This is a multi-purpose Sunday. It’s “Transfiguration Sunday,” and so our Gospel reading is the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John as the supporting cast. This is an event of such great importance that it’s included in all three synoptic Gospels and, in addition to this Sunday, there’s yet another day in August set apart as “the Feast of the Transfiguration.”
But there’s a more personal and entirely local occasion being celebrated on this day and, purely as an example of “God-stuff,” it’s reflected both in our reading from II Kings and in our epistle reading from II Corinthians: today is the first anniversary of my ordination to the Anglican priesthood in God’s one holy, catholic and apostolic church. As such, it’s a day of special importance to me, which is why several of my dearest friends are here to share in this morning’s service. One of them, Kevin Pritchett, has already been heard reading the first of the two passages I just mentioned. Kevin also read in both of my ordination services. Another, Richard Boldrey, my friend for over 50 years, is playing the appliance this morning. And a splendid mezzo, Heather Aranyi, is visiting today and will be singing later in the service.
Our Sequence Hymn this morning, “God of the Prophets,” is sung at all ordinations in our diocese by order of the Bishop. The first verse refers to Elijah casting his mantle on Elisha, a reference that remains obscure to many unless our passage from II Kings just happens to be one of the lectionary readings for the day. We all know about Elijah, thanks in no small measure to Mendelssohn. Heather, in fact, will be singing an aria from Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, Elijah. But it’s Elisha, his successor with a much lower profile, who is actually the central figure of today’s reading and is the reason that this hymn is a fixture at ordinations.
The story reveals Elisha to be a profoundly dedicated young man who is determined to follow both his human master and his God. He refuses to leave Elijah even when he is given permission three times. If you know the Elijah story, you know that chasing around after him was a rather dangerous commitment. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had been absolutely determined to put an end to Elijah’s life, and they had made this fact quite public. No sign of God’s approval was sufficient to convince Ahab and Jezebel that Elijah’s God was the true and omnipotent God, and that their Baal worship was pure idolatry. But Elisha was faithful, regarding his following of Elijah and his God to be of far greater consequence than any danger to his life.
And there’s more. Elijah, knowing that his departure was imminent, asks Elisha what he would like most if he could have anything at all. And apparently without a moment’s hesitation, Elisha says, “Most of all I would like a double portion of your spirit.” Elijah responds, “You’re asking for a hard thing.” I’m not sure how anyone could measure a double spirit, but the following narratives in which Elisha figures make it absolutely clear that Elisha had the same Spirit, the Spirit of the everlasting God, as had been powerfully revealed in the life of his mentor Elijah.
Elisha didn’t have to wait very long to discover that his request had been granted. He makes the return trip across the Jordan and is able to duplicate the miracle of causing the waters to part just by striking them with Elijah’s mantle, the very mantle that Elijah had thrown over him when he first called him into service as a prophet (I Kings 19:19). The passage tells us that “when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho opposite him saw him, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ And they came to meet him and bowed themselves to the ground before him” (II Kings 2:15).
And therein lies the entire reason for singing “God of the Prophets” at every ordination. In the history of Israel, this was a matter of prophetic succession, not always something that occurred in a straight line. But in the Church, we call it apostolic succession. And while it might not be possible to demonstrate a completely straight line from St. Peter to me, certainly not as straight a line as from Elijah to Elisha, the requirement that every priest be ordained by a Bishop gives a representative statement of succession in the ministry of the Gospel message. This is why, in the last verse of the hymn, we sang:
Make them apostles, heralds of Your Cross;
Forth let them go to tell the world of peace.
Inspired by You, may they count all but loss,
And stand at last with joy before Your face.
We see a compelling New Testament parallel in the relationship between the Apostle Paul and his son in the faith, Timothy. In a passage that’s read in many ordination services, Paul writes to Timothy:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, Who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His Kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully (2 Timothy 4.1ff).
That sounds like a stiff challenge. In Timothy’s day it was every bit as life-threatening as following Elijah was for Elisha. Today there’s not much of a life-threatening component. But there remain sacrifices to be made. And Paul’s prophecy of a time when people with itching ears will reject “sound doctrine” and “will turn away from listening to the truth” sounds very contemporary. Perhaps it’s perennial. We heard what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth:
“The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God. 5 For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, Who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:4-6).
That sets out both the enormity of the task as well as its immeasurable blessings. Just that last phrase, “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” provides enough food for thought for as many years as anyone might be called to the ministry of the Gospel. Paul acknowledges in the very next sentence that the daunting aspect of this responsibility leaves us quaking in our boots of inadequacy. He writes, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” Earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians Paul asked, “Who is adequate for these things?” (II Corinthians 2:16). His answer was, “Our adequacy is from God, Who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (II Cor. 3:5, 6).
When God calls us to do His work, our response must be that of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah, all of whom said: “Hinēni,” “Here I am.” “Hinēni” forms the text of a prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when in one of the holiest moments of the liturgy, the cantor or the Hazzan or the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, intercedes to God for His mercy and forgiveness on behalf of the whole congregation. It’s a long prayer and by ancient custom it was said or sung in a near whisper, acknowledging a sense of complete inadequacy. Here’s just the beginning and the end of the prayer:
Here am I, lacking in meritorious deeds, trembling and awe-struck from fear, in awe of Him who sits enthroned upon the praises of Israel, standing and pleading before Him on behalf of His people Israel who have sent me, though I am unworthy and unqualified for the task. Therefore I entreat You, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, Lord God, merciful God, compassionate and gracious God of Israel, Shaddai, fearful and awesome, to grant success to the mission I am undertaking as I come to stand and plead for mercy, for myself and for those who sent me... for You hear the prayer of Your people Israel with mercy.
Blessed are You, Who hears prayer.
That same sense of inadequacy ought to be acknowledged by every Christian: that we’re unworthy of God’s grace, of His gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son on the Cross. Before we come to this table to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we all pray the “Prayer of Humble Access” in which, both individually and corporately, we confess our inadequacy and unworthiness. Additionally we used to pray, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and I shall be healed” (Domine, non sum dingus). Here, at this table, in both a representative and in a very tangible way, we commune directly with the risen Christ Whom we boldly invite to come under this roof. And if that does not give us a heightened sense of inadequacy, then we must be spiritually dead persons.
But there’s more: there’s always more. By God’s grace, in words that are part of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Prayer of Consecration, I pray this: “As we offer You this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, we bring before You this bread and this cup and we thank You for making us worthy to stand in Your presence and serve You.”
I offer that prayer on behalf of all of us. None of us is “worthy” on our own merits. But all of us are made worthy through what God Himself has done on our behalf. I never pray those words without being struck once again by my own unworthiness and by the grace of ordination whereby God has allowed me to stand in His presence and serve Him at this table. That was my specific calling to which I could only respond with Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah: “Hinēni,” “Here I am.” And that’s the prayer God desires from the lips of each of His unworthy children: “Here I am, and thank you for making me worthy to be here.”
That same prayer, in a very Christian version, also was sung at my ordination service. It has three verses, each one describing God’s mercy and forgiveness. Then each verse ends with this same refrain: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if You lead me; I will hold Your people in my heart.”
This morning, I recommit myself to holding you in my heart, each one of you, God’s people and members of the flock that He has committed to my care, that we together might seek and do His holy will, and find ourselves to have been made worthy, solely by His abundant grace.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.