II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Readings for (Proper 8)Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 1 July 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 8C / Ordinary 13C / Pentecost +5 Textweek

Just hearing the readings again this morning made me think, if you don’t want to read the Bible, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time with it, just take today’s service sheet home and keep that as your version of the Bible, because the big book, I must admit, is stunningly off-putting, especially if you try to read it like a novel, it’s even worse. Everything, everything that’s in here is in the service sheet today, the whole lot; it’s just been condensed so that we can get it. So even if you just hang onto it for a week, read those readings every day; the symbols in them are really the symbols of life, and I realised in hearing them that the thoughts that I’ve prepared are literally scratching the first part of the readings, because if we want to go through them, we’re going to be here for an awful long time. So I’m just going to start with the story of Elijah and Elisha – what is it about? What relevance can a story about two old prophets have for me and for you today, Elijah and Elisha?

There’s a giveaway clue which answers all of that, and it’s in the first line. ‘Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven …’ In the Bible there are very few people who are taken up to heaven, very few; they’re in there but they’re few and far between. Most of the characters in the Bible die; one or two are taken up. It suggests that this is quite an important reading. It takes on even more import when we look at the first line of the Gospel reading: ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up ….’ Not only do the two opening lines set the scene and so provide a context for the narratives that follow, but they also echo, and the clue there is that they’re talking about a similar process, and I just think it’s so important for us to appreciate that these are not stories about people from a past age, they are holy and sacred writings about the process of life and of living. The story of Elijah and Elisha is the story of Abraham and Isaac, is the story of Moses and the Exodus, is the story of the Prodigal Son, is the story of Jesus and the disciples; it’s our story, and it’s the story that illuminates our relationship with the divine and so it is the story that gives context to our life.

There’s a lot in it. Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here’; Elisha said to Elijah, ‘I will not leave you’. To those who live by the law, the narrative right at the beginning invokes disobedience; to those who see God as almighty, omnipotent, that little exchange at the beginning suggests maybe a testing of Elisha by Elijah. But if we actually just contemplate, where is Elisha coming from, what is his orientation, and then look within, perhaps we can glimpse within ourselves that Elisha is holding fast to all that is true. And as the story unfolds, it becomes amazingly clear that Elisha’s decision, his determination was the right path, the right course of action. It’s interesting because at the outset what we have is Elisha who chooses not to listen to the word of God, not to listen to the word of God - ie, that spoken through the prophet Elijah. He does not wait for direction from outside, rather he walks with the divine. He journeys with and he’s determined to undertake the same journey for himself.

And exactly the same process is illuminated in the Gospel: ‘He set his face to go to Jerusalem’; he set his face to go to Jerusalem. The orientation for Elisha, like the orientation of Jesus, is stunningly difficult for us to get. We live in an over-governed society that is primarily motivated by fear. It’s a society and a culture that drains us of power and blinkers our choices. We live like the Egyptians of scripture, the Pharisees or like those crowd scenes where everyone has got the religious fervour from the book of the Torah. Elisha and Jesus reveal a process that is motivated by life and by love, by the abiding presence of the divine; it’s a completely different path.

Just as an aside, that’s why we’ve got all this parting of water going on. It is not some - rolling up one’s coat and tapping rivers in order to stop them so you can walk across is not about trying to get to the other side; this isn’t a boy-scout exercise. It echoes the very work of the divine, it echoes the very work of creation, when the waters were separated so that the land would know its boundaries. It speaks of us choosing a path through life – water is the symbol of life, the symbol of our baptism: what is the path that I will walk through that? It speaks of bringing order to the chaos, and in every religious tradition – the Zens and the Buddhists have got it so well – to still the water is to find that clarity. So tearing one’s clothes in Elisha’s case, this is the tearing of the curtain of the temple; it’s not about mourning. In the Old Testament, you tear your clothes if you’re in mourning. Elisha doesn’t do that, he tears them in two, he rips the curtain in half. He takes off all that is in the way; the veil is removed – ‘this is my truth’. He takes on the mantle of the divine – he takes Elijah’s coat and with that is able to part the waters of chaos and to find a journey through life that is sure. It’s a wonderful story.

By the time we get to verse 12, we find Elisha at Gethsemane. He kept watching and crying out ‘Father’. He finds that same place, he comes to that same place that Christ comes to. And the journey there we see in verses 9 and 10. It initially looks as if Elijah has had a change of mind, a shift of position because now he says that you will have blessings if you continue to be with me, rather than before when he said he was to go alone. And here the divine is revealing a dynamic response that is not independent of our part in the story. If we look back to Abraham or to Moses or look forward to Jesus, what we find is there’s an interaction with the divine: God responds to the life initiatives that we undertake. We move into the wonderful field of heresy here: there’s a flat-earth view that suggests that God has actually got it all together, that the divine has got a predetermined, happy-ever-after. Well, check out the ending, check out the last book and see what it says. Because what it says is, no, there isn’t a predetermined, happy-ever-after to the story of life, the story unfolds with our interaction. Like any and every relationship, the life of the relationship is the outcome of those in relationship: God is not driving the show, there isn’t a God out there and us here and he’s got it worked out and we’ve got to work out what he’s worked out so that we can do what he wants. It’s fine for Sunday School to get the message across; we actually participate in it: we too are gifted with the power to separate the waters of chaos and to bring forth dry ground. Elisha speaks his deepest desire, he declares his life direction: ‘Let me inherit a double share of your spirit’. Elijah responds, as Christ too responds in a later narrative, ‘greater things than these you will do’. God’s blessing, Elijah’s spirit and Christ’s enfleshed word are not one-off gifts located in history, they’re the very unfolding of history. The blessing, the divine gift of life is that which is passed from one to another.

The reading from Galatians illuminates the process by taking it out of that mystical world of spirit-filled prophets and locating it into the everyday. Paul is seeking to bring these insights into and down to the practical level. In verse 1 he says we have freedom. Watch Paul: the freedom that we have is that there is no excuse; let us not look to another and say but my hands were tied; we actually have freedom. And Paul says do not submit again, do not give away your power, do not give away that which God has birthed in you: the power to separate the waters of chaos, for you were called, in verse 13, not to self-indulgence but to serve each other, to give and to receive; the work of blessing, that which passes from Elijah to Elisha - to give and to receive. Verse 14, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ does not mean ‘be a nice Anglican’, it means do not live in fear, live in love. Verse 15, ‘If, you bite and devour one another, take care.’ If you bite and devour one another: just pause and think of the Western world and the Third World. If you bite and devour one another: consider the pillage of Africa. ‘If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’

When we come together to make Eucharist, we come to give thanks and to share the sacraments. We come to consume the body and blood of Christ. And do we also come to acknowledge a different path, to know ourselves not as consumers in a world of over-consumption, but as those who desire, who desire to be consumed, to be consumed in the divine and to be fully given in love?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris