Collect for Trinity IV
ALMIGHTY God, you have taught us through you Son that love fulfils the law.
May we love you with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength,
and may we love our neighbours as ourselves; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
2 Kings 2, Vv 1 - 2 & 6 - 14
Galatians 5, Vv 13 - 25
St Luke 9, Vv 51 - 62
Our Gospel proclamation this morning began with a rather strange phrase – ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up…’ Saint Luke was at pains in the opening verses of his gospel to set down what he calls, ‘an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.’ In his other seminal work, the Acts of the Apostles, he made it quite clear that forty days elapsed between the resurrection and the ascension, and the church has accepted this account. Yet here, less than halfway through his gospel, he seems to be inferring that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for that ascension. One commentator writes of the significance in the account of the word analempsis, from which root comes our word assumption, meaning, in this context, a bodily reception into heaven. From the use of this word we can reasonably assume that Saint Luke was looking back, as it were, to the ultimate conclusion to the journey just begun – through the betrayal, trials, crucifixion, resurrection and finally to the bodily ascension of Our Lord.
Here we have a direct link with our Old Testament lesson, taken from the second chapter of the latter book of the Kings. We heard that the Lord was ready to take Elijah up into heaven. With Elisha, his protégé and assistant, he seems to have made a final, rather convoluted journey from Gilgal to Bethel – about 15 miles due west, as the crow flies. Elijah was keen to be rid of Elisha’s company but Elisha was not to be discouraged. From Bethel they retraced their footsteps eastwards to Jericho and continued on to the River Jordan. We heard later how Elijah took off his cloak, rolled it up and struck the waters of the river. The waters divided to right and left and they crossed the river as if on dry ground. Elijah was bodily assumed into heaven in a whirlwind and Elisha, after grieving at the departure, struck the river again with Elijah’s cloak and re-crossed the Jordan.
Jesus had set his sights firmly on Jerusalem. Even a casual reading of the synoptic gospels could lead us to believe that this was his only visit to that city, whereas, by contrast, Saint John tells of him visiting it on several occasions, certainly for all the major Jewish festivals. It is from John’s account that we get the idea that Jesus’ ministry lasted for about three years. Since Jesus, a conscientious Jew, would have been expected to visit Jerusalem for the principal festivals it seems strange that the synoptic writers do not mention these. Perhaps they did not consider earlier excursions important when compared with this final, climactic visit before the passion and crucifixion, the journey now begun. Luke tells us that, ‘he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ One can almost imagine the straight back, the out-thrust jaw and the steely determination to do this thing that had to be done.
When I joined a large industrial company many years ago it was their managerial policy to spend time at the end of each month looking back at what we had done, to see where we had gone wrong and to determine how we might have done better. A new senior manager pointed out the error of our ways with the analogy that it is impossible to drive a car on any significant journey only by making reference to the rear-view mirror. Most of the time must be spent looking forward, through the windscreen. To run a successful company one should spend most of one’s time looking at where the business is going, where it will be next month and next year. Jesus, as he moved steadily towards his ultimate fate in Jerusalem, was transparently of the same opinion.
Jesus initially set out by the most direct route and if you look at the map of the Ancient Near East of those times you will see that the country of Samaria lay directly between Galilee in the north and Judaea in the south. From the Biblical times of Elijah there had been a long-standing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans. This came to have racial and political as well as religious connotations and resulted in the construction of rival temples in Jerusalem and on Mount Gerizim, both claiming to be the one, true sanctuary of the Mosaic laws. Samaritan hostility was particularly directed against Jews who tried to take a short cut through their country to attend religious festivals at Jerusalem. Pilgrims wanting a stress-free journey tended to take the longer route through Peraea, which necessitated two crossings of the River Jordan. Luke tells us that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, wanted to bring down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans who stood in their way. Saint Mark reminds us that Jesus had earlier referred to these two brothers as Boanerges, or Sons of Thunder – we can, perhaps, see why this was! It seems likely that they could see parallels with the time of Elijah – the circumlocutory journey, the crossings of the river and the need for divine intervention. They may have thought that they really did have the power to call down fire from heaven. After all, Elijah and Elisha had been separated by a fiery chariot.
The three aspirants to discipleship mentioned in the gospel were warned by Jesus to count the cost, and in particular to reckon with the conflict of loyalties, that fellowship with him inevitably brings. It is wonderful for a man to have a home and pay parental duty to his kith and kin, but he must be prepared to sacrifice respect, affection and domestic security in a response to the call of the Kingdom of God. In the last verse of the scriptural passage that we heard, Jesus said, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.’ It is interesting to remind ourselves that Elisha made exactly the same comment when called into God’s service by Elijah. He was ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen and is reported as saying, ‘Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will come with you.
Does Saint Paul’s injunction to the Christians in Galatia, which we heard in our Epistle, run counter to this teaching of Jesus? Paul reminded his readers that, ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’ But, isn’t that what those putative disciples of Jesus wanted to do? ‘First let me go and bury my Father,’ and ‘first let me say farewell to those at my home.’ Isn’t that what good neighbourliness is all about? Isn’t that all part of loving one’s neighbour as oneself? But, Paul’s view of neighbourliness goes over and beyond the simple calls of human nature to attend to the problems and difficulties thrown up by worldly matters. Jesus, in his demands that we look forward to the kingdom of God, not backwards to the things of this world, is really not at variance with Paul. Paul went on to say, you will remember, ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ Then he gave a comprehensive catalogue of the sins of the flesh and warned that, ‘those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.’ By contrast he said we should enjoy the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, and the like. No, Jesus and Paul were speaking the same language, they were both seeing man’s future in his attainment of the Kingdom of God.
Where does all this leave us today, simple pilgrims on life’s complex journey from cradle to grave? We may appear to be led by circuitous routes, as Elijah and Elisha were, but the Father will take us, if we will let him, to the River Jordan and lead us across it with dry feet. We may have domestic and family demands upon our time and resources but we know that Jesus will lead us forward, if we will let him, straight as a plough furrow, to our final destination. We may be all tied up in a knot of secular perplexity but the Holy Spirit will lead us, if we will let him, away from the sinful demands of the world and on to a place where true joys are to be found. So, with all three members of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity helping us on our way, how can we possibly go wrong?
Today is the fourth Sunday in that portion of the church’s calendar that lies between Pentecost and Advent, called, simply, Trinity. Depending upon where Easter falls the season of Trinity can extend to half of the year. A remembrance of the Holy Trinity is thus a vitally important feature of the church’s life. We are a Trinitarian church and you will hear the three persons of the Trinity mentioned many times in most corporate acts of worship. Have a listen sometime and count up just how many occurrences there are. Let us then be reminded daily that our creator is three persons yet only one God and pray that we may be guided in all that we do by the will of our heavenly Father, mediated to us through his blessed Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that our journeying may always be towards God and that, when we are taken up, if not in bodily fashion as happened to Elijah, we may meet with our risen and ascended Saviour, who reigns in glory with the Father.
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