be: the way of love vs the way of fear, or the way of God-centeredness vs the way of self-centeredness, or the way of “it’s not all about me” vs the way of “it’s all about me”. Paul encourages his readers to not fall back into the easy way of slavery to fearful self-centeredness, but to hold onto the freedom of loving God-centeredness that Jesus brings us. He gives a list of actions describing the two different ways, and the two lists are really a reflection of either rising to the glory of full humanity with all our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual desires leading us in ways of peace with ourselves, with God, with our neighbors, and with the world around us, or of the opposite way of sinking into the subhuman pattern of allowing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual desires to drive us into fear and hatred of ourselves, God, our neighbors, and our world. Another way of denoting the difference is to say that fearful self-centeredness involves disordered appetites, while the way of loving God-centeredness involves well ordered appetites.
The reality of our human condition does not change with the different ways, just the way we choose to live. We still have the same appetites and urges no matter the path we choose. The difference lies in whether we see our human condition as somehow hopeless and therefore live with the attitude of “what about me!” – fearing that we won’t get our fair share of what we want or think we need, or if we see our human condition as holy and therefore live with the attitude of “I’ll be ok, because I’m with God” – trusting God that we will be more fulfilled than we ever could dream of being if we tried to take care only of ourselves. Only on the surface does the way of self-centeredness seem easy – it actually leads to pain and sorrow. The way of following Jesus into the glory of our full humanity is actually easier, because Jesus is the one who pulls us into freedom in God that leads to joy and fulfillment. Jesus proves to us that the human condition is a good thing, not hopeless or sordid, because Jesus shows us that human life is so beautiful, God chose to have one. Jesus lives the life that Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit, or the way of loving God-centeredness: “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” He shows us that there is no need to live in fearful self-centeredness, always whining “what about me!”, or as Paul describes it: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing…”.
With Jesus as proof that life is precious and we need have no fear, since God is always with us, we can look at our own motives and work to get rid of the self-centered attitudes, while fostering a more God-centered way of life. We can turn from letting the basis of our actions be “it’s all about me, so I had better step on everyone else in order to get what I want” and instead start living on the foundation of “it’s not all about me – I am in God’s heart along with everyone else, and we will all get more than we ever thought we needed or wanted”. We can look at our motives for following Jesus, and stop doing so merely because we are afraid of hell, so that we can follow him solely because we love ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. Then when we answer Jesus’s call, we can go back to take care of our business as good stewards, thankfully letting God have control, instead of going back to our business so that we can be in charge because we fear that God won’t be able to handle it the way we want. Of course God won’t take care of things the way we want, because what we want is rarely what is best. Only by trusting in God can our eyes be open to the fact that our former desires were so petty compared to what God has to offer.
So the two ways lie before us: the way of fear, self-centeredness, ‘What about me!”, or the way of love, Godcenteredness, “I’ll be ok, because I am with God”. Rarely do we stay solely on one path; we tend to waver from one to another. Jesus is calling us, and will help us as we learn to follow him on the path of true fulfillment of our glorious humanity, because he created that path. And Jesus is not the only one calling us; God sends messengers to us, just as Elijah was sent to Elisha. Those messengers are around us everyday – they are the people who live and work with us and whom we see in the news. They are calling us to live together with them in the heart of God, growing in love, peace, and joy. They waver between the two paths, just as we do, so may we all help each other on the way as we follow the call of Jesus. We must not fall into slavery to fear, as Paul reminds us. We are called to freedom. Only by trusting God can we be free. Only then can we live in love, joy, and peace. Only then can we help each other on the path to true life. AMEN