June 30 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Theme: Fighting off a strong temptation to be flippant (and to reveal how ancient I am) I shall not even suggest "Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire", though now I come to think of it there's a theological content in that phrase that I had never noticed before. Perhaps when I get to the gospel passage... But first to be serious and grown up for a moment, I'm going with "Freed for Freedom". Galatians 5:1 is so important it deserves to be this week's headline act.
Introduction. Only in the very broadest sense is there any obvious connection between these readings today, although Elisha's rather dramatic preparations for his farewell party may seem to tie in with the Jesus' uncompromising teaching in the second section of the gospel passage. Perhaps they are all about starting afresh, going in new directions, leaving the past behind us, and so on. But surely the same could be said of the Bible as a whole? Elijah has had an exciting chapter 19 so far and it's not over for him yet. Having run away in fear for his life from the vengeful Queen Jezebel, and famously heard God's whisper at the mouth of the cave on Mount Horeb, he is now ordered by God to anoint a new king to replace Jezebel's husband, Ahab, and a new prophet to succeed himself. St Paul reminds the Galatians that they have been freed from the Law so that they may live a life of freedom in the Spirit; while Luke gives us two seemingly separate incidents, one showing how to respond to opposition and one showing how to recruit followers. So there's a lot on our plate this week, and we will be well fed if we complete all three courses.
Background. What an extraordinary week it has been, and I'm not even thinking about Wimbledon! The world has been called to prayer for Nelson Mandela as his death draws ever nearer. Julia Gillard has been caught knitting in a public place and ejected from office in favour of a man who promised, in a very public place, that he would not challenge her again; accountants, lawyers and others not normally known for being of any practical use have been shown struggling through metres of snow on high country farms to help rescue stock; and the Diocese of Wellington has chosen as the next Dean of their Cathedral a Baptist pastor from Palmerston North whose addiction to mountain bikes lead him into criminal offending to feed his habit. (I swear I'm not making this last bit up!) And the truly astonishing thing about all this is how all this drama is somehow recapitulated in this week's seemingly disparate readings!
Leave aside for a moment the whole fascinating subject of "snow-raking" (hands up who had heard of that before), and the whole issue of leadership comes sharply into focus with those other news items, beginning with one of the truly great leaders of modern history, Nelson Mandela. What is left to say about this extraordinary man? The victim of torture and imprisonment for 27 years (or whatever it was), he emerged as a man of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and so on. In fact, what better description of him could we find but in Galatians 5:22-26?
Contrast that with the issues of leadership on the other side of the Tasman this week. Even by political standards the efforts of the Australian Labour Party must have set a new low standard. It may be going too far to suggest that Galatians 5:19-21 is exactly in point, but there was surely little evidence on display that Caucus members had pondered very deeply Paul's exhortation in Galatians 5:26.
And when we come to our gospel reading are we not led back again to Mandela's approach, which is entirely at odds with that fervently advocated by those great apostles, James and John? Their approach is exactly what the white South Africans, and much of the world, feared when majority rule came to South Africa – that the fire of hatred and revenge would quickly blaze across the land. That is what many fear now as Mandela's life ebbs away. Perhaps that is really what the world should be called to prayer about at this time.
And so to Wellington and that same issue of leadership. Our Anglican Church has not generally been known for radical innovation; but that started to change 2 years ago in that diocese when they chose their present bishop, Justin Duckworth, better known for his dreadlocks and his inability to remember to put his shoes on, than for much else. Why was he chosen? For his proven gift to proclaim the gospel to the people of his time; and for his proven ability to share Christ's love with the so-called "marginalised" – middle-class speak for the sort of people we wouldn't want in our lounges (or our churches). And now they have chosen a similar style of minister to be their Dean – in the capital city's cathedral! What on earth is going on?
Well, I know I'm always banging on about this, but surely we must hear again ringing loudly in our ears the prophetic words of Isaiah: Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. Look, I am doing a new thing; now it springs up. Do you not perceive it? What other explanation can there be?
Particularly if we wish to accept our first lesson at face value today. What we have is not exactly a prime example of a seamless transition. Ahab is neither dead nor contemplating abdication followed by a hurried rush to the transit lounge at Moscow airport; yet God tells Elijah that he must go and anoint a new king for Israel (and, for that matter, a new King for Syria). But there is a second command attached: Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to succeed him in the office of prophet. Think about that for a moment. What great man of influence willingly hands over to a successor? Yes, Mandela did – but who else?
Truly, we live in two worlds; one in which the sovereign power of God is recognised and embraced – the world that lives by the Spirit in Paul's terms; and the other one where God's sovereignty (indeed, his very existence) is denied, which Paul calls the life of the flesh. More familiar terms may be the kingdom of God, one the one hand, and the world on the other. Whatever terms we use the choice is the same for all of us; which of those two ways shall we follow, pray for and work for? And how wholehearted shall we be in the choice we make?
Kings. Elijah knows what it's like to be unpopular: by his own count (mistaken, as it turned out) he would have been hard-pressed to find even one like-minded person. Go back to verses 13 and 14 before starting on today's passage. We often remember the bit about God not being in the earthquake, etc, and the bit about the still voice, the whisper, or (my favourite translation) "the sound of sheer silence"; but how often do we remember what Elijah actually heard God say to him? It was in the form of a simple, but profoundly existential question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" At the very least that's a question that echoes the one God put to Adam in the Garden: "Where are you?" Both questions could be replaced with another one: "Why are you hiding from me?" Elijah's reply shows the depth of the self-pity he is wallowing in. He gets no sympathy from God; instead he gets two new commissions, to replace the king from whom he is on the run, and to replace himself as chief prophet. It is to the latter that he turns his attention first. Elisha's response is not one hundred positive, at least to Elijah's ear. But as we realise what he is doing, killing his livestock and destroying his farm equipment, we might pause to think about the extraordinary efforts to which some of our farmers are going (and went during the great drought) to get a real understanding of the enormity of Elisha' s actions. There is no going back – he has forever lost access to his old way of life.
Taking It Personally.
- Think of a time when you were at the end of your tether. Did you ask yourself, "What am I doing here?" Who or what brought you through that experience?
- God's "remedy" seems to be to give Elijah a new task. How helpful would that approach have been for you at the time? Would you advise such an approach for somebody who has "had enough"?
- How hard do you find it to let go, to stand aside, to accept that it is time to let someone else have a go?
- Can you recall a time in your life when you "burnt your bridges" (or your "ploughshares") and took an irreversible step in a new direction. How did you feel about that at the time? How do you feel about it now? Were you aware at the time of God's guidance in your action? Looking back, can you see God's hand on you at that time?
Galatians. Here is that wonderfully clear little sentence that comes close to summing up the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ: "For freedom Christ has set us free." (Let us fervently pray that the good people of South Africa take that very much to heart when their great leader dies.) History is full of examples of brave people rising up against dictators, only to fall back into slavery when the leaders of their revolution become the dictators of the new regime. And, of course, what is true for peoples and nations is also true of individuals, as any addicts and their families know only too well. St Paul says that through the cross we have been set free from bondage AND FOR freedom. Our addictions, our bad habits, no longer have to have power over us – we can be free from them if we want to be. But we have to do more than want to be free – we have to choose to live in freedom each and every day, by choosing to live in the Spirit. Day by day we need to build up new, healthy, spirit-enhancing habits in place of our old ones. The person who diets to lose excess weight must continue to choose moderation ever after, and not revert to old eating habits: the couch potato who follows a fitness programme to get fit cannot maintain that fitness by returning to the couch. Verse 15 seems another wonderfully apt comment on recent political events across the Tasman (and on the football field).
Taking It Personally.
· A day for self-examination and reflection. Concentrate, not so much on the list of sins given in this passage, but on the fruit of the Spirit. Is that fruit becoming more evident in your life as the years go by?
· Ponder verse 25. Do you live by the Spirit? Are you truly guided by the Spirit? Do you regularly ask for the Spirit's guidance?
Luke. Don't you just love the first part of this passage – verses 51 to 56! Notice that this passage is set towards the end of Jesus' earthly ministry; he's now on the downward journey to Jerusalem. So these guys have been with Jesus for quite a while. They have heard his teaching – including the stuff about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. And now, in response to the failure of the Samaritan villages to offer Jesus and his party customary hospitality, John and James (the two who sought the highest places in the kingdom of God, let's remember!) offered to call in air support and have those places nuked off the face of the earth! ("Sometimes you just have to destroy them to save!" turns out to be not as modern as we might have thought.) The second part of the passage is not nearly so much fun – is it?
Taking It Personally.
· How do you react to opposition and rejection? Like Jesus, or like his apostles?
· How total and unconditional is your commitment to the faith journey? How inclined are you to "look back"?
· Are you inclined to procrastinate in spiritual matters? How might you fill in the blanks in this sentence: I will be more [blank] when I have [blank]?