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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: 2 Kings 5:1–14, Galatians 6:7–18 & Luke 10:1–12, 17–24

If somebody asked me to explain the teaching of Jesus in 25 words or less, here’s how I would answer: “Love God with your with all your mind, soul, heart and strength; and love your neighbour as you love yourself”. (In case you are wondering that’s twenty words!) It probably sounds very easy to do in theory, but the reality is, it is far more difficult to do in practice.

Last Tuesday morning, several parishioners and I gathered at North & Eight cafe on Buckley Street for Spiritual Cafe. The title of our spiritual reading for the morning was ‘Fruit of the Spirit’, and its opening paragraph spoke about how we are to love God. Let me read it for you now: “We are called to love God with our total being. Ranking just below is our second priority, to love our neighbour, to be mindful of the needs of others and to seek their welfare. And third, often overlooked, is the acknowledgment that we are to love ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to make intelligent decisions for our own welfare. All three priorities are important, but only one can be ranked first. Jesus teaches that our love of God comes first. If we place others or ourselves in first rank, our relationships will be skewed and ultimately unhealthy.” The question asked at the cafe was, “How do we make God the number priority in our life?”

It’s not easy to follow this teaching of Jesus. After all, we are human beings, and it seems to be human nature to want to satisfy what we might call our “earthly desires”. The Apostle Paul described this as the ‘way of the flesh’. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul sets before us two paths of life, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. Following the way of the flesh is to have our priorities wrong. It leads to a distortion of all our relationships—with God, with others, and with ourselves. Our relationship with God, Paul says, is distorted by idolatry and sorcery, putting our faith in false gods; our relationship with others is poisoned by enmity and strife; and our sense of well-being is torn apart by feelings of jealousy, anger, and envy. 

We see an example of this in our first reading this morning from the Second Book of Kings.  We heard the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, a great man who was in high favour with his king. Naaman is sent by his king to see the prophet Elisha, because he has heard that Elisha can cure him of his leprosy. 

Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house in grand style, with his horses and chariots, only to be met, not by the prophet himself, but by a servant of Elisha, who passes on the message from Elisha, about what Naaman needs to do to be cured. It’s at this point that Naaman’s pride kicks in. He feels insulted and angry. He is a great man who is obviously used to having people treat him as such, but in this case, it appears to him that Elisha is not treating him with the respect that he believes he deserves. One of Naaman’s own servants manages to pacify him, and convince him to follow the instructions from Elisha’s servant, and the end result is that he is cured. 

But let’s come back to the point about Naaman’s pride, and how that initially gets in the way of him receiving God into his heart through the message which is delivered by Elisha’s servant. The spiritual reflection that appears in today’s pew sheet is titled ‘Cloaks and Branches’, a reference to how people laid their cloaks on the road before Jesus, and also cut down branches from palm trees to spread on the road in front of him to welcome him into Jerusalem.

The author (J. J. Rawls) uses the theme of cloaks and branches as metaphors to describe the ways in which we, as human beings, can build barriers that prevent God from entering our hearts. He encourages us to lay before Jesus our cloaks of fear. Fear, he argues, is the enemy of faith, because it causes us to focus on our circumstances rather than on the certainty of God’s unfailing love. He describes it as a matter of focus and trust. 

In relation to fear, Rawls refers to a series of letters that C. S. Lewis once wrote to an American woman struggling with a life threatening illness. Lewis acknowledged that the woman’s pain must be terrible, but then he asked her, “Surely you need not have fear as well?” He counselled her with the following comforting (but challenging) words: “Remember, although we struggle against things because we are afraid of them, it is often the other way around – we get afraid because we struggle. Don’t you know Our Lord says to you ‘Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go, I will catch you.’”

Rawls also tells us that we should lay down our branches of pride. He suggests that pride is the excessive belief in our own abilities, which prevents us from recognising our need for God. Pride keeps our hearts hardened and therefore unable to receive God’s love, like Naaman in our first reading. Rawls quotes C. S. Lewis as saying, “Pride is the chief cause of every misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Pride is spiritual cancer. It places an inordinate absorption of self at the very centre of our being, lodged in the very place where Christ seeks to dwell.”

So, we are to learn to put our trust in God and not in our own abilities. Which is probably the complete opposite of the messages that we receive in society today in the twenty-first century. There certainly seems to be a sense in our society that the needs and rights of the individual are more important than the collective needs and rights of community. And we are all encouraged to trust in our own knowledge, education, talents and skills, to solve any problems that we may be presented with.

In a way, this was what Paul was writing about to the churches in Galatia. His teaching had been opposed by Jewish Christians, who themselves had told the members of the churches in Galatia that they needed to be circumcised and obey Jewish law, in addition to following Jesus, if they wanted to be in relationship with God. But Paul told them that relying on “human” actions, such as circumcision and observing Jewish law, was not the way to relationship with God, rather people would come to God through Jesus.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus sends seventy disciples ahead of him to spread the Good News about the kingdom of God, and when they return, the disciples tell him (with great pride and joy) that even demons were submissive to them. But Jesus tells them they shouldn’t rejoice that the demons submit to them, instead they should rejoice that their names are written in heaven. Jesus himself warns the disciples against the danger of pride. Brendan Byrne explains this by saying that, “Christian joy does not ultimately rest upon achievement. It rest upon a deep sense of relationship with God”.

So to come back to the question that was asked at the cafe on Tuesday morning, “How do we make God the number one priority in our life? How do we allow the love of God to enter our hearts and take up residence there? It would seem that a good way for us to start is for us to lay down our fears and our pride before Jesus – just like the cloaks and branches that were laid down before him as he entered Jerusalem. Cloaks and branches to welcome Jesus in!

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