June 9 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Theme: No obvious choices this week. Something about life and death, restoration, healing, etc. I'm going with "The Power of God" for reasons I'll explain as I go along.
Introduction. Two great stories, interspersed with a passage of biography today. St Luke himself provides the link between the two stories. He records (in 4:16-30) Jesus' less than triumphant return to Nazareth, where he so upset the local congregation that they tried to throw him over the cliff. Part of his offence was to refer to this old story about Elijah's ministry to the widow at Zarephath; and it is quite clear that Luke has shaped his story of Jesus and the widow at Nain with that earlier story very much in mind. St Paul gives us one key to the interpretation of these stories: they are not intelligible without understanding that they are about the power of God who is revealed in these stories.
Background. Earlier this week I was trawling through the collects in our Prayer Book looking for something on the theme of the creative power of God, and I discovered a wonderful sentence in a collect for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (page 613, collect 3): Yours is the vigour in creation, yours is the impulse in our new discoveries. Particularly that first phrase "yours is the vigour in creation" made a strong and instant impact on my mind, and I wondered why. Today I know: it exactly represents what is going on in our two stories. Back to that thought soon.
This Sunday we begin in earnest the principal task of the second half of our liturgical year – to face up to the great "so-what" question. Given all that we have heard again of the life-cycle of Christ, what has all that got to do with us? That's a simpler way of saying the same response given by the crowds to Peter on the Day of Pentecost: Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" In other words, we are now embarking on a course in living out the truth of Easter, of learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Today we have lesson 1, and it's a stunning challenge. We are faced with two stories that defy belief when looked at purely in human terms. We might start our response, then, by asking ourselves how we REALLY feel about these stories. How comfortable would we feel defending their authenticity, not in a classroom of fellow trainee-disciples, but out there in the world where people feel that science holds the monopoly on truth, at least in areas such as illness, death, and revival.
The first story seems to leave some wriggle room. For some reason the author does not come straight out and tell us that the little boy died. He tells us that the boy became ill, and that "his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him". Does that mean he was dead, or, perhaps, in a deep comatose state, when his breathing became imperceptible? Then we have a strange description of what Elijah did (besides praying, of course). He appears to act more like a paramedic treating an advanced case of hypothermia than a prophet asking for divine intervention. Even the NIV Study Bible, not usually known for any liberal tendencies, is moved to comment on verse 21: "The apparent intent of this physical contact was to transfer the bodily warmth and stimulation of the prophet to the child. Elijah's prayer, however, makes it clear that he expected the life of the child to return as an answer to prayer, not as a result of bodily contact." How's that for a classic example of wriggling? Also worth noting, perhaps, is the "private circumstances" in which the boy's revival took place: there were no witnesses.
Contrast all this with the story from St Luke of Jesus' ministry in the township of Nain. The contrasts are stark: the story is set in Galilee, not in Gentile territory. The encounter happens in broad daylight, outside in the busy street, the entrance to the town. Both Jesus and the grieving widow are accompanied by large crowds – there are witnesses a-plenty. Whatever motivated Elijah (he might have felt he – or perhaps even God – "owed" her something because of her extraordinary generosity in the time of life-threatening famine), St Luke makes it clear that Jesus is moved by compassion. So far as we know, she is a stranger to him. Whereas in the first story the widow's son was a young boy, the deceased in this case is a young man. And, of course, there is no doubt here that he is deceased. Jesus does very little, merely touching the casket, causing the pallbearers to stop. He does not pray: he merely speaks a few words to the deceased; but the outcome is the same. Life is restored to the son who is returned to his widowed mother.
In short, this time there is no wriggle room: St Luke has closed all avenues of escape. What are we, as trainee disciples, to make of this story, not as an episode in history, but as a module of instruction on how to live a life of faith in this country in this century among our compatriots, mostly unbelievers?
It's time to bring St Paul onto the stage. While there is, inevitably, scholarly debate over the dating of this letter, there are good reasons for believing that it is one of his earliest, if not the earliest. He is still trying to establish his credentials, who he is and what is the source of his authority. The original apostles had no such difficulty: they were known to have been "with Jesus from the beginning". Paul had no such advantage, to put it mildly. Well, then, if he wasn't an apostle himself, was he acting under delegated authority from them? That seems to be at least one of the ideas that Paul was trying to quash in this letter. Before looking at today's passage, glance back to the very beginning of the letter, and you will find this: "Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead."
And he drives this point home in today's passage. The gospel he preaches "is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ". As for any delegated authority from the "real apostles" St Paul is equally adamant: "I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me..." and later, when he did go up to Jerusalem to visit Peter he "did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother." So important is all this to Paul that he insists, "In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!"
So here is our first challenge as we learn the life of discipleship: are today's stories fiction, made up by man and passed on for educational purposes – like parables? Or are they records of specific epiphanies, revelations of the power of God acting through a prophet and his anointed Christ? The "power of God" is not a theme that I can recall hearing very much in our Church, yet it is central to our lives of faith, surely. God's creative power made all things, visible and invisible, on earth and in the heavens. Do we believe that? God's power raised the crucified Jesus to life three days after his death. Do we believe that? Jesus acted in many ways displaying the power of God, as did God's prophets before him. Do we believe that? And through the gift of the Holy Spirit first given at Pentecost and received by each of us through Pentecost, the same power of God is working in us. Do we believe that?
"Yours is the vigour in creation." Less poetically, we might say, "the power in creation". And that power has in the past been concentrated to a greater degree in the prophets than in others. In men like Elijah, who, perhaps, lay his body (and not just his hands) on the sick boy to pass on that power to him and raise him back to life. That power was uniquely concentrated in Jesus of Nazareth, enabling him to command the stormy waters, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to feed the multitudes – the power that he felt being drawn from him when a sick woman touched the hem of his robe. That power came upon the apostles at Pentecost, with many amazing manifestations recorded in the Book of Acts.
What has happened to that power today? Lesson 1 of our course on discipleship calls us to address that question. And that's only the beginning.
Kings. One of the many reasons for loving this story is the authenticity of the characters. They don't hesitate to express their mistrust of God: why has he turned on this poor widow, after all she's done for God's own prophet? It is the cry of Job, the common cry of the psalmist, baffled by God's apparent indifference, if not actual hostility. She fears Elijah's proximity has shown up her sinfulness – (recall Peter's cry of "Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man") – and perhaps even that he has knowingly endangered her in this way. Elijah feels God is letting the side down – his side! Verses 19 and 23 are interesting – far more detailed than the storyline would seem to warrant. Something about raising and lowering – heaven and earth – life and death – even Jacob's ladder?
Taking It Personally.
- Another great passage for praying with the imagination. Put yourself in the house, follow Elijah upstairs, watch the action unfold. Keep in touch with your feelings as they change throughout the story.
- Focus on verse 20. Listen to the tone of Elijah's voice. How is he feeling? Bewildered, angry, or something else? Can you recall an occasion when you have prayed with this amount of raw honesty?
- Is there any part of your life into which you would like life to return? Make that the focus of your prayer this week.
Galatians. There is a whiny tone to some of St Paul's writing, particularly when a critic has raised the issue of his credentials as an apostle. For me that simply makes him more human and therefore easier to relate to. But his message is still the same: it has come to him, a human being, from a non-human source. It has come to him by divine revelation, and nothing anyone can say will shake that belief. For him there is only one true gospel, and it is the one he has been preaching and always will preach.
Taking It Personally.
- From whom did you receive the gospel? By whose power are you passing it on?
- Are you aware of God's power at work within and through you? Can you think of a specific instance of God working through you during the past week?
- How would you respond if someone asked you what evidence you have that God is at work in the world today – or in your life today?
- Do you want God to work more powerfully in and through you now? Pray accordingly. [Always be aware that if your honest answer to a question of this sort is no, that discovery in itself can be an important point of growth if you will let it.]
Luke. Another great example of the story-teller's art. You can just see and feel the tension in the air. Someone has interrupted a funeral cortege. Even today, that would be an outrage. And Jesus has touched the casket, thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. Who is he? What on earth does he think he's doing? Isn't the widow upset enough without this grossly insensitive intrusion? We can imagine her supporters getting ready to deal with him – and then he speaks those extraordinary words. And the life of all those involved will never be the same. Perhaps we don't take enough notice of "the crowds" in the gospel scenes. They are real people, who witness an extraordinary manifestation of God's power working through one man. How can they not be changed for ever?
Taking It Personally.
· Like the crowds, you too have witnessed it. Do you believe what you have seen and heard? What change is the power of God effecting in you?