A little earlier than usual - tomorrow I'm off to an ordination & with travel as well it will take most of the day: but worth it to see my parents & the ordination of a friend.
Trinity 4 (1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Luke 9:51-62)
So Elisha becomes the disciple of Elijah. Elisha is chosen by God: when the ‘still small voice’ of God speaks to Elijah on the mountain it tells Elijah to anoint Elisha as the next prophet for the people of God.
As we are told the story there is no great discussion between Elijah & Elisha – Elijah walks past Elisha & throws his mantle, his cloak, over him. And that’s it… “tag, you’re it!”.
Elisha’s response is not to question Elijah or try to wriggle out of his new position, but to ask if he can say farewell to his parents.. which he does.. and then to final sever all links with his past life as a farmer.
Elisha doesn’t just leave behind his oxen and his plough – he slaughters the oxen and uses the wood of the equipment to light a fire to cook the meat.
I wonder what his parents thought? Not only is he saying he won't return, he's assuming the land will now just fall into misuse - or maybe be sold off - no-one else will need his plough either! Elisha demonstrates the all or nothing nature of following God's call and God’s way. Through Elijah God calls and Elisha’s ‘yes’ is spoken with his whole heart and his whole life. It seems like scary stuff, this following God's way - no dipping your toe in the water, or wondering how life would be if you made different choices, no trial period, no glancing back…just “Yes”.
And if you wanted to hear Jesus, in the gospel, watering this requirement down a little, hard luck!
Luke tells us the story of three people who are possible followers of Jesus.
The first is impetuous ‘I will follow you wherever you go!’… and Jesus dampens his enthusiasm by stating that the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Being a disciple of Jesus will never be a cozy option – the road is hard.
The second is called by Jesus and makes an excuse “first let me go and bury my father”. But Jesus says ‘let the dead bury their own dead’: which might sound a harsh response to someone who is grieving – but of course it could be that the father is hale & hearty ad what the excuse really means is ‘I will become a disciple after the death of my father – which could be many years from now’.
The third…well, the third, in all good stories, is meant to get it right.
Think, for a moment, of the three bears & their porridge - too hot, too cold, just right.
The first would-be disciple is too hot, too impetuous, he is rashly promising to follow without knowing where Jesus is headed.
The second would-be disciple is too cold. Well, yes I’ll follow, but not just yet, when my life has entered a different phase, when my father’s off my hands & I’m a free agent.
The third would-be disciple, in classic story-telling mode, should be ‘just right’. he certainly tries to get it right – because he sounds just like Elisha, ‘First let me say farewell to those at home’.
But Jesus knocks him and those of us who are waiting for the ‘just right’ bit of the story for six.
Jesus says “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.".
What’s happening, here?
It might help to just stand back a little and think about the context in which Jesus is speaking.
Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem – he is on the long journey which we know ends in seeming despair & death (although in truth, of course it doesn’t end in death at all) – but Jesus is going to be rejected by his own people. Already, at the start of the reading we heard, Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village. Following Jesus is about to get really hard from here on, in the whole gospel story. So when things get really tough, what will it mean to follow Jesus? Jesus wants any would-be follower to know that being a disciple needs to be the number one priority – however seemingly attractive the alternatives are. It can’t be wrong to want to say good bye to your family – but sometimes even a good thing should come second.
George Caird (a principal of Mansfield College – before I was trained there) writes: 'The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but the most difficult choices in life are between what is good and what is best.'. Following Jesus should be seen as the best and highest calling, and an irreversible decision – no looking back, no wondering what might have happened if…, no second thoughts.
Jesus is speaking at a time of great turmoil and rejection for him and his followers. No-one can pretend that the 21st century is easy, either. It’s hard Sunday shopping and Sunday days out; many for the church to compete with Sunday sport and people no longer see the relevance of Christ for their lives; one or two very vocal and very persuasive atheists are trying to make Christian belief sound like the refuge of the feeble minded.
Following Jesus is not easy – but it is the right thing to do, the finest choice we can make, and it demands our total energy and devotion.
And if that all sounds a bit gloomy, we need to remember that Jesus’ journey ends not with a cross, but with a crown, as God’s power is triumphant.
So be it. Amen.