II Kings 2:1-12, Acts 1:1-12
May 10, 2015
There’s a song we sing at camp. It’s called “We want to see Jesus lifted high.” It starts out, “We want to see Jesus lifted high, a banner that flies across this land.” It’s all about Jesus being “lifted up,” as in being “exalted” and “glorified.” It’s about proclaiming his name to the world. And so as I’ve been thinking about this, of course it’s been running through my head all week! “We want to see Jesus lifted high…”
Well, the disciples saw Jesus lifted high. But it was in a different way – a way they may not have wanted to see! Like the prophet Elijah, they saw Jesus was lifted up, as he was literally taken “out of this world.” We read both of those stories today. And remember that, as “good Jewish boys,” they would have remembered that story from their scriptures! So, at the moment of Jesus’ ascension, they would have been thinking about Elijah!
Another thing occurred to me this week – another connection. Think about the story of the Transfiguration. We talked about that a couple of months ago. Jesus took his three closest disciples and went to the mountaintop. And there he was “transfigured” – changed – before them. His appearance became a glorious, “heavenly” image. And then, who appeared with him in that story? Moses and(?) Elijah. And then, in Luke’s account, it says that the two of them spoke with Jesus “about his departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.”
Now, we always think that “departure” meant Jesus’ passion and death. But if Elijah was there, why couldn’t it have referred to his “departure” in this story, the story of the Ascension. Because his “departure” would be similar to Elijah’s. It would make sense they would talk about that, wouldn’t it? Add to that the fact that Luke is also the only one who tells the story of the Ascension. And he tells it twice. We find it at the end of his Gospel, and then here at the beginning of his follow-up book, the book of Acts. Now, I know that’s a different way of thinking about this, but I think it adds weight to this story!
Actually, I think that would be good. Because this is a story that we don’t often read or think about very much. That’s because, like some other church celebrations, it’s more oriented to the liturgical calendar than it is to our regular calendar. That means that this celebration doesn’t fall on a Sunday. It falls on a Thursday. So we have to pick a Sunday, before or after, to talk about it. And unlike Christmas, which can fall any day of the week, this one doesn’t have media hype, and it doesn’t have a “shopping season!” (Has anyone here done their “Ascension shopping” yet?)
But this is an important story! If you think about it, this event marks the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. This is the last time his disciples would see him. They may not have wanted it to end – at least not his part in it, but end it did.
So think about these disciples. And by the way, I’m trying to be more specific with that word this year. At this point, they were not yet “Apostles.” Yes, there were many disciples, but only twelve Apostles. (A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square!) I think we all understand that. But at this point, these guys weren’t yet Apostles. They were still “Disciples.”
That’s because the word “disciple” has the meaning of “learner” or “student.” You can hear the word “discipline” in there. (All you have to do is put “in” the word “in.”) Well, the word “Apostle” has a different meaning. It has to do with “being sent.” Literally in the Greek “Apostle” means “One who is sent” or “a sent one.” Eventually, the “Apostles” were sent out with the message and the ministry of Jesus.
Well, they weren’t that yet. At this point, they still didn’t know what was going on. They still didn’t know what they were going to do. And here in Acts 1, when Jesus was about to be taken up from them, they had other things in mind. Remember what they asked him here. “Lord, at this time will you restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They were still stuck on that “earthly kingdom” thing! They were still looking for one who would free Israel from the Roman occupation, and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. They were still looking for the “revolution!” And, along with that, I think there was still a desire for them to go back to the pre-Easter ministry. Then they would be “disciples” again. Then they would travel around the countryside again with Jesus again, listening to him speak, watching him minister to people. It would be like the previous three years again! But no! The Ascension laid all of that to rest. And like Elisha, the “ascension” of their leader meant they were now to “carry the mantle of leadership.” We can only imagine what they were thinking about all of that!
Jesus tried to prepare them – all along he tried to prepare them! But here, just before he left, he told them they were to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. In other words, he told them to wait for Pentecost. And I’m sure they didn’t know what he meant by that! However, I am sure they did have an idea about the next part – the part where he said, “And you shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth!” I’m also sure they were pretty frightened by that prospect! But when the Holy Spirit did come upon them, they literally did just that. They took Jesus’ message to the ends of the earth!
So then, like Elisha, the ascension of their leader meant they were now the leaders. They were to be “sent” with the message. They were soon to become the “Apostles!” With the power of his Spirit, that would happen. And we will read about that in the very next chapter.
So, what does all of that mean for us? Well, we in the church have always believed that the leadership of the Church has been passed down through the ages and ages, from them – from these men “sent” by Jesus himself. And it has come down, after all that time, to us. We call that “Apostolic Succession.” The leadership of the church has come down through the years from the Apostles themselves. And our leaders here at this church are part of that succession! And this event – the Ascension – is the moment that really started all of that! So as you think about this story today, think about your part in it. You are part of this movement, the great Church of Jesus Christ! It was started by him, and led by him. And now the mantle of that leadership has come down through the last two thousand years, to us.
And while you’re thinking about that, maybe sing a chorus or two of the song, “We want to see Jesus lifted high, a banner that flies across this land…”
Eternal God, you sent your Son to be our savior, our friend, and our example of your love here on earth. Help us to live that love, to follow in his footsteps, and to proclaim to all the earth his grace and peace. For we pray in his name, Amen.