Passing the Mantle. Generational Transitions. Transforming the Church. From Institutional to Missional.
Did you ever wonder about the origin of that phrase? We find it here in 2 Kings 2. Elijah passes the mantle of prophetic spiritual authority to Elisha.
Now, an obvious direction to go with this text would be to address the issue of the need for the former generations to let go of the mantle of authority so the next generation can take it up. I could simply say, “See there, you can’t hold on forever. Eventually you have to let go and allow the next generation to assume the leadership roles.” This is probably true. Well, undoubtedly it is, as eventually the former generation will pass away, either to “rest with their fathers” or to be “taken up by a whirlwind”. In any case, you can’t take it with you, and you can’t stay here.
In the text, we see that more is going on that simply Elijah needing to let go. To fully appreciate it, we need to back up a few chapters into the preceding book, specifically 1 Kings 19. There we find Elijah reach the pinnacle of his prophetic ministry, and then shortly after he begins to struggle with fear and doubt. His work will draw to a close. As John the Baptizer said generations later of Jesus, “I must decrease so that he can increase.” It is like the fade-out / fade-in between songs on the radio or scenes in a movie. For a brief time you can hear or see both – there is a merging and comingling of elements. As one builds in strength and power the other declines until the former is gone and only the new remains. Our text today marks the end of that liminal transition phase between one and the other.
In 1 Kings 19, the LORD directed Elijah to anoint Elisha as his prophetic successor, which he does with no fanfare or ceremony. Elijah simply strides past and tosses his own mantle across Elisha’s shoulders and keeps walking. When Elisha comes to inquire, he is sent packing with the abrupt words, “What have I done to you?” In other words, “Listen, kid. I did what God asked, so now leave me alone. I don’t know what God will do with you, but I have work to do.” Instead, Elisha slaughters his entire plow-pulling team of oxen (the foundation of his secular work), holds a BBQ for the community, and takes up the nomadic journey as assistant to Elisha. That’s it then. No turning back now.
Then, obviously skipping over important stories, we arrive at today’s text. The end is nigh, and everyone knows it. You can just tell sometimes, can’t you? Intuition, or the Spirit? When people are about to die their demeanor changes. This even happens with an animal like a beloved pet. They may become anxious, but hopefully the reverse – shifting into a posture of deep calm. Resignation, not in terms of giving up the fight, but like a restless child finally sinking into the arms of a loving parent.
Elijah knows his time is short, and so do all the prophets. We see them repeatedly telling Elisha – “your master is leaving.” Each time the curt retort, “I know, shut up!” Why this response? Does he not want to think about it? Is he frustrated because they are stating the obvious? Does he take these pronouncements as an indication that these other prophets doubt Elisha’s ability to truly pick up where Elijah leaves off? We don’t know.
And Elijah for his part seems tense as well. Three times he tells his companion to remain behind while he travels on. Again, why? Does Elijah want to spare his young friend the trauma that may come? Does he simply want some time to himself, to prepare mentally and emotionally and spiritually, to be alone with God before the end?
This exchange between the two men mirrors that at the beginning of their relationship. Elijah is God’s agent, but God is really the actor here. God called Elijah, and chose Elisha to succeed him. God is the one who anoints for ministry, though he uses our hands and voices to accomplish it. And Elisha, for his part, is persistent, resisting the rebuffs and insistent that only one path can he follow.
What if Elijah’s push-back is a thoughtful and strategic move? Perhaps he is doing what we later see Jesus do repeatedly. In the church we often want to sugarcoat discipleship, making it as easy and painless as possible. The result is people who have a low level of commitment and a low threshold for pain. Not so with our two friends. Elijah challenges Elisha to fully commit, as Jesus does with the apostles, the rich young ruler, the Samaritan woman, and so many others.
I think the relationship between these two men does have something meaningful to tell us about the transitions happening in the church today. There is a passing of the mantle that will happen, whether we embrace or resist it.
- God is the prime mover throughout. Everything we do at its very best is simply our acceptance, response, and participation in God’s unfolding work.
- There is always someone who came before us. All of us are at some point the recipients of what others have built and passed on to us.
- The transition takes place over an extended period, during which there is mutual learning, give and take, conversation, community, sharing in life and ministry together. Both are fully committed to the process. Leaving or quitting is not an option.
- There is tension, on both sides. The ones who came before may become frustrated and resist the process at times. The new ones coming in need to be persistent. Likewise, the new ones may be frustrated with how slow change happens. The elders need to be patient with that youthful exuberance.
- The old and the young, the Builders and the Millennials , the Elders and the Youth, the Institutionals and the Emergents – they make the journey together or not at all. Elisha walks all the way with Elijah, always honoring and respecting what his elder has done, what he represents and has to teach. Elijah allows Elisha to walk with him to the end, even crossing the river with him.
- The next generation asks for and receives a blessing from their forebears.
Whatever the church will become in coming generations will be crippled unless we can learn these lessons. We need to find ways to embrace one another, young and old, even with the very real frustrations. The traditional, established and institutional church needs the new, young, creative, emerging and Missional church, and vice versa. The mantle will be passed, eventually. God willing, it will happen in a full embrace by all parties, with celebration and hope. If this happens, rather than a diminished spirit the next manifestations of the church will receive a double portion, will have twice the tangible impact and spiritual influence.