This morning, we have heard from the Second Book of Kings about the story of Elisha and Elijah. To give you a little bit of background, Elijah was this great prophet at the time of King Ahab. King Ahab was married to the idolatrous Queen Jezebel. It was a difficult time for the kingdom of Northern Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were persecuting the prophets of the Lord. It was a time of wars and injustices and Elijah was sent by the Lord to bring back equity and faithful worship. Most of you probably know that at times, Elijah felt very discouraged with this mission. There is this passage in the Bible where Elijah lies down and asks God to let him die because he is so overwhelmed by what’s going on. That’s when God sends Elisha to be with him, as a trainee, an attendant and a designated successor. From then, Elisha will follow wherever Elijah goes and will learn from him – over a period of time of approximately 7 to 8 years. It’s at the end of this time period that our passage begins. Elijah’s “departure” (or impending death) is announced and that will be when Elisha will have to take over the mission on his own.
The passage makes it clear that Elisha, as well as Elijah and the other prophets, knew this was coming. And yet, we see how difficult it was for Elisha to accept to lose his Master. Twice, he refuses to hear what the prophets had to tell him to get him prepared. Three times, he says to Elijah that he will continue to follow wherever he goes.
It’s interesting we have this passage of the OT mirroring today’s Gospel about Jesus’s transfiguration. It is often assumed that we read from the story of Elijah because on that day Mark tells us about, Elijah appears next to Jesus on the mountain. Yet, as I was reading this, I have started wondering if the story was not placed here to remind us of Elisha as well.
The story reminds us of Elisha as well. The transfiguration is often read as this climax in Mark’s Gospel, right after Jesus announces his impeding death as he heads towards Jerusalem. From now on, Jesus will prepare his disciples to be on their own. So for the Evangelist, not only Elijah appears next to Jesus on that day on the mountain, but Jesus is similar to Elijah in many ways – which could also mean that the disciples are similar to Elisha too.
Indeed, right before our passage, Jesus announces to his disciples that: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” and Peter refuses to listen and tries to silence Jesus, in the same way that Elisha tried to silence the prophets. In the same way also, Peter assures Jesus that he will follow wherever Jesus goes – and we know that it is not going to happen, of course – Jesus will have to die on his own. So we see clearly that the disciples are going through the same kind of struggle that Elisha went through. They love their Master and can’t let go of him, they’re sad and afraid to be left of their own – they don’t know what they would be able to do without him.
And I think it can be easy for us to relate to them, isn’t it? I think at some point in our lives, and even several times, we all had to let go of a friend or a parent that was a tutor or a mentor to us. On top of feeling very sad, we often felt afraid, left behind and worried about what was going to happen to us. And yet, as the prophets reminded Elisha, and as Jesus, and even the voice of God who says “Listen to him”, reminds the disciples, they have to let go and be prepared to be on their own – or maybe, in a more positive way – they need to feel empowered to start their own ministry, feel ready to “take over” and to continue the mission instead of staying a trainee, an attendant all their lives. And maybe this is what you also experienced at some point, after you lost a parent, a guide or a teacher. After the grief and the pain and the disorientation, you realized in which ways you could become a successor, continue the mission and bear fruit worth of what you had been taught and trained to do. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples is not only that he will be killed, there is also a good news – even if in their grief the disciples cannot hear the good news – Jesus announces in our story today is that “The Son of Man will rise from the dead.” Even if the disciples won’t be able to be with Jesus like they used to, sharing meals, stories and long walks, Jesus’s spirit will be in the disciples to carry on the mission, in the same way that Elisha inherited “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit.
So what does it mean for us as a church?
Well, I am currently reading an amazing book called “Letters to the Church” by Francis Chan. Francis Chan used to be a pastor in a megachurch, and then one day, after maybe twenty years of doing this ministry, he started to think differently about the church and what he was supposed to do as a pastor. In one chapter, he says that one of the things he regrets the most is that he spent so much time trying to fill his church with people, when now he realizes that it’s not exactly what a good pastor is supposed to do. He says that good pastors shouldn’t worry so much about filling their churches, rather they should worry about equipping their people to become disciples – which means to get them ready to minister, to take care of others, to share their faith, to teach others and to proclaim the good news around them. Chan says that, ideally, each member of a church should reach a point where they could start their own church wherever the Spirit takes them! Yet Chan observes that, most of the time, it does not happen because pastors and priests are not very good at raising leaders. A lot of church members are schooled to come to church to be fed, but they aren’t taught to think of their church as a place where they can learn to feed others. Most church members don’t feel empowered, or ready, or called to start their own ministry. And Chan says this is very sad when people aren’t taught to mature, to be able to do their own thing, he says “What do we think of people who remain all their lives at their parents’ house, expecting to be taken care of as if they were still children even when they are in their thirties or forties?” “Isn’t it a failure, both for the parents and for the children?”
Those words are difficult to hear – whether you’re a church leader or a church member – I know it was hard for me to hear them. But as I thought about it, I realized that it was probably what Elisha and the disciples were struggling with. They loved God and they loved their mentors, but actually they weren’t ready to let go and start their own ministry. Yet Jesus and Elijah were good leaders. They knew they had to let their disciples take over. Actually, at some point in the Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that it’s to their advantage that he is leaving them.
So it think our lessons today encourage us to mature as Christians: In our churches, we have to keep on learning, studying, praying, reading the Bible, attending worship, to feed ourselves but also because we want to be ready to feed others and start our own ministry. And maybe we should think of our churches as a safe and encouraging place for each of us to start our own ministry, to try something out. You know, when students are done with their studies, they write their dissertations as a way to own the teaching that has been given to them and as a way to start teaching others. In the same way, when you have learned what you needed to learn at church, you need to start sharing in your own way and be supported by your leader as you do so. I am hoping that at Christ Church, you feel encouraged to have a spiritual ministry: to preach, to teach a class, to lead a small group, to be on a committee, to reach out to the neighborhood. As I was writing this sermon, I actually had a phone call from one of you who had an idea about a ministry their wanted to develop and be in charge of. I was overjoyed because I think this is exactly what the Scriptures are about today. And so this is my question for you: What is it that you get from Christ Church that you want to share with others and how do you want to do it?
The transfiguration is not only about Christ’s glory, the story tells us today that it is also about the transformation of the disciples. As he encouraged his disciples, Jesus encourages you to start being a leader, whether you feel ready, worthy or wise enough. So what will you do?