Collect for Trinity IV
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of 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
If I was looking for some words to sum up our Propers this morning I think that ‘Journeying towards God’ might be appropriate. Our Gospel 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 that 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 a bodily reception into heaven. From the use of this word we can reasonably assume that Saint Luke was looking forward, with hindsight, 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 blessed Lord.
Here we have a direct link with our Old Testament lesson, taken from the second chapter of the second book of the Kings. We heard that the Lord was ready to take Elijah up into heaven. Together with Elisha, his student, assistant and eventual successor, he seems to have made a final, rather convoluted journey from Gilgal, to Bethel, which was about fifteen miles due west, as the crow flies. Elijah seems to have wanted 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 riverbed as if on dry ground. A chariot of fire and horses separated them and, in a moment, Elijah was bodily assumed into heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha, after grieving at his mentor’s departure, struck the river again with Elijah’s cloak and re-crossed the Jordan.
In the Gospel, Jesus had his sights firmly set on Jerusalem. A casual reading of the synoptic accounts 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 festivals. It is from John’s account that we get the view that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted for about three years. As a conscientious Jew, he would have been expected to visit Jerusalem for all the principal festivals and it seems strange that the Synoptists do not mention these. Perhaps they did not consider earlier pilgrimages important when compared with this final, climactic visit. Luke tells us that, ‘he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ One can almost imagine the straight back, the out-thrust jaw, the steely determination to do this thing that had to be done. Jesus initially set out by the most direct route and if you look at a 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 and Jerusalem in the south. From as far back as the Biblical times before 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 culminated 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 antipathy was particularly directed against Jews who tried to take a short cut through that 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, understand this! It may be that they could see parallels with the scriptural texts about Elijah – the roundabout journey and the need for divine intervention. As disciples of Jesus they may have thought they really did have the power to call down fire from heaven.
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 to have a home and pay filial duty to kith and kin, but one 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 followers of Jesus wanted to do? ‘First let me go and bury my Father,’ and, ‘first let me say farewell to those at 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 call 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 not really 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.’ He then 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 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 mankind’s future in an 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 let us across it with dry feet. We may have business, 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 persons 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. As the season of Trinity extends to about half the church’s year, a remembrance of the Holy Trinity is a vitally important feature in its corporate life. We are a Trinitarian church and you will hear the three persons of the Trinity mentioned many times in our acts of worship. Have a listen sometime and count up just how many occurrences there are. We must all be prepared to be guided by the three persons of the Trinity along paths that ultimately lead us to the Kingdom of God. It’s too easy to spend our time looking backwards and concerning ourselves with things that might have been, instead of looking forward to what lies ahead. In the words of the collect for the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, words that Bishop Douglas Cameron was very fond of using, we ask God’s grace to, ‘forsake that which lies behind and reach out for that which is before, so that we may run the way of his commandments.’ To use a modern analogy, we cannot drive our cars very far only by making reference to the rear view mirror – the view through the windscreen is of paramount importance. We must be ever conscious that there are many distractions that will lead us away from the routes along which we ought to proceed. We must boldly follow the paths defined by our Lord, just as his journey through life was dictated by his obedience to his heavenly Father.
But, just as Jesus’ disciples had no understanding when they joined his band of followers that being associated with him would lead to their involvement in his perceived treasonable activities and ultimate crucifixion, nor to their own eventual martyrdom, so we must be prepared to go where the Spirit of God leads us – that is what the Christian life is all about. If we are not individually prepared to say to Jesus, in words attributed to Ruth in the Old Testament, ‘where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge’, then we must ask ourselves if we really are true disciples of the Master. Somehow we don’t expect the tumultuous events to affect us; events that invaded the lives of the apostles, for example. Similarly, we don’t imagine that we will have an Elijah-like bodily assumption into heaven on a whirlwind. We would all, I am sure, prefer to die quietly in our beds, with as little fuss as possible. But, having a life devoid of excitement doesn’t mean to say that we are not following in the ways of Christ. Not every disciple has a Damascus road experience. No. Our lives may appear quite simple, ordinary and mundane but it is the direction in which they move that is important; and that way must always be directed God-wards.
When the time comes for us to depart this earth and move on to that whole new set of adventures, and whenever it comes, we would like to be in a position to hear Saint Peter welcome us at the gates of heaven with words offered us by Saint Matthew, ‘well done thou good and faithful servant’. Let us then ask for God’s guidance to help us to follow in the ways where his Holy Spirit leads us, throughout this mortal life, across that narrow divide of death and on to that new life in the Father’s nearer presence.
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