The Old Spiritual Proclaims…, Proper 19 (B) – 1997
September 14, 1997
The old spiritual proclaims, “I have decided to follow Jesus….No turning back, no turning back…. The world behind me the cross before me, No turning back, no turning back” It is a decision to follow — to join oneself to God in Christ. Matthew’s gospel puts meaning even more dramatically, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” This illumination sets one’s hopes, values, aspirations, and entire being on God. In fact, in the passage from the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus tells the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This decision exists one life and crosses the threshold into another. But more specifically, it is our decision to move in a new direction. This is an act of will.
For Christians, the will is perfected when it mirrors the will of God. Our whole life strives say “thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” We want to pray as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with the codicil he used — “your will be done.” We want our will be to congruent with the will of God because we know that we are what we are through the will and grace of God. St. Paul acknowledged that he was made an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God. In the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi heard the words of Matthew’s gospel (10.7-10) “As you go, proclaim the good news,… Take no gold, no silver, nor brass in your belts for the journey.” The words pierced his heart and he said about the incident: “This is what I have been wanting; this is what I have been seeking; this is what I long with all my heart to do.” The will of God became as real to Francis as the feelings of his own flesh.
It becomes thus because Christianity is an experience based religion. God’s will for us comes up against our own notions of self with their limited and sometime destructive visions. St. Augustine, one of the great teachers of the Christian faith, wrote of his encounter with God through the Holy Scripture. He put it like this, “Somehow I flung myself down under a fig tree and gave way to the tears that were now streaming from my eyes…. I stemmed my tears and stood up….. I seized the book [St. Paul’s Epistles] and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell, `not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus, and make no provisions for the flesh and the lusts thereof.’ (Romans 13: 13-14) He said, “I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” It is the discovery of the grace and love of God — succinctly described in the phrase, “the will of God.”
The New Testament describes this encounter with God as light, as a spiritual rebirth, a cleansing, becoming a new creation, or a transition from death to life — to mention just a few, but God’s will is discovered as loving, efficient, definite, resolute, and assured. St. Paul wrote to the Romans (12:2) that God’s will is “good, well pleasing and perfect,” and the knowledge of which is possible only for one whose mind has been continually renewed through the divine Spirit given in baptism. In Colossians (1:9 and 4:2) he said that knowledge of the divine will is related to the wisdom and insight which is given by the Spirit so that God’s will can shape our lives. Thus St. Paul said that he was an apostle “through God’s will” — it was not his own determination, but God’s will which brought it about” Now to the gospel for today. When Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ the Messiah.” It was not just a lucky guess, but a revelation — a gift from God. It is the same kind of insight that God gives to all of us — moments of closeness with the divine. This is our experience of the divine will. It is God’s gift to us. But we often shape it rather than receive it unaltered. When Peter heard the cost to be paid for the revelation of divine love and will to a sinful and broken world he could not believe. And Jesus rebuked him for, “setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”. It is incredible for any of us to take in the extent of God’s gift of love and grace to us. We will always be sinners, but God’s gift is that we are not judged, but justified. We are welcomed home — the price of pain has been paid. We do not have to earn the price, it has been paid. But the question remains for us to answer, “But you, who do you say that I am?” Our answer may be suddenly transforming or it may draw us in degrees toward the realization that we have to decide for ourselves and embrace the answer as a new life, a new way. We know there will be sacrifice and the loss of many things we had previously cherished, but we also know that we are called to a larger hope, a greater vision of our lives. It is a journey with Christ in the way of the cross. We do not know exactly where it will lead us, but we know that we have a companion in the person of Christ. We are invited to begin our journey with Christ. It is the decision that changes our lives. And like the hymn says, “Though none go with me, still I will follow. Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back, no turning back.”
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