Staying True to the Call
It may be a truism, with lots of qualifications and nuances, but it seems apparent that to be successful in life (unless we’re born with a silver spoon), you’ll have to be persistent as well as be willing to persevere through difficult times and obstacles. At every juncture there will be the temptation to look back and retreat to safety. Both Elijah and Jesus were tempted to take the easy way out, to turn back from their appointed tasks, but both remained steadfast and fulfilled their tasks.
In these two passages, one from the Hebrew Bible and the other from the Gospel of Luke, there is a common theme. The question that is raised in these texts concerns our willingness and ability to remain true to our calling. Are we ready to take up the mantle of the Master? Elijah understands that his day of departure is at hand. Elisha is his disciple, but the question that is present in the text is whether Elisha is ready and willing to continue the ministry of Elijah. The two are journeying from Gilgal to Bethel, and Elisha pledges his loyalty, such that he won’t leave Elijah. Where you go, I will go. Even when the Company of Prophets reminds him that it’s Elijah’s time to depart, he won’t leave his master. They go to the river, go through the river, and each time they stop, giving Elisha the opportunity to turn back, he pledges his loyalty to Elijah. Finally, having crossed the river, which Elijah parts by hitting the water with his rolled up mantle, Elijah asks of his student – what would you ask of me? And Elisha asks that he might have a double portion of his master’s spirit. Such a request is rather bold, for in making this request, Elisha not only pledges to continue his master’s work, but to expand it as well. Elijah says to Elisha: So be it, this will come to pass for you, if you’re able to watch me depart from this life. That is, such will happen if you are able to continue with me to the very end. It is after this, as they walked that a Chariot of Fire came and took Elijah from the earth, and Elisha continued focused on his master crying out to him as he departed. When the chariot was gone, Elisha looked down and saw that Elijah had left his mantle. Elisha picked it up, went to the Jordan, and struck it with the mantle, calling out, "Where is the God of Elijah." At that the waters parted and Elisha, who had persevered to the end, crossed back over to the other side, knowing that he returned home to continue the ministry of his master, full of the Spirit that had indwelt Elijah.
There are differences between this first story and the Gospel, but both have at their heart the question of staying true to one’s calling. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will depart from this life. Luke says that he "set his face to go to Jerusalem." There is, in that statement, a resoluteness that suggests that he will not turn back, no matter what may come his way.
The manner of Jesus’ departure, as we know from the rest of the story, will be quite unlike that experienced by Elijah. There won’t be a chariot of fire. Instead, there will be a cross and a tomb, which are then, and only then, followed up by a resurrection. As Jesus makes his way to his point of departure, people come up to him and pledge themselves to be his disciples. "I’ll follow you," they say. But Jesus, like Elijah did with Elisha, reminds them of the cost. I don’t have home, even though the foxes do. Are your willing to live as a wanderer, with no place to call home? Am I willing to do so? After all, I have a pretty nice house. Another comes and pledges to follow, but needs to take care of some business first. He has to bury his father – but from the tone of the text some suspect that the father is in good health and not in any danger of expiring. Is this our sentiment – I’ll get around to it, when I don’t have anything better to do? Another says, I’d be glad to follow you, but I need to say good bye to my family, to which Jesus responds: "No one who puts a hand to the plow, and looks back, is fit for the Kingdom of God."
To live by the Spirit is to be led by the Spirit, so says Paul. To persevere, to endure, to stay true to the task, this requires not just will power, it requires the presence of the Spirit of God. Staying true is exemplified in the fruit of our lives. Different trees, different fruit. Which is the one that defines our lives? Paul offers guidance in discerning the nature of the fruit.
These texts that stand before us are difficult ones. Oh, we can work our way around them, but they stand as reminders that in the comfort of our own lives, we’ve been called upon to stay true to our calling, which may require that we give up our comforts for the sake of the sake of God’s reign on earth, even as God reigns in heaven. Am I willing to stay true, to continue on, no matter what? It is my choice, for I am, as Paul says, free, so that I might be slave of love to my neighbor.
by Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.