I must say at this point in my life, I am attracted to the passage in I Kings regarding the old prophet Elijah. In the preceding verses, Elijah has said that he wants to retire from being a prophet, bring it all to an end. And this is the story of God’s response to Elijah laying down his mantle. He is to anoint two kings as a public act of political resistance, and then he is to anoint his own successor: Elisha. This is the story of succession planning for an old prophet who never really was that qualified to be a prophet in the first place. He is often depressed or angry. Often gruff or abrasive. But there was no one better equipped to do theological combat with the prophets of the fertility religion that was creeping into Israel. No one better suited to do theological combat with the prophets of Baal.
And so the old Elijah literally passes the mantle on to Elisha. Elisha will follow him for a bit in the next few chapters and then succeed Elijah when he ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot.
In the details of the story are embedded the differences between the two prophets as the story shifts our attention from the old to the young. Elijah with a J means YHWH is God! The name is the combination of two traditions for God. The Lord or YHWH tradition of the desert. And the God or EL tradition of the city. The name was perhaps a religious battle cry. YHWH is God!
Elisha with an S has a softer sound than the J. And Elisha was more nuanced and socially graced than Elijah with the harder J sound. S sounds are softer than J sounds. Elisha with an S means God is savior or God is abundant. It’s a shift from a battle cry to a proposition. Elijah was more of a loner of the desert. Elisha was involved in society and political life. Elisha came from a wealthy family. He had oxen at his disposal. And when it was time to leave home, he decided to throw a big party using the oxen and their wooden yokes to cook a great feast. Elijah would not be caught dead throwing a party. The prophets were different in many ways, but they both faced the challenges of changing religious times, war, and famine; seeking always to express the will of God in times of struggle as mantles were passed from one generation to the next. I like this passage.
But perhaps more relevant to us is the reading from Galatians. We have been reading from Galatians for some time. We are in the closing verses. Galatians was written by Paul to the new churches in Asia Minor or Turkey. In the letter he is angry because people have been telling the Galatians that in order to follow Jesus, they must follow Jewish religious laws and customs. After all Jesus was Jewish. Paul says that religious regulation is not what makes a Christian. It is our belief in Jesus. We are justified by faith not by works.
Galatians says that we are free from the law. It has become known as the great magna carta of the Christian faith. We are free to live as we wish, living as either Jew or Gentile, since we are bound to God through Jesus. Nothing else is required.
And yet in this chapter something else is required for life together. Freedom can become licentiousness. We are not free to hurt other people. We are not free to live pointless lives lost in conspicuous consumption as the planet goes to hell. We are not free to put ourselves and our wants before others. Jesus would not want that. And our faith in Jesus causes us to align our lives to the principles of compassion, justice, fairness and love.
So we are free in Christ. And yet we are bound by Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is a limit to freedom. I think this is important for us in these days.
Over a year ago now I read yet another book on spirituality in America which said that there is a difference between being spiritual and being religious. Being spiritual involves listening for the voice of God within us. It was a good thing to be spiritual in this book. Being religious however meant following a certain set of rules prescribed by a hierarchy and going to church and adhering to a doctrine. It was good to be spiritual. Bad to be religious. And then the author started to described the spiritual life.
That description included several chapters devoted to the problems facing the spiritual person. One needed discipline it turns out to do spiritual practice. And the author had a particular prescribed method for doing it right rather than aimless wandering. And there were some suggestions that other spiritual leaders may not be so good. And there were guidelines to be followed, and actually a group one could join or form so that one did not feel so isolated. For it turns out that one is spiritual without being religious for only a chapter or two. It turns out that there are limits on spiritual freedom just as there are limits on all freedoms, as we practice the faith in our hearts and in our relationships. And churches, if they have any perspective on themselves, at least have the advantage of knowing how badly we humans can mess up religion and the historical necessities needed to avoid the worst disasters of organized spirituality.
Even Paul’s Magna Carta on freedom in its closing chapters turns to the means by which a good life is constructed. Yes, we all desire freedom, as much of it as possible. But we also need limitations on those freedoms for the sake of a common good and the well being of our neighbor.
Next weekend will be dedicated to freedom with the 4th of July. These days there is a lot of talk about the need to get government off our backs and to restore freedom and individual initiative, especially in our economy. We value freedom and free enterprise. As well we should. Every summer 4th of July is one of several national festivals beginning with Cinco de Mayo and Syttende Mai in May, followed by the 4th of July, followed by Bastille Day, followed by Bundesfeier in Switzerland in August. All of these national days of independence echo the liberation found in Passover of the book of Exodus. Freedom is profoundly important.
But we are not free to hurt those around us. We are not free to do whatever we want, especially if it hurts our neighbor. Our freedom sometimes requires government and rules and laws to protect and defend our mutual and common good. Embedded in each personal freedom is a public responsibility. Balance is needed. That balance is not easy to achieve. The freedom to bear arms has its limits. Free market economies will always require regulation. In these times when we look down on government and those who work for the civic good, when we feel like we should be free to do what we want whenever we want; we should note that there is a role for government engagement to defend the good which allows our freedom to flourish with liberty and justice for all. Government and regulation allow us to define and defend the public for which we stand. Paul wants freedom to ring in Galatians. He also wants there to be limits on liberty. For even the most inspired spirituality will eventually require some discipline. And that mantle of responsible freedom has now been thrown over our oxen.