5th after Trinity; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-end

At a quarter to ten on Friday morning, the tumult and the shouting on BBC Radio 4, the analyses and the predictions paused, to make way for the Daily Service. It was led by Canon Angela Tilby, and the reading from Scripture was the same as our Epistle this morning. St Paul's list of 'the works of the flesh', she reminded us, included some which had been especially evident during the Referendum campaign: 'enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions'; but we shouldn't blame the politicians too much for this: it is only human to get carried away by strong feelings, especially if we believe we are defending a good or right cause. If we are offended by the acts or attitudes of another person or other people, she said, it is sometimes all too easy to lose our temper with them - in other words to lose our sense of proportion - and either to express this in hasty and uncharitable words, or perhaps even worse, to sustain uncharitable thoughts about them secretly in our hearts, until we are blinded to what we have common with them by what divides us. Such at least, Canon Tilby confessed, was her own experience and I must confess it is mine also: it can be all too easy to caricature and even demonise those who offend us, and to forget that 'they' are also 'one of us'. As Canon Tilby went on to say, we know there are ways to deal with this: count ten before you speak, recover your sense of proportion in prayer, meditation and fellowship. But it is not always easy.

Perhaps it was not easy for Jesus either. In our Gospel reading today Jesus does seem to lack that sense of proportion I've just been talking about: if 'patience' is one of the 'fruits of the Spirit' St Paul commends in our Epistle, it seems singularly lacking in what Jesus says to the man who wanted first to bury his father and the other who wanted first to say farewell to his family. The way in which Jesus, here and elsewhere in the Gospels, subordinates natural family claims to those of his mission seems very impatient and extreme.

But what Jesus is doing here, I believe, needs to be seen in both its historical and ultimate context. A good family is a great blessing, but good families exist for the flourishing of their members and for the good of the wider community: they do not exist to promote only their own interests or to exclude those who are not 'one of us'. Yet in many societies, including those in Jesus' time, family pride and self-aggrandisement have been allowed to become ends in themselves, and in defending their own interests by their own standards, of wealth, honour, or respectability, such families have often damaged the interests not only of outsiders but also of some of their own, especially female, family members. It is against just this narrowing of interest and concern to 'people like us', that Jesus' teaching of the Kingdom of God protests - and proclaims a more generous alternative - an alternative to the exclusive claims not just of families, but of tribes and sects and parties and nations. In the Kingdom of God, we are all God's children: and the Fatherhood of God inevitably implies the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings without exception. There can be little doubt that it is from this Gospel intuition and insight that the modern idea of universal human rights ultimately derives.
Much the same point is being made in the first part of today's Gospel, when Jesus rebukes the disciples for impatiently asking him to 'command fire to come down from heaven and consume' the Samaritans who were not willing to give hospitality to Jesus because he was a Jew heading for Jerusalem, and because 'the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans': but again, as his parable of the Good Samaritan also illustrates, such exclusive concerns have no place in the Kingdom Jesus proclaims, nor have the wrath and violence that an earlier prophet might have attributed to God. Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God owes much to what earlier prophets had preached: but Jesus deepens and enlarges the vision of God's Kingdom as one of universal justice and peace.

If, on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus seems impatient with those who procrastinate in following him, it is because he believes it is vital at this particular moment in human history, for him to fulfil what the prophets before him had preached, but to fulfil it non-violently, silently appealing to history and humanity, 'even as a sheep before his shearers is dumb'. There are many theological explanations of what Jesus achieved by dying on the cross, none of them entirely satisfactory: but that the mystery of this 'wonderful exchange' makes all the difference, is testified in the lives and experience of countless Christians across the ages.

In today's Epistle, St Paul rejoices in the freedom of those who 'belong to Christ Jesus' and have 'crucified the flesh and its passions and desires', so that they enjoy 'the fruit of the Spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control'. But 'crucifying the flesh and its passions and desires' can be cruelly misinterpreted if it is seen in terms of repressing, of holding down and choking off our natural human instincts and urges. It was 'for the joy that was set before him' that Jesus endured the cross; and it is only insofar as we sense the joy of the Kingdom Jesus preached, that our human 'passions and desires' begin to flow freely in the river of God's love. And that, of course, here below, can be experienced only by grace of the endlessly repeated forgiveness of God - the forgiveness of God, enlivening us, encouraging us, and enabling us, after each and every failure, once again to cross the threshold of God's Kingdom, praying and working for it to come, on earth even as it is in heaven.