Not many people show such a level of faith that they do not die, but are taken bodily into heaven. Elijah's triumphant passage from this life carried in a chariot of fire is celebrated in the well-known spiritual song, 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot.' The chapter is rich in symbolism, with the crossing of the Jordan, 'Deep River' by striking its surface with Elijah's mantle. Elijah crossed over the river out of the Promised Land to the campground where, before, Moses had also been spirited away at the end of his earthly task.
But the Old Testament story is really about Elisha, the successor, the one who picked up the mantle of Elijah, and with it the task of being God's messenger. It was a job he was keen to take on. Despite Elijah's entreaties to stay at Gilgal, Bethel and later Jericho, Elisha was determined to stay with the great man until the very end. At each place they visited the local prophets told him "Didn't you know God is going to take Elijah from you today." and Elisha replied. "Of course I know, won't you just shut up about it!" At every stage his resolve to follow Elijah and continue his work was strong. When Elijah asks what he wants from him Elisha's request for the 'double share' of Elijah's spirit was a reference to the law, in Deuteronomy (21.17), that the first-born would inherit a double share of his fathers estate. Elijah's reply points to the source of his spiritual strength. Had the authority to lead Israel come from Elijah's own charisma and effort he could have passed it easily on to his talented and worthy disciple. But Elijah knew that all his strength, wisdom and spirituality came directly from God. 'If God wants you to carry on with the task I leave then He will show you.' It was not for Elijah to say what the will of God would be. It was through God's mercy and God's calling that Elisha was commissioned to carry Elijah's mantle.
In Luke's Gospel we hear of Jesus using ploughing as a metaphor for following Him. "Anyone who puts his hands to the plough and turns back is not worthy of the kingdom of God". Ploughing a single furrow at a time with the help of a well-trained horse requires total concentration. Often, with both hands on the handles of the plough the animal would be steered by reins looped round the ploughman’s neck. By raising his head the skilful ploughman slowed the horse. Turning his head to the left would cause the horse to steer to the left, and likewise to the right. Not only that, but if the furrow was to be straight then the ploughman must fix his eyes on a distant point, something to aim at, to keep the line straight and true. I'm sure you've all heard the tale of the ploughman's apprentice, left with that very advice, whilst the ploughman went about other business. On his return he saw that the poor apprentice had made a dreadful mess of the field, with lines going in all directions like a child scribbling on paper.
“I thought I told you to fix your eyes on a point over there?" the ploughman scolded.
"I did sir!" replied the apprentice. "I watched our old cow Daisy in the next field!"
The business of ploughing for God is the same. We need to keep our eyes on a true and fixed point, the life and example of our Lord, and not be distracted by the many more worldly influences that affect the day to day running of our churches. We need to plough according to the ground we find, valuing the enthusiasm and energy of our youth, whilst respecting the tradition and devotion of the elderly. And we must be prepared to put aside our worries and other concerns to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the task of working for the kingdom of God.
Jesus seems very harsh in his dealing with those who wanted to follow him in our Gospel reading. In talking about the fox’s hole and the bird’s nest he was saying that once you decide to follow Him, and work for his kingdom there can be no rest, there is nowhere to hide. You can't just be a Christian in Church on Sundays, it must be clear to all around you at work, at the pub, wherever people know you that Christ is in the centre of your life. It will be hard. People will laugh, but the prize will be worth the pain.
And then a second man asked to 'bury his father' before he would follow. The translation here might suggest that the father mentioned was not yet dead. Matthew Henry's commentary suggests that the man was nursing an aged parent, and was not ready to consider a religious calling until his earthly duties were done. How many of us perhaps allow the burden of our care of others to excuse us from efforts to find out more of what Jesus has planned for us. Surely the man would have made a far better carer for his father with the strength of the Holy Spirit inside him.
And then the man to whom Jesus spoke of the plough. "Let me first go and say goodbye to my family and the people at home." He thought that leaving everyone behind in order to follow Jesus was the right thing to do. But why should following Jesus mean that you should say goodbye to all your friends. As Christians if people are truly our friends then it must be our hope that they also should share in the eventual coming of God's kingdom. Leaving his friends and attachments behind him would mean that he always had something to look back to. Something to cause his mind to wander away from the task he was entrusted with, a feeling of regret and guilt that would fight with his resolve to follow Jesus.
God needs us as ploughmen of his Kingdom. He needs us to spread his word, preparing the ground to receive the seeds of faith in him that will germinate and grow into his Kingdom. If the people around us see us veering to right and left, not seeming to have a focus that gives direction to our own faith then they will continue to say of us. 'Those church goers, they say one thing in church and then go and do the opposite.' People judge us by our actions, or our fruits. Matthew tells us of another of Jesus' sayings about growing things. "Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?" (7.16) Without the trust built up when people see that we are prepared to live in the way we are called to by our Lord the ground will be ill prepared for God to reach their minds and hearts. But by keeping our eyes on the fixed point that is the life and example of Christ, and doing our best to plough a straight furrow with his help then we can really play our part in bringing his Kingdom closer
Galatians (5.22) 'The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.... Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.' By treating each other according to the fruits of the Spirit we help to preserve our unity. It follows from this that we need relationship and fellowship with other Christians in order that we can grow both collectively and individually in the Spirit. Without people to show kindness towards, we cannot be kind. We cannot be patient with people if we never give them the time of day in the first place. We need to experience the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness... of others and express these to others in order that the Spirit be kept strong inside us and as a unifying force within our church.
Failure to live according to the fruits of the spirit weakens the power of that spirit within us. This results in misery, guilt and bad feeling which although we hide away in secret, sometimes even secret from ourselves, we know that God sees.