“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.”
Old men keep forgetting things we should remember, and keep boring people with stories of the past which we should forget! Our short term memory gets weaker but our long term memory functions with a vengeance. “I remember the time….” “When I was young…” “Have I told you before?” (Yes, a hundred times, Grandpa!) But today our texts tell us all, old or young alike, “don’t look back if you want to follow Jesus!” In Jesus’ own words: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Or those of St. Paul: “Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.” What is important is not whether once upon a time you were converted to Christ but whether you are converted to Christ today. It is important that once you were baptised, but what is more important is whether you are living now as one who is baptised. It is not important that once long ago you won first prize for bible knowledge, but whether today you are listening afresh to the Word of God. In writing the Rule for the Taizé Community, Brother Roger exhorted his fellow brothers: “rejoice; for as you renounce all thought of looking back and are borne forward together with all by the same Word, each day anew you can hasten towards Christ.”
But surely looking back is important? After all, why has God given us memory? To rob us of our memories would take away much of what we cherish. Memory is vital to being human. Without memory it is difficult to communicate and act wisely. The chronic loss of memory is tragic. Remembering past crimes against humanity is essential if there is to be healing and reconciliation. Institutional memory enables stability and continuity. Tradition informs what we do today. The accumulated wisdom of an older generation helps the next generation face the future. We read the Bible to recall God’s dealings with people of faith in old times in order that we to can become part of that story today. We could not live the Christian life today if we had no memory of Jesus. But is that not that is just the point? We remember, but we do so for the sake of living today. We celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of Christ to be strengthened by his presence through the Spirit here and now.
So what, then, is Jesus is telling us, his disciples, when he says: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Or when St. Paul writes: “Forgetting what lies behind…I press toward the goal.” They are not saying forget the past, but they are saying that once you start following Christ don’t keep on wishing you had never started, don’t hanker after your old way of life like Lot’s wife. Paul makes that clear in the passage we read from his letter the Philippians — his old life was behind him, everything he cherished and thought important, his race, class and religious status, had been left behind as he pressed toward the goal, which is knowing Christ more fully. In Brother Roger’s words, each day we “renounce all thought of looking back as we hasten towards Christ.”
What then does it mean to “hasten towards Christ?” Or, to put it differently, what is the goal, purpose, direction, or end of our lives as Christians and human beings? The Greek word telos frequently occurs in the New Testament. It means the end to which we strive to attain, or the closing act in a drama. Teleios, the adverb derived from telos also used by Paul, means being brought to completion, becoming whole. This is what hastening towards Christ means, journeying into the fullness of life personally in company with others and the whole of creation, until finally everything is summed up in Christ and in the mystery we call God.
None of us has yet arrived at our destination in the journey of faith into God’s mystery. No matter how old we may be, there is a journey ahead with Christ into God. Our lives are in the process of being fulfilled, they are not yet complete. That is the nature of the Christian life. There is always more that God wants to give us, not always in quantity or materially, but certainly in quality and spiritually. God’s grace abounds more and more, not less and less as we hasten towards Christ. But not if we keep looking back, keep harking back to the past, for then we are unable to receive grace upon grace, we cannot find the pearl of grace price, the one thing necessary for us today.
The same is true in the life of the church and our own community of faith here at Volmoed. Last year when we celebrated our 30th anniversary as a Community we rejoiced in the many memories that flooded into our corporate consciousness. But we also opened ourselves to God’s future for us. We did not engage in a five year plan, but we did pray that God would lead us into the future in ways that would hasten our journey more fully into Christ, and therefore into God’s purpose for us and this place. And God does not disappoint us even though we may disappoint God. This is the amazing quality of the journey into the mystery of God’s kingdom — there are always surprising graceful twists and turns on the road ahead as we journey into the fullness of Christ. But do not hanker after the past, the ways things were, be open and available to be drawn gracefully into God’s purpose today in Christ in whom is the fullness of life.
John W. de Gruchy
Volmoed 17 August 2017