Let us remember, as we approach the Feast of SS.Peter & Paul, that when Jesus gives Peter, and thus gives us, the keys of the kingdom, it’s rather like that moment when we move into a house of our own for the very first time. Suddenly we have the joy of organising things just as we want them, and deciding who we will invite in, and who we will leave on the doorstep. But the problem is that however much fun it is to have a home of our own, or a country of our own, it also brings with it a lot of big problems. There’s no-one else to pay the bills, or to organise repairs when inevitably something goes wrong with the building. Think of the people in the past few years who have had their houses flooded. We know how dreadful we would feel if something like that happened to us., so having your own home can sometimes be very tough indeed!
As with our own home, so with our life as Christians, there is both great joy but also heavy responsibilities involved. That’s precisely why Jesus in our Gospel today (Luke 9:51-62) points out how hard it is to follow him. I don’t think he means us to take him literally when he says, “Leave the dead to bury their dead”or “No-one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” but he certainly means us to realise how demanding it really is to be a Christian, and that hard things will be required of us.
Our world doesn’t really like messages of this kind. We tend to vote for selfish reasons. We elect politicians who make us feel good and charge us less taxes. We want to help the poor of the world, but not in a way that will make us less well-off. We worry about climate change and environmental pollution, but we don’t really want to change our lifestyle if it will make us less comfortable. And on life issues, which we were thinking about last Sunday here in the UK, many people will “say” that every baby is precious, and indeed if they have an early miscarriage will mourn their loss, yet faced with a baby in the womb that the Doctors say will cause them difficulties, they will then take the Doctors recommendation, what they think of as the easy option, of an abortion….. although it will be politely called a “termination.”
I think another problem is that if we do choose to do something hard, we do it for a greater pleasure in the future. Basically we are therefore still ruled by a pain/pleasure ethic, even if the pleasure has to be won through a bit of pain. We are like someone who is keen on sport and who is prepared to be put through hard training, training that really hurts, but all for the greater prize and pleasure of doing well, even winning, later on. Thus the basic principle is then ultimately selfish, “Will it give me pleasure eventually?”, rather than “Is it the right thing to do?”
St Peter fell into that trap too didn’t he? So we mustn’t think we are immune from it. He acclaims Jesus as the Christ, but then almost immediately tries to stop Jesus when he starts saying that the Christ must suffer and die. Notice that Jesus is quite brutal with him for thinking that way, as he will be with us. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus knows that this avoidance of pain is lurking in every human heart, yours and mine, and so although in other places he shows his compassion for us sinners, he also makes it clear that it is an attitude to life that needs confronting head on.
Paul too in our 2nd reading (Galatians 5:1.13-18) has to be equally tough with Christians in Galatia who think that “liberty” means doing all the things you like that make you happy. He has to be very stern with them – “You were called to liberty; but be careful or this liberty will provide an opening for self indulgence” and then he tells us how we should use our Christian liberty – “Serve one another rather, in works of love.”
Now I don’t want us to think that we should not enjoy ourselves and do pleasurable things. Far from it, but we must not let pleasure rule our decision making. Faced with the very human temptation to seek pleasure – to be self-indulgent – Paul tells us to open ourselves to God the Holy Spirit. He wants us, as he says a few lines later (but sadly not in our text today or next week) to pray for the Spirit to give us the things we need to be really good Christians. Some of you will remember this list of the fruits of the spirit – things we certainly need to pray for – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22) If we really want to follow Jesus and do God’s will whatever, then we need to pray regularly for the Holy Spirit to give us these things, so that we may have the courage we need to face anything for God.