The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      20th August 2017
Role Models to Follow - 2 Kings 4
Jeremy Fletcher

“I am sure that the man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God” (2 Kings 4: 9)

It was a close-run thing, but our athletes just about prevented a typical British moan at the World Championships. We were about to do badly, in medal terms, when up popped the relay teams, and Mo once more. We were about to start pontificating about strategy and investment. We forget that 99% of us actually inhabit a different planet to our best sports men and women. Much as I have enjoyed their performances, the athletes actually put me off – I could get nowhere near what they do, ever. In that sense they are difficult role models, far too far removed from my life to be on any use. The hashtag all around the London Stadium was ‘#bethenext. Not this decrepit 57 year old. 

I find the stories of great figures of the Bible just as difficult. In our long reading from 2 Kings Elisha, carrying the mantle of the great Elijah, solves a woman’s financial crisis by miraculously creating a flow of the finest oil, acts as a fertility clinic for an ageing couple, and then raises the resultant son from the dead. No wonder the Shunammite woman says to her husband that she thinks Elisha is a ‘holy man of God’. He seems to do this kind of thing every day of the week. 

In the context of the ancient Near East the reputation of a deity was secured on the powerful deeds done by that deity’s prophets. The God of the Israelites was proved to be the Lord of Lords because powerful things were done in his name. The more powerful the deed, the greater the God. We are not immune from that in our own day. Whether it is in great healings, remarkable happenings, reports of needs being spectacularly met, or the conversion of powerful celebrities, churches still indulge in much the same publicising of the remarkable as the followers of Elisha and Elijah did.

And this is part of the Christian life. Miraculous and amazing things do happen. I know people whose lives have been utterly transformed because, after prayer, a solution they could not even have dreamed of has happened. Illnesses have been healed, great missionary endeavours launched in the shape of some very weak people, some very small churches have become powerful ministries despite their unprepossessing beginnings. In the day of small things we do well to remember that the power at work within the church is the same power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead. With God all things are possible.

It is just that these things are like the World Championships of the Christian life, and in that sense can be distant from the everyday lives of you and me. It is aspirational to look at the greatest achievers and aim for their heights, and the power of God should not be limited by the earthbound nature of our imagination. But there are other role models. I hesitate to use the Apostles Peter and Paul in this, but they both actually made much of what failures they actually were. Peter denied Christ and abandoned him to death. Paul actively persecuted the church and assisted in the execution of Stephen. Neither had an effortless journey to exaltation. Both knew about failure and suffering even after their mission was given to them by the risen Jesus Christ. Paul was concerned to boast only about how his journeys got him in a mess, how outwardly there was not much to show for what he was doing. Peter’s letters talk not about the kind of success the world would recognise, but how the true measure of the faith of a Christian would be revealed when things got tough.

To be a Christian is not to be insulated from the ordinariness of life, as if we could radiate a warm glow, make everything better, solve everyone’s problems and not have any of our own. To be a Christian is to be in this life as it is, and find within it the love and power of God at work. Miracles do happen, that God is indeed Almighty. There are heights to be aimed for.  But those who will help us get there are those who have lived this life and continued in the discipline of prayer, in contemplation, in study, in determination, those who have offered their gifts and passions and found them taken up into the purposes of God.

The church offers us these people, so that their stories can inspire us. The August Calendar gives us saints like Dominic the Preacher, Clare of Assisi, Laurence the martyr, Mary Sumner who founded the Mothers’ Union, Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life in place of another in Auschwitz, Florence Nightingale, Bernard of Clairvaux who founded the Cistercians, and William and Catherine Booth, who founded the Salvation Army partly because they saw the Anglican Church in Nottingham doing little to engage with the poor. This last week we remembered Mary, a young woman whose obedience in saying ‘yes’ to the call of God is part of the story of our believing. These were human beings whose great works came out of the gift of their faith, not their remarkable pre-existing wonderfulness. I think we can be inspired by them, not daunted – for when Christ calls us to follow him he gives us the means to do so. 

May our lives, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, be faithful to his call, and inspirational to those who follow, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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