The spirits of Elijah and Christ.
Last Sunday Fr. Jake spoke about Wisdom and the Word. Today we add the role of the Spirit. Like Wisdom and the Word, the Spirit played a role in creation. Not only that, but this is also the holy and life-giving spirit, which, according to our first Eucharistic prayer, the Father sent through His Son, making us a people of his own possession.
Let us start with our Old Testament reading, which describes the last episode of Elijah’s life. The prophet Elijah was one of the most powerful prophets, bold, dedicated, a worker of great miracles and not afraid of kings. He cast curses as well as blessings, and many events in his life are a shadow or a prophecy of what Christ would be like.
Today we find him travelling from place to place, from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to Jordan. And each time the journey seems to be more important than the destination, because Elijah doesn’t actually do anything at most of these places. Each time, however, three things are happening.
- Elijah tells his pupil Elisha to stay in a particular place.
And every time Elisha decides to continue along with his teacher, mainly based on trust. This teaches us to be consistent and faithful and to not prematurely end our journey with God, although we are always free to stay where we are.
Moreover, Elisha doesn’t just continue, but he makes a vow, a solemn promise to follow Elijah wherever he goes. Simon Peter would later make a similar vow to follow Christ wherever He went. And although he denied Jesus three times, He did follow Him to the end and became a great example for us all.
- At each place the two prophets met a group of fellow-prophets.
And these people always ask Elisha the same question, “do you know that your master will be taken away from you this day?”
It seems that they are showing off their prophetic gifts and are trying to make him feel lonely, so that he will join their group and find himself a new teacher.
But they are mistaken and they are only a distraction. It reminds me of the three temptations of Christ in the desert. Elisha basically ignores them, just saying “I know”. What he knew was that his master would die, but not when.
And in fact that didn’t matter. He must also have realized that he was still learning and that Elijah’s spirit would not disappear just like that.
- Then the Lord tells Elijah to move to the next place. I think we have all had times when we thought, “why do I have to make yet another new start? What was the meaning of this experience?”
Well, sometimes God only wants us to observe things, to compare and perhaps to detect a pattern. Then we can bring our understanding to a new level, and be ready for all kinds of situations.
The places Elijah visits are all significant. They seem to be related to the conquest of the Promised Land in the time of Joshua. And so the two prophets are reminded of the great deeds of God in the past. It reminds us also to never forget what God has done for us, to honour those moments and places where He spoke to us in some way or blessed us, individually or as a group, in recent or ancient times. Looking at the past in that particular way must have encouraged Elijah as he was about to cross the border to the life hereafter, as well as Elisha as he was about to accept great new responsibilities. But they also had to accept the fact that most of these places had lost their old glory, now being full of corruption, idolatry and other disobedience to God. Hence our travellers had to move on, and hence we sometimes should.
According to some interpreters, the Gilgal mentioned in this story is another Gilgal than the one Joshua went to after crossing the Jordan. But what if it was the same place? Gilgal means circle. Elijah would have journeyed full circle. He would have followed the footsteps of the Israelites into the Promised Land, via Ai near Bethel, to Jericho (a place that was conquered by circling around it) and back to the Jordan. This circle makes it clearer that the Promised Land was never a final destination, but merely a foretaste and a symbol of better things to come.
The river Jordan has always been a place of transition. It was no accident that John the Baptist was active there. It formed the entrance to the Promised Land, came to symbolize life after death, and also spiritual rebirth. Many 19th century church hymns talk of this crossing. When he died on the battlefield during the Civil War in 1863, Stonewall Jackson is said to have remarked, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees”. To Elijah and Stonewall Jackson the Jordan marked the transition to the afterlife. To Elisha and to us it may signify being spiritually reborn, with profound new insights and responsibilities.
But in both cases it puts the whole physical world in a new perspective.
We can be blessed with a particular home, or job, or country to live in, but we can never quite say that it is ours. The letter to the Hebrews (11:13) calls the patriarchs and indeed all of us “foreigners and strangers on earth”. And that should make us quite humble, really, less attached to possessions, and therefore also more at peace.
So Elisha had been tested, by his master and by his peers, and now he was finally rewarded. His master says, “Tell me what I may do for you” and then Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. The expression “double portion” occurs several times in the Bible, and it refers to the inheritance of the firstborn. If someone had 3 sons, then the inheritance would be divided as if there were 4, and the eldest would count as 2, so in this case he would get half the inheritance, and the others a quarter each.
It is hard to measure spiritual gifts in the same way, but it is clear that Elisha asked for an “above average” likeness to Elijah. And that is what he received.
He became Elijah’s successor and started by repeating the same miracle of parting the Jordan that had been Elijah’s last one.
Now when Jesus was glorified on the mount of Transfiguration, he was seen next to Moses and Elijah. All these men had “their” spirit being poured out on others.
When Moses needed 70 assistants, the Lord took of his spirit and placed portions on the 70. Elijah we already discussed. When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended on Him, and on Pentecost His disciples received double portions of the same Spirit.
So these three did not only have a similar ministry, the whole point is that their spirit is meant to live on, each and every time; the spirit that is characterized by sharp observation, a zeal for truth, justice and obedience to the God of love.
And yes, this spirit is meant to live on in us as well, increasing our discernment, faith and effectiveness.
John Wesley wrote: “In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible, as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.
Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having “the mind which was in Christ,” and of “walking as Christ also walked;” even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as a uniform following of Christ, an entire inward … conformity to our Master.”
I would like to end with a quote from Craig Adams:
“I have a notion that may seem crazy to some. I think that even if people forgot about Wesley, and Fletcher, and Clarke, … Finney, Mahan, etc. — but would just come to the Bible with open hearts and minds, the holiness themes would re-assert themselves.”
So may the Spirit of God rest upon us all and enable us to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”