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5th Sunday after Trinity

24 June 2016

Proper 8: 1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-end; Psalm 16; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-end

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Proper 8: 1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-end; Psalm 16; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-end

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

A WEALTH of guidance exists for leaders and aspirant leaders, from business-school programmes to the self-help shelves in airport bookshops. Religious publishing has developed the theme for the church market.

In contrast, the art of being a good follower does not have an extensive literature — even in ecclesiastical circles, if you exclude material aimed at those consciously engaged in catechetical formation. So three readings reflecting on what it means to follow come as something of a gift. Their insights and prescriptions are as tough as any challenge in the syllabus of leadership.

Elijah does not choose Elisha. He is one of three key figures whom God instructs Elijah to authorise in readiness for the replacement of a Baal-worshipping dynasty by a kingship faithful to God (1 Kings 19.15-16; 2 Kings 9-10), and a prophet who will continue to speak God’s truth to kings.

Elisha’s reaction to Elijah’s sudden gesture of election seems perfectly reasonable: he is willing to follow, but wants to complete proper farewells to his parents (1 Kings 19.19-20). The senior prophet’s response, Walter Dietrich suggests, can be read in two ways. On the one hand, it has the ring of a rebuke to someone too timid to drop everything. On the other, it contains a kindlier recommendation to think matters over before abandoning a settled life (“1 & 2 Kings” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2007).

In the event, Elisha decides quickly, going on to show that he, too, can make a big gesture. The symbolic erasure of his life as a farmer provides a village feast, surely spanning a longer period than the narrative implies (1 Kings 19.21), with the customary inexactness of cooking times in scripture (for example, 1 Samuel 28 and Luke 15.23-24).

Elisha has given up property for a menial position as Elijah’s servant, for at this stage there has been no hint that he will take on Elijah’s mantle, in the sense that has become a popular idiom for succeeding a leader (2 Kings 2.1-14). His hesitations show his faithfulness to the fifth commandment (about honouring parents — Exodus 20.12), not his doubt in the call of God.

Luke deliberately links the destiny awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem with Elijah by using the Septuagint Greek word for the prophet’s ascension (analepsis: 2 Kings 2.11, Luke 9.51) — just as he had forged a link with Moses in his account of the transfiguration by referring to forthcoming events as an exodos (Luke 9.31).

This sets the stakes very high for anyone accompanying him on this austere and yet rich journey, as his encounters with existing and potential followers illustrate. Even as the long walk begins, he must readjust the perspective of two disciples who are faithful, but lacking in self-knowledge.

The ludicrous bravado of James and John, who, having only recently failed to deal with an evil spirit, make extravagant threats against the unwelcoming Samaritans (Luke 9.40-41, 54-55, and see 2 Kings 1.9-14), is dealt with immediately; and later, Jesus reinforces his distaste for rigid ideas and prejudices. As Brendan Byrne points out, Samaritans will feature much more positively as Jesus teaches and heals along the way, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 10.25-37, 17.11-19, The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000).

He must also deter would-be followers who will not be able to stay the course. No one who expects a secure place to stay each night, or puts conventional obligations before the demands of the Kingdom, is likely to meet the physical, mental, and spiritual requirement for keeping up with Jesus.

If this seems harsh, it is also an index of the compassion that does not set others up to fail. The road goes all the way to the cross, and the journey cannot be done in relays.

What, then, distinguishes a good follower? Paul takes up this question with the Galatians. He begins by disposing of the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5.19-21), those destructive disorders resulting from the failure to control personal appetites and emotions, and to manage healthy relationships with others. All that has been “crucified” in the baptismal death that brings new life in Christ (Galatians 3.27, 5.24).

The qualities that keep followers going are the durable ones that Paul terms the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5.22-23). “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” create and sustain the energy required to follow “the path of life”, trusting that it leads to the presence of God and the “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16.11).

Forthcoming Events

26 January 2022
Book launch: Entering the Twofold Mystery
Author Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley.

1 February 2022
Cathedrals and social justice
Book free tickets for this Church Times webinar with Mark Russell, Anne Richards and Adrian Dorber.

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