II Kings 2:1-13, Luke 24:36-53
April 13, 2008
Our New Testament reading for today comes from the very end of the Gospel of Luke. And in Luke’s Gospel, the part we read today, in fact all of Chapter 24, takes place on that first Easter day. Luke doesn’t go on with the events beyond that day, like Matthew and John – or Mark in his “alternative ending.” Luke just tells what happened that day.
Keep in mind that each of the Gospel writers chose to emphasize and expand certain stories. Remember the passage we read on Easter morning. It was from Mark’s Gospel. And I pointed out at the time that Mark told the road to Emmaus story in just one verse. He chose not to expand on that story. And we find the same in Luke. In our reading for today, we have the post resurrection appearances of Jesus, the great commission, and the ascension all rolled up in a couple of paragraphs. That’s just the way Luke chooses to tell the story.
Of course, the other thing to remember here is that this is only the first half of the story. Luke actually gives the most complete account of the life of Jesus as well as the story of the early days of the Church. Because Luke is also the writer of the book of Acts.
So here at the end of Luke’s first book, we are looking at the end of Jesus’ time on earth. And we pick up the story today right after the Road to Emmaus. IN the first half of Chapter 24, Jesus appeared to these two men on the road. He revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread. And those two men were so excited that they returned to Jerusalem right away, to tell the disciples what had happened to them. And when they got there, the disciples told them how Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter, too. And now, as they were sharing those stories, Jesus appeared to all of them. I know that’s a bit of a lengthy set-up, but I wanted you to put yourself, not just into this story, but into the big picture.
So I want you to think about this. What happened when Jesus appeared? What would you think might have happened? Do you think the disciples would be joyful when they saw him? Would they have been excited that he was indeed alive, as the women had told them? No. Luke tells us “they were afraid and startled, thinking he was a spirit or a ghost.” Just think about that. They were just discussing how he was indeed risen, and how they had seen him. Now he stood before them and it was still hard for them to believe. Still they were afraid! And I think we would have been, too! Put yourself in their sandals for a moment. Imagine if you saw Jesus die an agonizing death, after being brutally beaten, how would you react if you saw him standing before you again?
Well, there he was! And the first thing Jesus did was to prove to them that he was indeed flesh and blood. (He was no ghost!) He had to convinced them – in their minds, right? Yes, but he also had to convince them we we’ve said that true belief takes place – in the heart! Look what he asks them, “Why are you questioning in your hearts?” “Look here!” he said. “See my hands and feet! Touch me. See that it is I myself.” Then, to prove further it was him in the flesh, he asked for something to eat. (Apparently, ghosts can’t eat!)
Then, after that was established, Luke tells us that he “opened their minds to the scriptures.” He explained to them, once again, how it all happened and why. And I think that means he gave them at least part of the teaching that he gave the two travelers on road to Emmaus. Remember how they described that experience. “Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened to us the scriptures.” That’s what he did for the disciples, too He opened their minds. And he opened their hearts, as well!
Then I want you to see what happened next. This part is so important. After did all that, after he opened their hearts and their minds, he sent them! That’s the part I want to emphasize today! Jesus said, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations…” That was his vision for the future of his ministry. And then he gave that vision, that job, to them, “You are my witnesses of these things.” He gave to them the ministry he had started! It was now their mission to go and tell! At that point, he led them out to the town of Bethany, and from there he was carried up into heaven. That’s the part of this story known as “the Ascension.”
Our Old Testament lesson is another “Ascension story.” We read the part in II Kings where Elijah was about to pass the mantle of leadership to Elisha. And in this case he literally he gave Elisha his mantle. That’s where we get this expression “the mantle of leadership.” As I read this story again, it seemed to there was a lot of similarity to the ascension of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is doing the same thing before his ascension. He’s passing on that “mantle of leadership.” First, he opened the hearts and their minds of the disciples, then he is sent them out to continue his ministry!
My friends, the message for us today is that we too are part of that same ministry! We are part of the continuation of the ministry started by Jesus himself. He sends us just as he sent them! And that’s the final part of this message we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. We’ve talked about the inspiring of our minds, and the touching of our hearts, and how those two things work together. Now the message is that we too are “sent out” as Jesus’ witnesses. And I have to tell you, that’s the part that too many Christians miss. Too many believers tend to live as though the purpose of the Church is to fulfill their needs. They think of the Church only in terms of what they get out of it. But as a friend of mine used to say, the Church is not just about what we get out of it. It’s also very much about what we put into it!
I want us to think seriously about that today. We don’t just come to Church things – worship services or fellowship events or whatever – because of what that does for us. There’s a whole other side to it. We also come to those things because our presence, and our fellowship, helps others! Do you agree?
I know that many people start out going to churches looking for the programs, the preaching, and the people that suit their needs. And that’s fine. Don’t get me wrong. The Church is all of those wonderful things! The Church does help us. The Church does feed our souls. The Church is a haven from the stress of the world. It’s all those things. But too many times the Church just leaves it at that. And that’s only half the story. The Church is also about what we put into it. The Church is also about our being called to service. It’s about the sending. It’s about reaching beyond those doors. We can’t forget that!
Of course, part of that problem is that too many people in too many Churches live different lives beyond those doors than they do in here. Inside the Church they’re all spiritual. Out there, they’re like everybody else. They’re content with going to Church and getting their “religion” once a week. But that whole “life of faith” thing – that “journey” we talked about last week – that every day “walk with God,” well that’s another story. They’d rather “leave that to the more ‘fanatical’ of faith.” We can’t do that! The message Jesus gave is “for God so loved the world.” And those who know the love of God are called to be the ones to tell that world. They – we – are the ones who need to show the love of God and to be his “witnesses.”
I wonder if the Church misses that message sometimes. Sometimes I think Christians tend to come down too hard on the world. Too often they “lead” with a message of sin and condemnation. And sadly today, the world won’t listen to that message. Sometimes I see people holding up banners in the crowd at football games that say “John 3:16.” You’ve probably seen them, too. And when I see them, I often wish they would say, “JOHN 3:16-17.” Because John 3:17 completes that message. It says, “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world may be saved!” In other words, the world would be saved through that incredible love expressed in verse 16.
Now, I’m not saying we should leave out that part about sin and salvation. (Some would be happy if we did, you know!) And I’m certainly not saying we should condone sin. But that isn’t necessarily the place to start. I think we should start where Jesus started, “For God so loved…” he told Nicodemus. We should start by loving the world that God loved. We should start by sharing that incredible love of God with others. Because when someone is reached with the love of God, God will then work with that person. It doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit will work with them and convict them and show them where they’ve fallen short, and show them where they need to change. That isn’t necessarily our job. But if we’ve put them off to start with, they may never get to experience God’s love. And the salvation message may have no place to get a foothold.
We live in a very interesting world, to say the least. We live in a world that is searching for God. And we are to be God’s witnesses to that world – Christ’s ambassadors, as Paul said! And I think we need to be careful and loving with the message we bring to that world. I think above all we are to show God’s love – in our words, in our attitudes, and in our actions. And while we’re doing that, perhaps the best thing we can do is what Charles Sheldon suggested in his book “In His Steps.” Before we do anything, we should ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” After all, it is his ministry!
So the message today is to be open in our heads and in our hearts to the love of God, and to know that we are not to keep that love to ourselves. Like the disciples of Jesus, we disciples at Eddington have been sent, too. We know the love of God. We know his amazing grace. Now, we need to show that love to a world that is desperate to know that love.
Eternal God, your love for us is eternal and everlasting. Your Grace is beyond our comprehension. Help us to be your people, conformed to the image of our Lord. Help us to let the people in the world around us know that you love them, too. With open minds and open hearts, may we grow in our witness to you in the world. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.