... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 5 Year C, Message June 30th, 2013

Discipleship and Leadership

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Psalm 77: 1-2,11-20; Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

If last week’s readings could be summed up by Lost and Found, this week’s offering might justly be titled Discipleship and leadership. Discipleship is the adherence to a dedicated course of teachings by a follower of his or her teacher. Leadership is the characteristic of one who is at the forefront of a group and who is able to direct the paths of those who follow. While a disciple may become a leader the opposite does not necessarily follow. A good disciple may not make for a good leader and a good leader may not be a good disciple. All these seemingly paradoxical statements can make one’s head spin. Yet if we were to regard the readings for today some great insights can be understood especially for the future of ourselves and our church. In a very real sense the readings confirm what Bishop Stephen stated in his sermon at Matthew’s confirmation on Trinity Sunday: God never wanted a church in Bala – God wants Bala in God’s church!

Starting with the story of Elisha’s succession from Elijah we are struck with what at first appears to be a rather magical if not mystical account of Elijah’s last moments on earth. Yet on deeper reflection it is a story of Divine leadership true discipleship and a vision which allows the transformation of one to the other. Earlier in the Elijah-Elisha cycle we discover that God has chosen Elisha and while Elijah is not happy about it he does follow God’s decree, puts his mantle on Elisha’s shoulders and calls him to follow. Elisha in turn leaves home and oxen and follows, becoming a faithful servant and student – disciple. At the end of Elijah’s prophetic days the two traverse the land of Israel and Judah meeting with the various bands of prophets. At each stop Elijah tests Elisha, suggesting he stay. However, Elisha the stalwart disciple remains firm to his calling and as the end nears asks Elijah for a double portion of Elijah’s blessing. This request is the request of an eldest son in the Hebrew tradition, not a request for greatness. Elijah’s reply is that of pointing out that the assumption of his role by Elisha can only be granted by God and that if it is God’s will then that would happen. The method of understanding if it would be God’s will was the ability to see how Elijah was to be taken. This vision is what takes a disciple and ordains him or her a leader. The vision – to see God’s plan, to understand it and to be able to direct the course of others into that plan is what leadership is about. Elisha sees and assumes the mantle. His first test both of himself and God’s call to him is to duplicate Elijah’s act of striking the water and parting it. It is the confirmation of his call and his new role.

The psalm seems most appropriate to be linked with the Elijah-Elisha cycle as the author seems to have realized the aspects of true discipleship – meditating on God’s actions in the life of Israel and seeing in them aspects of the Divine will and indeed God’s own character. The recollection of God’s saving deeds in the past enable people of faith to see and incorporate the supremacy of God even in the midst of chaos and societal despair. The discipline of focussing on God opens avenues of human strength and actions incomprehensible to outsiders and beyond the fortitude of non-believers.

The Gospel account forms part of a very large cycle based on Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the fulfillment of his mission. While the primary thematic aim of the section has to do with the coming rejection death and resurrection of Jesus, the opportunity is taken to show how Jesus turns his band of followers into true disciples and preparing them for the succession of leadership in the post ascension era. Time and time again Luke as well as the other synoptic authors show the disciples to be utterly human in their desires, actions reactions hopes and thoughts. They are hot-headed, slow to understand, quick to react and filled with all the desires and destruction of every human.

Having answered Jesus’ call for them to go into Samaria, faced with rejection they harken back to Elijah’s destruction of the false prophets by asking to be allowed to call down heavenly fire to destroy their towns. Jesus’ rebuke calls us to remember the admonition to leave and shake the dust off the sandals. Discipleship demands an ordered response to all things and avoidance of the calls of those distractions which would have us go down other paths. Indeed this is just what the next three scenarios are about – to follow is to forego one’s own comforts, to separate oneself from “traditions” and even to transgress accepted societal norms. To continue to follow in the same old venues customs and traditions will oft times block the vision of what might be. And that vision of what might be might just be the will of God. Had there not been people of vision we would still be living acting and interacting in ways not far removed from ancient civilizations.

Before we look at Paul’s reading for today we need make one more comment about the Gospel passage. This concerns Jesus himself. Jesus, by his own words and actions is the consummate disciple following God’s teaching guidance and will. Some might suggest that this passage is not really about discipleship as much as it is about God’s direction and teaching, and Jesus’ faithfulness. Just so this faithfulness is discipleship and in seeing God’s vision Jesus is also the epitome of leadership.

It is this quality which guides Paul’s understanding of what freedom is. Freedom for many today is synonymous with independence, self-sovereignty and absence of restraint. Yet these are not what Paul would have had in mind. For Paul freedom was a state of existing in Christ not freedom in and of itself. Freedom in Christ meant a discipline in Christ’s teachings which were able to free one from the law as a director restrainer and jailor to a set of codes and conducts. While the law was a system which governed human actions in and of itself it did not allow one to see beyond the system to have insight into why we were given the Law. With Christ comes that insight and with that we are freed – the Spirit gives an understanding to right paths of conduct and being.

Paul uses the terms the desires of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit to tease out his point – that point being how we are to live in relationship in light of the Law. Thus there really is not a separation of material and spiritual as some might suggest. In fact the two exist together – the fruit of the Spirit enriches not only our spiritual lives but our relationship with the material of the world.

The "desires of the flesh" for Paul is not a commentary on the desires per se but rather on the manner in which the undisciplined act on those desires. Paul here and elsewhere acknowledges that we have desires but to the untrained actions on those desires are either disordered or undergirded by the wrong reasons. Often we desire good things but go about their gain by wrong methods. Examples abound – we desire a contact with the Divine and we seek or end up in idolatry, we desire sexual intimacy and end up pursuing fornication; we crave joy but seek it in carousing. Disordered or undisciplined actions enslave us to our passions and relations ultimately destroying them.

If we are guided by the Spirit, if we allow ourselves to be freed in Christ, if we become disciples we may avoid the traps inherent in our desires, thus we will not only be free from the Law but free to glimpse the vision God has set and in that vision become leaders. This is the challenge for us individually and for the church in general especially in this age of commercialism materialism and consumerism.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father who gave your Son as a gift of salvation, open our hearts and minds to see the liberating work He has accomplished. In that help us to become true disciples and see your will that like Elisha we may take up the mantle to be followers and leaders in our time to show your way to the world and bring glory to your name.

Amen