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Sermon - 5 Pentecost

In the Name…

Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury used to tell the story that one day, after he had spoken in a controversial debate in the House of Lords, the headline of a London tabloid read, "The Archbishop Must Go."  The next week, after he spoke in another debate, the same tabloid ran the headline, "The Archbishop Has Gone Too Far."

In our Gospel, today, we find that not only are some people in the crowds around Jesus beginning to doubt him, they are also revising their views about John the Baptist, as well.  John, we know well as the popular preacher in the desert calling for personal revival, attacking the immorality of the political and religious leaders.  He had attracted great crowds, but, now that he has been put in prison, people are saying that he went too far.

Jesus, on the other hand, is far from judgmental, in fact, he goes out of his way to hang around the wrong sorts of people.  And that also attracts criticism because everybody knows that, according to the rules, a religious person is only supposed to associate with other religious people.  So, he too, has gone too far, but in the opposite direction.

And, Jesus calls them on this hypocrisy.  He uses the image of petulant children who are dissatisfied with the games their friends suggest.  They don’t want to be happy or sad.  In the same way, Jesus says they attack him for being compassionate and John for being strict.  They don’t want to celebrate his joyful message of forgiveness, nor take seriously John’s solemn message of repentance.

And he could say the same thing today because that’s still where a lot of folks are.  They want to live without feeling either guilty or free.  Or, to borrow an image from another part of Scripture, neither hot nor cold.

The people of Israel didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they liked; and they didn’t like that both John and Jesus were calling them, in different ways, to follow a life of discipleship.  It’s an interesting word, “discipleship.”  It means one who follows a discipline, and that can be a problem because when we hear the word “discipline”, the first thing that usually comes to mind is that someone is going make us do something we don’t want to do.

But, in a non-religious sense, discipleship simply means to dedicate or devote oneself to a chosen idea or movement.  In this context, we act as free agents making choices about who we are, what we do, and how we do it in order to move toward a higher purpose or goal.

To take an example, I'm a member of the Rotary Club.  No one says I have to be, but, I want to be because I respect and believe in its goals and purpose.  Now in order to be a member of this club a certain amount of money is required as dues.  I can't just give what I feel like.  I also have to attend (live or by zoom) a minimum of thirty meetings a year and participate in service projects.  I can't just drop in when I feel like it and be invisible.  And, I have to measure up to a code of professional conduct or I can be asked to leave.  So, in order to be a member of this club, I have to observe a certain discipline.

And, it’s my choice.  So, discipline doesn’t mean that someone is trying to make me do something that I don’t want to do.  Rather, it means I do certain things because I have chosen to work toward something that is beneficial and good for me and for the world.

What, then, is Christian discipleship and why has it been so difficult for so many, two thousand years ago and today?

St. Paul gives us, in his letter to the Colossians, both the goal for us to choose and the discipline that goes with it.  "You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. … Forgive one another …. To all these qualities add love … Christ's message in all its richness must live in your hearts. … Everything you do or say, then, should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  

In this passage, Paul is describing a discipline that amounts to a whole lifestyle.  He is telling us that Christian discipline makes a big difference to everything we say and do, to the attitudes and values that we have.  Christian discipleship gives us a whole new perspective on how we can serve others and work together with our fellow members in the church.  And this is all a very good thing.  And we know it.

We want to be more considerate, helpful and co-operative; more open, less critical; more tolerant.  We really want to get on with that person who really gets under our skin.  We want to worship more regularly, pray more often, be more helpful, and contribute to the congregation more regularly.  But, too often all of our good intentions remain just good intentions.  Somehow, we find it’s all much harder than we thought and it’s much easier to fall back into our old pattern of doing things.  For, as Paul says in today’s lesson, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

And, this is very human and common.  To go back to my Rotary example, four men started Rotary in 1905.  By 1906, a hundred men had signed up, but half of those, including two of the first four, had already quit within the year.  So, even outside of church, it’s hard to keep a discipline.

Fortunately, Paul tells us, we don’t have to rely on ourselves alone when it comes to being a Christian disciple.  Just as he says, “Wretched man that I am.  Who will rescue me?”, he answers, “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”

He thanks God for Jesus who is able to forgive and strengthen someone who knows what he ought to do, who has every good intention, but who doesn’t follow it through.  Basically, he says Jesus died for our distractions. He died for us who say that one day we’re going to get around to being a better disciple.  And, in a strange way, that’s the Good News.

“Come to me”, Jesus says, when your distractions are too much to bear and I will relieve you of them.

No doubt there will be times when we express our disappointment as Paul did. "I know what I ought to do, but I don’t do it."  But, we can join Paul in expressing our thanks to God for the renewing grace we have through our Lord Jesus Christ.  He strengthens and encourages us and sends us out from here today able to live our faith as we go about our daily tasks.

And, with that renewal and strength, we can go far, indeed.  At least as far as Jesus.

In the Name…

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