Gospel Reading

Luke 4:25-30

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. 30 But passing through the midst of them he went away. (Revised Standard Version)

Reflection Points

Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Remembrance of the Prophet Elijah, First Sunday of the Resurrection), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:

Elijah and the Mission of the Church

What can the Prophet Elijah tell us about the mission of the Church, the lifework of every believer, even if only briefly mentioned by Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel? Early in his ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth, the town in which he grew up. On the Sabbath Day, as was the custom, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah (see Luke 4:16-19):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

By reading this portion of Isaiah, Jesus was essentially telling his listeners, including us today, not only do the prophets declare the mystery of himself as the Messiah, but that his mission and anointing was to save (heal) the world. But something interesting happened after he closed the book and commented further on what he read. His listeners began to doubt and question who Jesus was and what he was about. What could Jesus have possibly said to anger the crowd so much that they rushed him out of the synagogue and to the edge of a cliff to throw him over? Well, he mentioned Elijah..

Jesus confirmed that what he read from the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled in himself and not anyone else, and that his love was for all people and all nations, by giving the examples of Elijah and Elisha. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,

[The] Jews affirmed that the prophecies relating to Christ had been fulfilled in the holy prophets or in certain of their own more distinguished men. For their good, [Jesus] draws them away from such a supposition.

But what did Elijah and Elisha do, or how did Jesus apply what they did, that caused such a violent reaction among the Jews that day in the synagogue? St. Cyril continues:

[Jesus] said that Elijah had been sent to a single widow and that the prophet Elisha had healed but one leper, Naaman the Syrian. By these (the widow and the leper) [Jesus] refers to the church of the heathen, who were about to accept him and be healed of their leprosy, by reason of Israel’s remaining impenitent [remorseless, unrepentant].

What does this mean? Jesus specifically chooses an act of grace from each prophet to demonstrate the scope of his own mission to the world. Elijah was sent to help a widow (I Kings 17:8-16), but not just any widow. This widow was not Jewish, not an Israelite, not among the chosen people of God. She was a foreigner (odar/օտար) outside the borders of Israel in the land of Jezebel, the center of pagan worship (I Kings 16:31), and thus outside the covenant God made with Abraham. As she was from an odar nation, she was an enemy of God. Likewise, Elisha healed one leper, but not just any leper. This particular leper was a commander of the enemy army (see II Kings 5:1-14). To the ears of Jesus’ listeners that day in the synagogue, the God of Israel was helping and healing the wrong people, and Jesus was claiming that same Messianic ministry as his own.

This isn’t the only time Jesus challenged the narrow scope of the Jews. Jesus also did so when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26), and when he gave the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The love and peace that Jesus Christ promised breaks down barriers and unites us as one people of God, the Church (see Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:11-22). The Jews were looking for someone to liberate them from political oppression, and even to judge the enemy nations outside of their boundaries. Those in the synagogue that day were shocked by Jesus’ message of grace for everyone, including the surrounding enemy nations.

Jesus has not come to bring condemnation to the world, as John makes clear in his Gospel (3:17), but to bring his love, healing, and salvation to all people without partiality or favorable treatment. He came to preach the message of good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to deliver those who are crushed. That includes all of us, everywhere, throughout history. St. Gregory the Illuminator, in his catechetical work referred to the as The Teaching, expresses well the global, wide-scope mission of the Armenian Church, of our Diocese, and of Christian ministry:

[The Apostles] preached throughout the world, “to illumine all people who were to come into the world [John 1:9],” to give repentance of salvation to all, to wash all people and deliver them from the bonds of darkness by baptism, to seal all nations as Christ’s inner circle, to make the Spirit of God dwell in people’s hearts, to unite and join them to the love of the Son of God, that the heart of all might cry as one, and to unite all the world in saying: “Abba, Father” [Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6]; that the name of servitude might be taken away, and the name of adoption be placed on them by the grace of Christ [Galatians 4:7, Romans 8:15]; to enable them to eat the flesh of the Son of God and drink the life-giving blood [John 6:53], that thereby they might bring all the world into the inheritance of Christ, to become “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ” [Romans 8:17].

Through one minor detail in the life of the Prophet Elijah, Jesus is telling us today, “My vision is bigger than you think, and I want you, my Church, the Armenian Church, to be a part of it.” Are we aligning with the will and mission of God and his Church made clear through the life, words, and works of Jesus? How wide of a scope is the mission of our parish community? Do we exclude or show partiality in any way? Who or what do we consider to be the mission field of the Gospel as experienced by the Armenian Church? Are we, as the Church, more concerned with preserving an ethnic identity, requiring others to conform or embrace it at the cost of being welcoming to the odar/stranger (consciously or not), and so requiring the Church to be something it is not, thus piling onto the Armenian Church an additional mission, one without historical or traditional precedence, a mission not established or taught by Jesus Christ? This is a matter of what we believe about the Gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. What he said to the Jews that day in the synagogue shook their narrow world. Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ shake us and offend us as individuals, as a parish community, as a Diocese, as the Armenian Church? It should, because it challenges our personal interests, ambitions, agendas, and self-importance. We are not immune to focus on our personal mission(s) rather than God’s mission – in our personal lives or within the Body of Christ, the Church. And so this Gospel reading serves as a reminder. At this moment, we sit in front of Jesus as he reads to us from the prophet Isaiah: will we react as the Jews in the synagogue or will we embrace the grace and peace that Jesus lovingly and abundantly offers and share that with all peoples of the world?

Աղաւնակերպ

Why does the Armenian Church have a designated day to remember the Prophet Elijah, the Sunday following the Feast of Pentecost? Elijah is one of the greatest and most remarkable prophets of the Old Testament, and even makes an appearance in the New Testament, when together with Moses he appeared at Christ’s Transfiguration. The person and ministry of Elijah points to Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets who declared his mystery and foretold his coming as the Messiah. So much could be said about his magnificent life, but one can read an ode to Elijah in Wisdom of Sirach (48:1-12) from the Old Testament:

[1] Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire,
and his word burned like a torch.
[2] He brought a famine upon them,
and by his zeal he made them few in number.
[3] By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
and also three times brought down fire.
[4] How glorious you were, O Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
And who has the right to boast which you have?
[5] You who raised a corpse from death
and from Hades, by the word of the Most High;
[6] who brought kings down to destruction,
and famous men from their beds;
[7] who heard rebuke at Sinai
and judgments of vengeance at Horeb;
[8] who anointed kings to inflict retribution,
and prophets to succeed you.
[9] You who were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire;
[10] you who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the heart of the father to the son,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
[11] Blessed are those who saw you,
and those who have been adorned in love;
for we also shall surely live.
[12] It was Elijah who was covered by the whirlwind,
and Elisha was filled with his spirit;
in all his days he did not tremble before any ruler,
and no one brought him into subjection.

What also makes the life of Elijah uniquely extraordinary is that that he did not experience death. The only other figure recorded as having done so is Enoch, who “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:21-24) And so for his life and for his ascent to God while still alive, we remember the Prophet Elijah. In II Kings 2:1-12, Elijah is conversing with his disciple, the Prophet Elisha when,

Behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried,“My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”And he saw him no more.

In the hymn Ի վերինն, which is sung during our Hokehankeesd service, Elijah together with Enoch are described as dwelling in glory with the angels, returned to the harmony of Eden where they live agelessly like doves in unity with the merciful Lord. The choir sings:

In the supernal Jerusalem, in the dwellings of the angels, Where Enoch and Elijah live old in age like doves, Worthily glorified in the garden of Eden, Merciful Lord, have mercy on the souls of those of us who have fallen asleep.

The Prophet Elijah represents all those who are alive in Christ. In Christ, we are all aghavnagerb «աղաւնակերպ» – aging like doves. The dove, the symbol of God’s peace which brings unity, is an image of what eternal life is like – ageless and in union with God. Every time we pray for the departed we are confessing our own faith in the risen Lord and his promise of eternal life. The life of Elijah offers us, in this life, the same hope of those who are at rest. As we pray for those who died, we are reminded that this life is transient and that we too are going to die. But the eternal and divine life of God is experienced and granted to us here and now. “Now is the day of salvation,” as St. Paul writes, and now is the time to practice repentance and to invite others to encounter the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

By Dn. Eric Vozzy