A Sermon for Proper 8, Year C

A few nights ago, Corrie and I watched a movie called “Cold Souls.” It’s not a great movie by any means, not even a particularly good one, but it has a great premise. Paul Giamatti, who has made a career out of playing middle-aged men stuck in lives they don’t like, plays an actor who is struggling with his current role—Uncle Vanya in the Chekhov play. He can’t get into the part. He tells his director that he feels sick, like there’s intense pressure on his heart. After another sleepless night, he comes across an article about a company that can remove his soul and put it in cold storage. The technique promises that it will rid him of all his existential angst and he will feel light and carefree again. Of course he does it, and most of the movie concerns his struggle to get his soul back.

What fascinates me about the film is the way the soul is understood. It is a burden that weighs us down, keeping us from enjoying life. There’s even a curious attitude or reaction when characters in the movie say that they’re “soul-less.”

To conceive of the soul as a burden may be something the film-maker imagines; perhaps it’s even a view shared by some in our wider culture, but such a perspective couldn’t be further from the biblical understanding, or even, for that matter, traditional philosophical notions of what the soul is. For the both the philosophical tradition, and the biblical tradition, although there are significant differences between them, and within the Bible itself, the soul is understood as our essential self—what makes us individuals and what makes us human.

To imagine oneself free of the soul then is nonsensical to the biblical world. But there’s a grain of truth in the movie. We all struggle, more or less, with ourselves. We struggle daily to make the right decisions in our work, at school, in our relationships. Sometimes, often, those decisions come back to haunt us. We may regret things we have said or done, decisions, large or small, that we may have made. We may even regret the person we have become over the years. Often, we wish we could be rid of all of that baggage that seems to weigh us down. Sometimes we wish we could simply put it all behind us and start over.

We want to be free. There’s a pervasive theme in American culture, going back to the colonial period of people yearning to be liberated of everything that ties them to the past. It’s with us still. We see it in the mobility of our culture, the restlessness, the desire not to be rooted down to any one place. At one point in the movie, after the soul of a Russian poet has been transplanted into Giamatti, and his doctor says that he will feel better after it has taken root, Giamatti shouts in reply, I don’t want it rooted to me.

Perhaps surprisingly, that same theme is present in our texts today. In the letter to the Galatians, one of Paul’s chief concerns is how this new fellowship of believers is to live together and how these believers are to behave. Last week, we saw that powerful sense in Galatians of baptism liberating the believer from everything that bound them to the past—their ethnic and religious identity, their status as slaves, even traditional gender roles. Freedom in Christ changed everything.

But now, Paul is having to work out the negative implications of that freedom. How free are we as Christians? He wants everyone in this new community to be free of the need to obey Jewish law, especially circumcision and the dietary restrictions. The question then becomes, if we got rid of that stuff, what about everything else? Are any laws still binding on us?

That’s what’s Paul is working with. He is concerned that the freedom experienced in Christ may lead to excess, and warns his readers against this tendency. More importantly, and this is one place where Paul’s understanding of freedom is radically different than the way we think about it, he immediately turns from freedom to slavery. For Paul, our experience of Jesus Christ binds us to one another and to the body of Christ. In fact, we are not free at all, but slaves as he says.

But then he adds another word, perhaps even more confusing, that the law is summed up, perfected if you will in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Freedom in Christ brings us back to the love of Christ and love of our neighbor; paradoxically of course, both are dependent also on one’s love of one’s self.

Paul’s understanding of the self is complicated by the language he uses. Paul uses flesh, not in a dualistic fashion, to contrast the desires of our body with our spiritual life. In fact he means by flesh our whole being in so far as it is not living in Christ. To return to the imagery we were using before, for Paul, flesh is what holds us back, what burdens us, what prevents us from living fully in Christ.

And that leads us to today’s gospel. It’s a marvelous passage, full of significance especially for Luke’s gospel. The opening line, “And he set his face to go to Jerusalem” sets the context for this story and indeed for the rest of the gospel, right up until Jesus and his disciples enter city on Palm Sunday. We might think this would be better read during Lent, but it helps us understand everything we will read in Luke from now until November. Everything Jesus says and does, his instructions on discipleship, the beloved parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, everything takes place in light of the fact that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.

The reading begins with another case of a town rejecting Jesus. This time it is not Gentiles but Samaritans, and the implication is that they reject him because he is on his way to Jerusalem; the Samaritans had rejected Jerusalem as the center of Judaism and had built their own temple.

The confrontation with the Samaritans is one thing; what comes next is quite another. First, there’s the intervention by James and John, who want to repay the Samaritans’ lack of hospitality with destruction. Jesus rebukes them, and almost as if an object lesson, there comes next a series of sayings about discipleship. These brief sayings are enigmatic, not least because Luke does not include the response of those to whom Jesus speaks. The teaching is clear. To follow Jesus is a radical choice that requires setting of new priorities. In comparison to following Jesus, nothing quite matters so much.

That’s all well and good, but our tendency might be to go overboard, to insist that following Jesus is all that matters. Certainly there are passages in scripture, and movements within Christianity that make that case. But what intrigues me in this passage is what Luke leaves unsaid. We have Jesus’ words: “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And: “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and “no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It sounds pretty dramatic, pretty clear. Jesus seems to be saying that we have to give it all up.

But there’s just one thing. Luke doesn’t tell us how those would-be disciples responded. Did they stay behind? Did they follow Jesus? Their stories are not told; their names don’t matter. What they did doesn’t even matter.

We may think we are called to follow Jesus, no matter the cost. We may even be tempted to drop everything to follow him. Certainly, we look with admiration and sometimes puzzlement at those who do give everything up for the sake of the gospel—the models of our faith, saints who lived in the past or monks and nuns today. You may even think that this is what it means to accept a call to be ordained.

It’s not quite that clear-cut. Just like Paul Giamatti in the end couldn’t live without all of the burden his soul laid on him, so too we carry with us all of our selves, all of our personal needs and desires, our relationships and responsibilities. To abandon all of that is impossible. We bring them with us when we accept the call to follow Jesus. We bring them with us on the road to Jerusalem. Following Jesus doesn’t mean giving up everything. Following Jesus means accepting and experiencing the freedom of Christ’s love that places everything in its proper perspective and redeems all of our lives. Accepting that love, experiencing that love, lightens our load and quickens our pace.

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