Ascension! – August 30, 2020
II Kings 2:1-12, Acts 1:1-11
August 30, 2020
Last week, I talked about the “new calling” Jesus gave his disciples. I read the story from John 21, where he met them by the seaside. They had been fishing, and at Jesus’ direction, they cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they caught a huge number of fish – a plethora of fish! And as I said, I believe they were in the same location as their first calling some three earlier. In both stories they were fishing – because they were fishermen – and we have to assume they were in their own boat!
The first time, three years earlier, Jesus called these fishermen to be his “Disciples” – as any rabbi would. Except that most rabbis wouldn’t choose fishermen! But this one did! And so, they would follow him and learn from him, again, like the disciples of any rabbi. And now, after three years, he was calling them again. From now on, they would be “Apostles,” a word which meant “ones who are sent.” They would be the ones who would go out to the world and carry on the ministry he started. And at that time, as we know, it wouldn’t be long before he would be leaving them.
That’s what we’re celebrating today – the Ascension of Jesus. But, I don’t think they got all that yet. Even in our story from Acts 1, I think they believed Jesus was back now – back from the dead! Now his ministry would continue as before. And not only that, but their hopes and dreams were also “back from the dead!” Remember, they had lost everything. All their hopes had died that terrible Friday! But now, they had revived their thoughts and ideas about what Jesus was trying to accomplish on this earth. We see that in this question they asked him that day. “Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still hadn’t given up the notion of the earthly kingdom. They still believed that their “Messiah” would lead the rebellion that would free them from the Romans and restore Israel as a nation. That seemed to be a possibility, once again!
That’s one of the things we see in this story from Acts. We see that they still didn’t really get what was happening. They knew they were part of something big, perhaps even bigger than they thought before. But it wouldn’t be until the spirit came upon them at Pentecost that it would all “make sense” to them. But for now, there was no way for them to know what was about to happen, or how Jesus was about to leave them.
As you heard in our reading, they were together again with Jesus in Jerusalem, and he was teaching them again. And it looked like his ministry would just start up again, and he would be with them, for who knows how long. But then he spoke and he told them about the Holy Spirit that would come. He said, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And those turned out to be his last words to them. And as his last words died away, he was lifted up into the air and disappeared into the clouds!
What did they think? Did they know that was his final parting? Or did they think he would be back somehow? Did they understand what he meant by all of that “you shall be my witnesses” statement? (And did he have to say that part about Samaria?!) We can only imagine what they were thinking. And no, they probably didn’t understand. However, they would have known this other story we read today about Elijah! That’s what I was thinking about this week. We don’t often relate these two stories like this. But I’m sure they would have thought about Elijah when they saw Jesus ascend to the heavens and disappear!
As I’ve often said, the Jewish people were “steeped in their religion” – I daresay more than we are! They knew their stories! They put themselves into their stories! And this was one of their “biggies!” Elijah was seen as one of the greatest of their prophets! They knew all about him! And don’t forget! These guys had just seen Elijah on the mountaintop along with Moses and Jesus. Remember? That happened in the event we call “The Transfiguration.”
So, Elijah would not have been far their minds. And they also would have known this story of Elijah, the story we read today! They would have known that he was taken up into heaven by God, just as their master had been now! Can you just imagine that connection they were making when they saw this happen? They were like Elisha, looking up into heaven watching their master disappear!
They also would have known what the story of Elijah (and Elisha) was about! It was about the passing on of the “mantle of leadership.” (We still use that expression!) Elisha was to be Elijah’s successor. And as they remembered that story, they would have seen themselves in the role of Elisha! I really believe they would have made that connection that day. They were the new leaders! They were to be Jesus’ successors!
Think about that, especially those of you who are church leaders. You are all part of that passing on of the “mantle of leadership” that has taken place throughout the centuries! We’ve talked before about this thing called “Apostolic Succession.” That means the authority and leadership of the Church that has been passed down through the centuries from the Apostles – from those who Jesus himself chose and taught to be his successors. I hope that gives you a little better connection to the history of the church, and a connection to Jesus himself.
But even those of us who are not leaders, we too need to be asking, what is Jesus passing on to us? What can all believers take away from this story? One thing is that we are all disciples! Remember, there were 12 Apostles and many disciples. I know those terms get a bit confused sometimes. But how ever we think about it, the bottom line is this. We’re all disciples. We’re all part of that great story called “the Church.” And we shouldn’t let the fact that we’re not leaders be an excuse not to do our part in the church. There is a tendency to do that, isn’t there? It’s too easy to leave the work of the church to “someone else,” to let our leaders do everything. Too many people in too many churches are content to do just “the minimum” of faith.
That’s not the kind of faith God wants for us. He wants us to live our faith in all we do. He wants our relationship with him to make a difference in our lives. He wants us to be “steeped in our faith,” too, like the people of old. He wants us to be engaged in the work of the Church. In modern terms, he wants us to be “all in!” Think about how that looks in your life.
The last part of this story is the promise that Jesus would come again. We don’t think about that too much, do we? Some people do! Over the years there have been those who have thought of little else. They talk about the second coming of Christ all the time. But I like what the angel at the Ascension said, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” It was as if he was saying “Don’t just be looking up there!” “There’s a lot to do down here!”
We shouldn’t ever let ourselves be focused only on Jesus’ return.” Of course, we shouldn’t forget about it, either! But we shouldn’t be living our lives “staring up into heaven.” Living our faith every day, and reaching out to the world, are just as important. We shouldn’t be, as some have been described, “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” Maybe you’ve heard that before. And of course, the opposite of that are those who are “so earthly minded that they’re no heavenly good.” We need to be in a balance between the two. We need to be heavenly minded but “earthly involved.”
The point of this story, the point of this event we call “The Ascension,” is that these disciples, and I believe we too, are charged with being Jesus’ successors. We are called to bring the light of God’s love and Grace to the world. So, what does that look like in your life?
Several years ago, I was in a motorcycle shop. And there was one wall in that shop that had lots of stickers and patches for sale. And this one caught my eye! It cracked me up and I just had to buy it! “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” As I said, it made me laugh. And I believe God has a great sense of humor! And I know it has a humorous implication. But maybe there is something to that! To put it another way, Jesus is coming, so “be about the business of the Church.”
Think about that! Think about it in terms of “Doing God’s work.” And again, think about what that looks like in your life? Does it mean doing specific things? Does it mean serving on a board or a committee? Being on the cleaning crew? Cutting the church lawn? Donating to the food bank? Or is it as simple as striving to be the person God wants you to be, every day? Or is it some version of all of those things? Doing God’s work means loving the world that “God so loved” – so loved that he gave his “only begotten son?”
As you think about this celebration today, the Ascension of Jesus, think about those disciples, those soon-to-be Apostles. Think about how they took the “mantle of leadership,” and carried on the ministry of Jesus – his work of love and reconciliation. And think about how we too carry on his ministry!
Eternal God, help us to be the people you call us to be, disciples of Jesus Christ. Help us to love as Jesus loved, to live as he would have us live, and help us to truly rejoice in his kingdom here on earth. For we pray in his name, Amen.