Here are the Scripture passages first. The homiletical reflections will follow.
2 1 When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel."
But Elisha said, "As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel.
. . .
6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan."
And he replied, "As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So the two of them walked on.
7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?"
"Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit," Elisha replied.
10 "You have asked a difficult thing," Elijah said, "yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours otherwise, it will not."
11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, "My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!" And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
13 Elisha then picked up Elijah's cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. "Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.
9 51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village.
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."
58 Jesus replied, "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
59 He said to another man, "Follow me."
But he replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
60 Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
61 Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family."
62 Jesus replied, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
5 1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
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13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
All three passages point in some way to the transformational character of God's presence in human lives.
2 Kings 2 narrates the passage of leadership from one generation to the next. The transfer of leadership from Elijah to Elisha is reminiscent of that from Moses to Joshua and even of what we can sense in Paul's second letter to Timothy. The theme of loyalty is a common thread in these stories. In the Elijah to Elisha transition, there are obvious signs of tension and anxiety. Elisha asks for something specific in that transition and, in doing so, gives us a glimpse into the relationship between that older prophet and his younger protegé.
Luke 9 describes a teaching moment in Jesus' ministry. Is He using a bit of hyperbole to press home what discipleship really means? Perhaps so, but there's no mistaking the idea that following Jesus will have its costs.
Galatians is a letter about contrasts and chapter 5 is no exception. Galatians 5 is in the "so what?" section of Paul's letter against distortions of the gospel being promoted by Judaizers. Being a Jesus-follower is clearly more than being a Christian without having to become Jewish.
Did Paul have Plato and Aristotle in mind as he was writing to the churches in Galatia? Those two Greek philosophers had differing ideas about how people acquire virtue. Aristotle had the idea that virtue results from habit patterns. By that, he meant that if you do good things enough times, you will eventually become good. Plato thought virtues were acquired by right learning. Hence, the idea has arisen that proper education will eliminate racism, poverty, human trafficking, bullying, and other social evils. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul disagrees, arguing that virtue is the fruit of something more than just repetition or education.
From time to time Paul uses military imagery in his letters. Galatians is no exception as verse 25 of Galatians 5 evokes the image of people marching in line military-style.
The variety of graces, behaviors, and character traits listed in Galatians 5 are spoken of as one fruit. This holistic language is different from what is employed in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks of a plurality of spiritual gifts which are distributed separately. This fruit of the spirit with all its characteristics is available to all Christ-followers. The metaphor of fruit in Galatians 5 is reminiscent of what Jesus had to say about the vine and branches.
The Elijah/Elisha narrative describes God intervening in human history in a specific way at a specific time and place. This is far more than deism in which God creates but then sits back to watch without involving Himself in any way.
Jesus' words in the Luke passage say this "Way," as it is called in Acts 9:2, is something serious. Clearly, being a Jesus-follower has to be more than a capricious lark or a passing fancy. Jesus' words in Luke 9, as well as those of Paul in Galatians 5, signal something radically unusual about Jesus-followers. He's not dividing people into categories of church-goers and non-church-goers.
In our very culturally diverse world, Galatians 5 helps us see the core characteristics of authentic Christ-followers. Being filled with the Spirit of Jesus means more than being a "nice" person (in whatever way "nice" is defined in any culture).
In Galatians, life in Christ is described as life lived far beyond the law's demands. This starkly contrasts with the bloody self-flagellations seen in some Holy Week celebrations around the world.
On the other hand, the Christian life is not simply radical obedience. Paul calls this lifestyle the "fruit of the Spirit." We cannot educate ourselves or discipline ourselves into the "pure heart" condition Jesus mentioned in the Beatitudes and which is unpacked here in Galatians 5. Bearing the fruit of the Spirit requires God's transformative presence.
The Spirit, not the law, produces fruit (the same Spirit who will make us witnesses in all the world). The contrast between what Paul said and what the Judaizers were saying seems reflected in the use of "works" for behavior not of God and "fruit" for the outcome of the Spirit's work in us.
All three Bible passages invite us to be willing to let go of some things in the past and move into uncharted waters.
Believers must not be content to simply follow a moral code in which they do the right things and avoid the wrong things as our Buddhist friends might say. From Luke 9, the idea comes through clearly that we Cristocentric kingdom members are aliens, nomads, and pilgrims on Earth. Jesus' words about discipleship call us to embrace a lifestyle evocative of the "road not taken" by poet Robert Frost.
Can Galatians help us see that, in every culture, there are radical inner differences between those who are in Christ and those who are not? People in agriculture know that fruit can be cultivated. It is, however, a fruit of the Spirit and not a righteousness stemming from our works. There is freedom in this, but Paul reminds us it's not freedom to practice self-indulgence, which in itself constitutes a form of slavery.
Life to be lived in the Spirit is not simply about trying harder or doing more. It is allowing the Spirit to produce His fruit in us. The inward goodness spoken of in Galatians 5 is a fruit reflecting God. To be sure, that fruit can be cultivated. But it cannot be produced by us alone. The authentic fruit of the Spirit is not a righteousness of works.
In 1937, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book titled Cost of Discipleship. The Nazis were opening some of their infamous concentration camps. A pastor friend of Bonhoeffer wa arrested that year. Later, Bonhoeffer himself would be arrested and eventually executed. One of the most memorable lines in Bonhoeffer's book is, "When God calls a man, he bids him come and die." That kind of costly discipleship is included in the radical transformation that these three texts ask us to consider.
Written for the "Missional Preacher," online resource of the American Society of Missiology
-- Howard Culbertson,