Proper 8, Year C, Church of Our Saviour, Gallatin

“He picked up the mantle of Elijah” (1 Kings 2:13).

Our first reading this morning is a story of succession, the passage of authority from one prophet to another, the handing over of a commission to the next in line. Elijah the prophet is at the end of his ministry, having labored long against evil King Ahab of Israel. Elijah had confronted the king for patronizing false gods; had performed miracles of healing; had spoken with God on Mount Horeb. He had threatened God’s enemies with fire from heaven (2 Kings 1:10). Now he’s passing the baton to his disciple Elisha.

Appointing Elisha as his successor was not Elijah’s idea. God had spoken to him some time before and told Elijah to anoint him to take his place (1 Kings 19:16). Elisha had been called while he was working at the plow, driving the team, when Elijah covers him with his mantle as a symbol of his selection. He asks Elijah whether he could go back and say goodbye to his parents (1 Kings 19:20). The prophet lets him go under protest. 

In our reading today, Elijah and Elisha are keeping to an itinerary that takes them from place to place in the near vicinity of Jerusalem. Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho, and then on to the Jordan river to the East. Again, it’s the end of Elijah’s ministry. At each point in the journey Elijah tells Elisha to stay put while he goes on, but Elisha refuses each time. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you” (2 Kings 2:2). Finally, they come to the Jordan and Elijah parts the waters with his mantle and they cross over.

It’s the end of the journey. Elijah ascends in a whirlwind to a place far beyond Jerusalem, to the presence of God. Elisha sees the chariot and horses of fire and knows that he has been given a double portion of the spirit of the prophet. He takes up Elijah’s mantle and continues his ministry.

When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he’s walking in the footsteps of the prophets before him. The Gospel of Luke often suggests connections between Jesus and the prophets, and our reading today is a case in point. When Jesus comes to the Samaritan village where they won’t receive him, and James and John ask whether he wants them to call down fire from heaven, it recalls Elijah’s ministry, when he confronts the false gods. When the man asks Jesus whether he can first say goodbye to those at home before following him to Jerusalem, the precedent is readily at hand in the story in Elisha’s call by Elijah.

Jesus’ own ministry recapitulates the ministry of the prophets, but notice the difference. Jesus does not allow his disciples to call down the fire from heaven, neither does he allow the man to go back to say goodbye. Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’” (Lk. 9: 62). To those who do not welcome him, he is merciful; to those who follow him, he is more demanding: more demanding than the prophets before him.

Let’s come back then, to the story of succession, that forms the heart of our first reading. As the mantle passes from Elijah to Elisha, so the mission of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is passed to the disciples who are his followers, to the apostles who are sent by him. Luke’s Gospel is just the first part of Luke’s “orderly account” (as he terms it, Lk. 1:1). It’s followed by the Acts of the Apostles, which continues the story of salvation, extending it through the ministry of the early Christians. There’s a part two because the mantle is passed to those who come after. Jesus ascends into heaven in Luke’s Gospel, following the path established in our first reading by the prophet Elijah; but just as Elisha was given a double portion of the spirit of Elijah, so we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit for the work to which we are called.

We ought to be conscious today that we are following in the footsteps of others who have blazed the trail. Our job is to pick up the mantle that has been left, just as Elisha took it up. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Bernard of Chartres said. We have inherited so much, at the Church of Our Saviour, from those who established this parish. Today, our confirmands will show us how to take up the mantle, and to carry forward the work of the prophets, apostles, and martyrs who have gone before us. There is work to be done, and God has appointed those who will follow.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee