Our reading from Second Kings made me think of Churchill’s funeral and it did it because of the music of the text. There is within it a slow, steady rhythm like the beat of marching boots, and an inexorable progress like a funeral procession, a procession lined with grieving onlookers.
The text is enigmatic and can hardly be described as a historical narrative. It is clearly written for people who already know the end of the story. Just like at a funeral, which everybody knows ends with the reverent disposal of the body, we know from the outset how this story will end, with Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind into heaven. He knows he is going to die. Elisha, his disciple, knows he is going to die. The prophets of Bethel and the prophets of Jericho know that Elijah is going to die. It is like keeping vigil at the bedside of a dying relative; only this waiting for the moment of death is described as a walk, a journey with and towards God.
Elijah knows what is before him and he feels he should face it alone. He tells Elisha that the Lord has sent him to Bethel, but asks his disciple to stay in Gilgal. Elisha refuses, declaring, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” It is one of the Bible's greatest declarations of loyalty and fidelity.
On reaching Bethel, the company of prophets comes out to meet them. “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away?” they ask. It is as if they are wanting to spare Elisha this ordeal, to spare him this suffering. But Elisha is a man of resolve. He knows he has to see this through. He is travelling with his master in full knowledge of the end of the journey. “Keep silent,” he tells them. This is a solemn occasion. It is no time for idle words.
At Bethel, Elijah says the Lord has sent him to Jericho, and asks Elisha to stay in Bethel. Again Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” And so they journey on together to Jericho.
Again a company of prophets meet them. Again they ask Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away?” Again Elisha speaks with full knowledge and steady resolve. Again he asks for silence, for the solemnity and reverence of what was happening to be preserved and respected.
At Jericho, Elijah tells Elisha that the Lord has sent him to Jordan. “Stay here,” he tells the younger man. But a third time Elisha responds, saying, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” They journey on, accompanied by others, to the banks of the Jordan, one of the great symbolic divides or crossing places in the biblical narrative.
It is there that the slow, steady drumbeat of this story reaches its climax. Elijah takes off his cloak, his mantle, the symbol of his prophetic authority, rolls it up and strikes the water. In a moment reminiscent of Moses at the Red Sea, the water is parted and Elijah and Elisha cross on dry ground.
The time has now come. This is the moment towards which they have been journeying. This is the moment Elisha has not flinched from facing. “What can I do for you?” the old prophet asks. And the young man, who has not wavered in his resolve, asks for a double share of the old man’s spirit. It is not greed. He does not ask to be twice the prophet Elijah has been. Asking for a double share is a way of asking to be Elijah’s true heir, a way of indicating that Elisha was ready to accept great responsibility. But this is not something Elijah can grant. It is God alone who appoints prophets. In a story in which so much has been known all along, we are left wondering if God will grant the young man’s request.
And then the moment of parting comes. Despite the foreknowledge, despite the solemnity, it is a moment of great anguish for Elisha. Though the text says that Elijah was carried off up into heaven, this moment is just as raw and real as any death, a moment when love becomes extremely painful.
But this moment shows the greatness of Elijah, and the favour God has bestowed upon him. And it speaks too of the continuity of witness to God, of the passing on of responsibility. And, from a pastoral perspective, it demonstrates the value of solemnity and ritual.
Some of these ideas also make an appearance in our Gospel text. Elijah is present in this one too, and he and Moses are there to demonstrate the handing on of their witness to God to Jesus, God’s own son. There is also a sense of a ritual to make sense of an impending death, though Peter and James and John do not, at this point, achieve the same level of insight as Elisha. There is the sense too of the significance of the person who is about to die, though Christ far outshines even Elijah. There is a sense too of vulnerability in the face of events which stretch human understanding, in the steadfast resolve of Elisha to see this through whatever the personal cost, and in the confusion of Peter, who sensed he was witnessing something life changing, but didn’t know what to say. There is a sense in both stories of the eternal in dialogue with the mortal and time-bound, of the things of God intersecting with the things of humanity.
It is this, and the sense of a handing on of a ministry, which gives these stories their enduring significance. In Peter, in his confusion, in his feeling overwhelmed, we can recognise ourselves, as we wonder what it is God is calling us to do, and how on earth we will be able to do it. In Elisha, in his refusal to give up, in his refusal to leave Elijah, we can recognise ourselves too, in our determination to remain faithful to Christ’s church, no matter how difficult that is. Most of all, in the message of the Transfiguration, which showed that, when Christ had entered into glory, it would be up to faltering disciples to continue his ministry, we sense that we are heirs of Christ, through the Apostles and all who have come between. We keep the faith, and we will hand on the faith, because we know that God and humanity are not separate, that the things of God intersect with the things of the world, because the world and all that it contains are eternally bound to their maker, through his enduring love and care.