Here we have two passages about transformation. There are, obviously, links between the two. Both talk about Elijah, and each deals with a person being transformed by God in the presence of witnesses. And it’s those witnesses I am most interested in.
Each of these principle characters had disciples. Jesus, of course, had several but only three were present – Peter, James and John. Elijah had one, Elisha. Both sets of disciples had just been told that their mentor – their master, if you will – was approaching the end of their ministries, and would soon be taken away. The reactions to these events are interestingly different, despite the similarities that exist.
Elijah was Israel’s prophet – the prophet that was significant following the greatest period in Jewish history, the period of the Kings of the unified Kingdom of Israel. Kings Saul, David and Solomon each had massive impacts on the social and theological history of the Israelites. But, after these kings, the situation started to deteriorate rapidly.
Elijah was chosen by God to lead the Israelites back into covenant. Preceding chapters of I and 2 Kings detailed Elijah’s actions in the effort to bring Israel back into right relations with God. Then, just before the 2 Kings reading, Elijah has told Elisha his disciple that he would be taken away.
The Mark reading follows the chapter in which Jesus asks, “Who do they say I am?” Peter replied that some thought of him as John the Baptist, some as one of the prophets, and some as the return of Elijah.
The return of Elijah. This would indicate that people thought Jesus was heralding in the coming messiah. But, when asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah.” Not the one coming before the vanquishing messiah of Israel, but the actual messiah. This is the all important acknowledgment that Jesus is the Savior Israel had been waiting for. But Jesus then explained that he would be rejected, killed and resurrected after three days. He would be taken away.
So we have two very significant figures leaving on pilgrimages of sorts with their disciples. They both told of their forthcoming worldly demise. But the disciples dealt with it differently.
After Jesus told his disciples about his impending death, Peter refused to hear of it and rebuked Jesus for even talking about it. Jesus had to retort with his famous, “get thee behind me, Satan.” Pay attention to heavenly things, not your worldly concerns.
Jesus gave a lecture to his disciples that if any were to be his followers, they would have to take up their cross and follow him. They would have to give up the life they knew. He challenged his disciples with the potential difficulties of being his followers.
After Jesus’ divinity was revealed to his disciples, Jesus told them to tell no-one until after he was resurrected. In Mark, there’s a running theme we call the Messianic Secret – where Jesus didn’t want people to know he was the Messiah. Looking at it, though, it seems the only people who didn’t know where the disciples themselves – they somehow seem clueless.
In contrast, Elijah told his disciple to go away from him for his own benefit. Elisha, however, refused. Three times he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha stuck with Elijah until the end.
When other prophets came to Elisha to tell him his master was going to be taken away, he answered them, “I know. Be silent.” Elisha had resolute knowledge, where Jesus’ disciples still had doubts.
Before witnessing the miraculous event, Elisha asks for a special favor – twice his allotment of Elijah’s spirit. Under Jewish law, the firstborn son was entitled to a double share of inheritance. Elisha wanted to be treated as Elijah’s son, and recognized that the only thing of value Elijah had was his spirit – his faith. He was asking to be transformed, and he recognized the transformation would be spiritual – not physical. He was also very aware of the difficult life he could lead after this.
How about Jesus’ disciples – what was their reaction?
Well, first they had to actually witness the miracle of seeing Jesus with Elijah and Moses. Their initial reaction was fright. Then, of course, their desire to stay on this mountain-top experience follows. Even after this – after they resume their journey – it becomes painfully clear that the disciples still don’t have a clue.
After the passage read today comes the discussion between the disciples about who would be the greatest among them.
Elisha wanted a double share of Elijah’s faith, even with the difficulties it would bring.
Peter, James and John argued about who would inherit the power – the prestige – the glory. Who of us would be the greatest?
Elisha had his eyes on fulfilling heavenly power, and the hard work involved as a result of his own transformation. In his transformation, he became a servant of God as Elijah had been a servant.
Jesus’ disciples had their eyes on worldly power, and a life of prestige. They were not transformed from the encounter – although they may have thought they were. They still had no idea of the expectations discipleship would require. Actually, they didn’t really understand until well after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were still blind.
Okay, so what’s the point of all this.
Well, to me the point is about transformation. Not the very grand, miraculous transformations like Elijah and Jesus experienced. But the more mundane, more personal kind that comes with being a disciple.
The church is, above all else, supposed to be the collective agent of God for the transformation of people and the world – for heralding in the Reign of God.
To be transformed – is that why we come to church?
Are we looking for transformation like Elisha – a double share of faith and spirit with the understanding that it comes with a greater expense – a higher expectation?
Or are we like Jesus’ disciples as portrayed in Mark – looking for some kind of prestige – some kind of personal reward for discipleship?
Do we recognize a higher expectation of ourselves or a higher elevation for ourselves?
I can tell you that, initially, it was the latter for me. When I came back into the church I was still looking for a fix for my ego. I had been used to power and prestige, and helping the church represented another way to gain them. It was, after all, a more acceptable way. I wouldn’t have to walk all over people to get it. I wouldn’t have to be unscrupulous and unethical. But I would still gain a reputation and all that went with it.
It didn’t take me too awful long to recognize that I was in some pretty good company at that particular church. The minister, the elders, and even the deacons, were all after pretty much the same thing. There was a whole lot of ego going on there.
This church thrived on power and prestige. It also spent a great deal of money on itself. We made sure the church looked good to the general public – it had street appeal. And we treated people pretty well when they came to our church. (Notice I said “OUR” church.) We also did a lot for ourselves. But we didn’t do much out in the world.
Transformation came hard for me. It came with some pretty amazing events and some equally amazing knocks. In the process, it became apparent that I wasn’t experiencing much other than what I experienced in the business world that I left. And it was equally as unfulfilling.
It also became pretty clear that this was not what church was supposed to look like. Leadership isn’t lording over people – it’s helping people to move themselves forward and to find their own voice. Stewardship isn’t collecting money – it’s about caring for God’s creation – all of it, including helping other people hear their own call to service. It wasn’t about being self-righteous – it was about living in right relations. It wasn’t about welcoming the world into “OUR” church – it was about being “GOD’S” church out in the world.
How about you? What’s your vision of church? What’s your idea about transformation – about discipleship?
This Lent, I’m issuing an invitation that someone once offered to me at this same time of year.
That person said to me: “This Lent, give up something costly. Give up self-delusion and find your real identity. Give up your own power and help someone else find theirs. Give up your own ego and help build someone else’s. Give up your own comfort and try to comfort someone you don’t know. This Lent, risk transformation.”
This person loved me enough to be honest with me. Admittedly, it took a little time for me to realize that. But, as a result, I found the bigger and much brighter picture of what the Good News means in my life.
So, out of love, I’m issuing the invitation to you. If you haven’t done so, give up something costly this Lent. Take the risk of experiencing your own transformation.