Put the old behind you and live in the Spirit

2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14, Galatians 5:16-25, Luke 9:51-62

It’s a time of change in the my household.  This week, my younger son finished his GCSEs and left secondary school, my older son passed his driving test, and my wife was offered a job at the school specially tailored to her own skills..

As for me, I finish working for my client of 3 years this week, an insurance company.

For the last 6 months I have been working in a field of particular expertise.  The client wants to use newly available health data to improve how they underwrite life insurance in America.  It’s very difficult.  There is so much data, typically 600 to 1000 pages for each case, the underwriters can’t even use it all because they don’t know how to find the important information in all that.

Very few have done this successfully before.  However my colleague and I have.

The client asked us to tell them how to do this, and plan a project to make it happen.  When we did this, we looked at the technologies they used and how they currently process data and advised them that it would not work, but they should do it differently.

The management understood the message, and were keen to go ahead – “this is the future standard for our industry”, they told us.

But unfortunately, the team they had assembled for the project, which was made up of experts in the old technologies and methods, did not like the changes we were proposing.  They wanted to do it the old way.  And they obstructed us in our work.

In the end, it became clear, both to us and to the management, that we were not going to be able to deliver the project the way we needed to, and so our contracts are not being renewed.   The existing team is going to be asked to try to deliver it using their old methods.

To be honest, the obstruction and resistance and rejection has left us both feeling rather disenchanted.

“Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

No thank you.  I’ll look after my client and help them out professionally until my contract has expired.  And then I’ll wish them well and move on.

Jesus was rejected by the Samaritan village in our reading from Luke this morning.  The fact that someone rejects you, do not take it to heart.  But love them all the same.  And then move on.

And it’s no use looking backwards, holding on to the old ways, like the project team has done.  But you need to let go of it and embrace something new.

Likewise, Jesus also says that when we follow him, we need to let go of our old lives.

In the second half of the reading we encounter three people who say they are going to follow Christ.

The first said, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  But he was more interested in having a nice home than going anywhere.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’  In other words, don’t cling on to your home.  Because who knows where I will send you.  Oh, and by the way, Jesus says, I’m an itinerant preacher with nowhere of my own to call home.

The second person says ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ I thought this sounded a bit harsh – I’m not letting you go to your dad’s funeral.  But then I read a commentator who suggested I had misunderstood this.  What was actually happening, said the commentator, was that this person wanted to live his current life while his father was alive, and only once he had died would he actually follow Christ.  Jesus says, if you decide to follow me, do it now.  Don’t delay for some reason, especially if it involves not following me in the meantime.  Once you decide to follow me you need to let go of the past and just do it!

And it is the same with the third person.  ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Don’t hold on to your old life, but be resolute about following Christ now, no matter what the cost.

As I read this passage, I was thought of those big evangelistic events that happen every now and again.  You know, like Billy Graham rallies, for example.  What happens is that thousands of people come together.  They hear an inspiring and emotive speech from the evangelist followed by a call to make a decision to follow Christ.  And you are asked to come to the front if you wish to make a decision.  First a few go, then it becomes many.

When you go to the front, they pray “the believers prayer” and take your details to follow up with a local church.

After the event, they make an announcement.  It will say something like, “Tonight, 20,000 people were reached with the Gospel of Christ, and 6,000 made decisions to follow Christ.”

Well these numbers don’t quite right true.  We know that of the 6,000 who made decisions, many will not follow through.  A few will go on to become deep and committed disciples of Christ.  But many will never join a church.  And for others, they drop away after a few days or a few weeks, back to their old lives.

We must not look back and cling to our old life.  But look forward and step out in faith to follow him.

One person we know who did that was Elisha, in our reading from 2 Kings. 

Elijah was the superstar prophet of the time, and Elisha’s mentor.  Elisha promised Elijah he would never leave him.  So he followed him to Bethel, then later to the river Jordan.  Elijah, through the power of the Spirit, performs a miracle.  He takes his cloak and strikes the river Jordan.  The waters part, and they cross on dry ground.

And Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him.  Elisha says ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’.

As Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, his cloak drops off him.  Elisha is distraught.  We hear he rips his own clothes in two.  Then he picks up the cloak, strikes the river Jordan and says “Where is the Lord, the God of Elija?”  And miraculously, the waters part, showing that God’s Spirit is now with Elisha.

So what does it mean to live in the Spirit?  Well it’s not about taking your cloak, striking rivers and having the waters parted, is it?  Well not normally anyway.

Our reading from Galatians talks about life outside of the Spirit and life in the Spirit.

It starts off with the plea from Paul: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

So once again, we see that living by the Spirit is a choice we have to make, and putting aside our past lives is part of that choice.

Paul then goes on to contrast life outside of the spirit with life inside the spirit.

Outside of the Spirit, we are not subject to the law of God.  Paul says it is obvious what happens – he calls them the works of the flesh.  “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”

Inside the Spirit, as those of us who follow Christ are, we see the fruits of the Spirit.  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

I have a problem with this passage.  It all sounds very binary.  Christians are the picture of purity – which we know is not always the case – and non-Christians are the epitome of debauchery.  Also not true.

For me, resolution to this issue came in my early twenties.

I had recently graduated from university, and moved from Surrey to Manchester to start work.  During a service I attended in a church, they warned about a cult who had recently opened up in Manchester, having started up in London as the Central London Church of Christ.

This cult would prey on lonely or vulnerable students and young adults, draw them into their group.  People like me were a prime target.  They believed they were the only true church.  So they would cut you off from your own church, family and friends, encouraging you to live in church-owned houses, and they would take control of your money.

Well, a couple of days later I was on the train coming home from work when a man came up to me and asked if I wanted to join his Bible study.  I asked him which church he was from, but he avoided answering the question.

I went back to the church and spoke to the person who had warned of this group.  It turned out he was from a cult monitoring organisation, and they were very keen to find out how they went about recruiting people.  So he asked me if I would help them find out.

Over the coming weeks, I got more and more involved with what they were doing.  They tried their best to recruit me, and I did my best to find out how they operated and report back to the cult monitoring organisation.

After a while, they reached the point where they had decided I was a dead loss.  They were never going to recruit me.  So they called me in.for a meeting with the leaders, who told me I was hard hearted, not open to God, and exhibited none of the fruits of the Spirit.  From then on, I was shunned by the group.  Even when I saw members of the group in the street, they would ignore me.

I was pretty upset – not for being cast out of the cult, for it was super stressful having to resist the strong psychological pressure they placed you under.  But because they accused me of showing none of the fruits of the Spirit.

I thought about it, and prayed about it with someone. 

And I realised that what they said could not possibly be.  For, according to Genesis, we are all made in the image of God.  That means that every single person – even the most ungodly or the most evil – will show the fruits of the Spirit to some degree.

But just as in an orchard the fruit on some trees is small and withered, but the fruit on the healthy trees flourishes, so when we choose to live life in the Spirit, when we choose to let go of our old lives, when we choose to follow Christ, the fruits of the Spirit flourish in us.  And the works of the flesh recede.

To sum up, following Christ is costly.  We are asked to leave our old lives behind us and not look back.  We need to go where he calls us, and that may even involve leaving our friends, our families, our homes.  But when we do follow Christ, when we choose to live in the Spirit, the rewards are high, for the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, will then flourish within us.


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