…Elisha jumps up eagerly and asks for a double share of Elijah’s rabble-rousing spirit – and I would give my eye-teeth not to ever have to face any conflict at all. Jesus points out to his would-be followers that he has no home at all – and I have two, and can barely cope with either of them. But I’ll do the best I can…. We start with an ending, the death of Elijah. He has fought the good fight against the enemies of the Lord, killed the prophets of Ba’al, provided food for the widow who provided for him, bringing her son back to life, listened to the voice of the Lord when his own life was at risk for it. Now he is going to God, and who will follow him? Who will inherit Elijah’s mantle?
There is one eager volunteer – Elisha wants only to be just like his master, only more so. He wants a double share – the portion of a first-born son – of Elijah’s spirit. And he gets it; from now on we will be hearing the stories of Elisha, the stories that Luke uses as a basis for his stories of Jesus. (John the Baptist was Elijah, of course, now Jesus will echo the double-Elijah…) Both stories point to the mystery of being called: whom God calls, and how, where, and when; the profound difficulty of the call – the sacrifice required to follow it; and the nature of life under a call as gift.
Elisha’s call is validated by Elijah’s departure into heaven – since he gets to see it, he knows that God has answered his prayer to be Elijah’s successor. The chariots of Israel and its riders – the chariot of fire, wrapped in a whirlwind, just like on the mountain of the Lord – lead him to try out the feats of Moses too, and the waters part. He’s the real deal, the new prophet of the Lord in a hostile society. Why anybody would want this job might be a little obscure, but he’s got it.
Jesus too is on his way to a ‘departure’ (Luke calls it his ‘exodus’) and to being, like Elijah, ‘received up’ into heaven – in his case a fancy way of saying ‘die on a cross’. He has ‘set his face’ – absolutely determined – to go to Jerusalem, and he won’t last long there. That journey will now dominate the whole story Luke tells us, and determines how people will react to Jesus at every step of the way. The plan is all settled for Jesus to disappear – now who will follow him?
The group today is certainly varied. There are those who don’t want anything to do with this doomed Messiah, like the Samaritans. I’m not sure what’s going on there – Samaritans generally approve of Jews who don’t get along with their fellow-Jews (like Jesus, sometimes), and they get a good press in this Gospel. But in this case they are no different from any other nationality, race or other group in their being scared of getting too close to Jesus. The Kingdom of God is near at hand – but please don’t let it get too near – it’s too frightening; it asks too much of us. And the folks already signed up for it aren’t much of an improvement. They don’t seem to get the gist of what Jesus is about any better than the outsiders, and need constant correction to keep moving in the right direction.
Then there are the new recruits. Number 1: ‘I’ll follow you wherever you go’. Well, are you prepared for the ‘wherever’ to mean ‘everywhere’? As in ‘no place you can call home’? Those Samaritans aren’t the only people who won’t welcome the Son of God. Prophets aren’t popular where people are comfortable, or where there is no comfort to spare. So if you’re coming to Jesus out of starry-eyed idealism, or anything sentimental or romantic, don’t count on that lasting too long. Having no place to lay your head – no place to ever just relax, to be safe and at peace, will wear you out if you’re not prepared for it (or even if you are).
Number 2 recruit gets a call of his own: ‘Follow me’. OK, Jesus, but I have to do my duty first… The guy either needs to attend to an immediate funeral, or he’s asking for time to be at home until the old man dies and sets him free from responsibilities. This is a much harder case – the objection to following the Son of God is God’s own law: Honor your father and your mother. But the Kingdom is what the commandments are for – letting the good thing (keeping the Law) interfere with the best thing (the Kingdom) is just as bad as rejecting it out of hand. Unless you understand that, and are prepared to give up even your ideas about goodness, holiness, obedience, the guilt will ruin you….
So you give up idealism, you give up duty, you submit every other thing to the demands of the Kingdom – you also give up simple affection. If Number 3 is any indication, you don’t even get to say goodbye to the folks you’re leaving behind. Nothing can be allowed to drag you back, or down, or off to the side – anything can be a distraction, and everything has to take a back seat to commitment.
And the reward for this extravagant commitment? Extravagant grace! Binding yourself as slave to this master results, Paul says, in ‘perfect freedom’. Not just freedom from the burdens of trying to make yourself righteous, having to do things – more importantly, it’s freedom for the wonderful things God has in mind for us to do. Left to ourselves, we’re slaves to our own desires – and there’s no harsher master. Practically, that means that we’re free to make as much of a mess of our lives as we want. Choosing instead to die to the demands of our own foolishness, our almighty ego, leads to a new birth into a new Kingdom with a new King and a new kind of ‘slavery’. We gain the ability to live our lives without the fear of death at the end of those lives, because in our baptism into Jesus Christ we’ve already been there, done that. Death is now just another transition to just another way of being with God. And meanwhile we get to live in real life, the life of heaven right here and now, life ‘in Christ’, life ‘in the Spirit.’
Paul poses the two alternatives very starkly. The life of what he calls ‘the flesh’ – which doesn’t mean ‘the body’; it means the powers of this world which are opposed to the power of God – offers a hair-raising list of how we go wrong: sins against the body, the soul, the community (interesting that the sins against the community are the longest part of the list…). This is where our childish desire for ‘freedom’ from all constraint will take us. (I hope you remember that when you hear the TV opinion-makers rattle on endlessly about ‘freedom’ this week. Yes, we do in this country have the freedom to be stupid, as our Secretary of State had to explain to Europeans a few years ago – that doesn’t make the many ways we choose to be stupid a good choice for any of us.) The illusion that we can get, or handle, absolute freedom is one of the lies of Satan, and we listen to those at our peril. It’s Satan who is glad to have us stupid and deceived and vulnerable, so that we can become genuine slaves, led into the fear, anger, confusion and despair that paralyse us for goodness and for being our real selves.
But the presence of the Spirit in our lives means that we are free to serve the Master who loves our real selves and longs to see us grow into them. Serving this Master means submitting to all that he asks of us, leading us to the ‘fruit’ of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There’s no law against things like that, Paul says, a little sarcastically. There’s also no law that can force us into them. But we can choose them; we can use our freedom to take on the yoke of a Lord who loves us enough to die for us, and let him re-make us in his own image. Learning to live in his Spirit is the work of a whole Christian life, but there are plenty of people to tell you that it’s the only kind of a life that is worth living. His call comes to each of us today – there’s no time like the present to answer it once again, and once again dedicate ourselves to following him into perfect freedom and unending joy.