26 June, Trinity II
“When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.”
There is a sense of urgency about our readings today. People are called to follow God, to undertake some particular mission from him, and it isn’t enough for them to give a vague assent; not enough for them to give, as it were, a post-dated cheque. The callings which they have receive have a strongly ‘now’ character to them. This can sound harsh to our ears, Elisha’s request to go and kiss his parents seems reasonable – it would seem to follow from the fourth commandment, surely the least his parents deserve is a decent ‘good-bye.’
The sense of urgency is expressed in terms of time – now is when we need to follow Christ, to serve Elijah, and so forth. But this isn’t so much about time as about what’s most important; and it’s about making sure that we don’t make excuses. The first person whom Christ speaks with on the subject says to him ‘let me go and bury my father first’ – to our ears that can sound like an eminently reasonable request, ‘can’t I even organise a funeral?’ Part of that is because we wouldn’t say something like that unless the father in question was already dead – it sounds like Christ is refusing him the chance to organise a funeral which will take place in the next day or so. But in the society of the time, this was a standard phrase and it didn’t imply that the man’s father was dead; rather it was a request to stay at home with his family, potentially for several more years. It’s starting to sound like an excuse. ‘Yes I’d love to…but not right now.’
Whatever the situation, it’s always easy to find a line like that. What was true for Elisha, what was true for those people Christ met with, can easily be true for us as well. There’s always a reason why we can’t go right now; surely tomorrow will do. But when we say that, we have to ask ourselves what we are putting first. We have to ask ourselves whether we are really trying to wriggle out of something which might seem a bit difficult to us.
The reality at the heart of this is that the Christian life does make demands of us. It does ask us to do things which are difficult and challenging. It does send us in directions which, if left to our own devices, we might rather avoid. So we have to weigh up what our priorities are – do we really value our Faith if we are constantly looking for ways to minimise, to delay, or outright avoid the demands which it makes of us?
If we have the Faith in its true perspective then it will always come first. It will come first because nothing at all can ever compare with it. Nothing can even begin to reach the heights of what it offers to us. This is why S. Paul writes about our freedom – when Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free – this is the gift which the Faith has given to us. It has taken the various ways that we were held back, and has cut through them. It is has given the gift of eternal life; it has given us a relationship with God. It has given us that which nothing else can give. Next to this, everything else is a step down.
But yet, so often that’s what we choose. So often we look back at other ways of living – they seem so much easier and even much freer, they tempt us. But, as S. Paul is telling us, the freedom which they offer isn’t true freedom. If we shrug off the burdens of the Faith; if we try to get out of the demands which it makes of us, that can look like freedom to us. It can seem that we are getting out of a straight-jacket which Christianity has placed on us. But that vision is only an appearance. The reality is that the Christian life – demanding though it is – is offering us genuine and true freedom. The burdens which it is placing on us are not to weigh us down, but to guide us into true freedom.
The challenges of the Faith can look daunting to us – they are, after all, very real and often very challenging. Being daunted by them is no bad thing – elsewhere in the Gospel, Christ does tell us to consider whether we’re willing to commit everything which we need to. But we need to make sure that being daunted is not the same as trying to wiggle out.
The response to being daunted is two-fold. The first, most important, response is to turn to God and ask for his assistance. It is entirely true that we cannot live up to the demands of the Christian life by ourselves; it is with the strength and the freedom which Christ offers that we can do so. The strength which is, above all, given to us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and Confession. The second is to acknowledge that we are not there yet – we are not perfect yet. Christianity is not some sort of magic wand which will transform everything about us in an instant. The Christian life which we have embarked on is a journey, and it’s a journey which we make one step at a time. The more we make the journey, the more we journey with Christ, the more free we allow him to make us, the greater our achievements can be. What looks utterly impossible to us now, can become something which we we face and conquer.
Ultimately there are only two people who can tell whether we’re making excuses, or whether we’re simply being daunted. Those two people are God and ourselves. God knows perfectly and instantly – we need to look into our hearts to see. If we are being daunted, then turning to God and asking for his strength is the right answer. On the other hand, if we are making excuses, then we are like those who turned Christ’s request down. This calls for a deep and true conversion of heart – of turning to God and asking for his grace to embrace his call more fully.