I preached this sermon at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church at the Choral Evensong service on Ascension Sunday. The recorded version can be found here.
Ascension Day is easily overlooked because Jesus seemingly leaves us. And what’s worse, it’s like when a spouse or parent leaves for a business trip, leaving behind a massive to-do list. Think about it, in terms of God’s mission in the world, the ascension is when Jesus steps back and Pentecost is when he hands the reigns to the Church. Although this is something of a frightening notion, it’s also very exciting. It’s a chance to realize more deeply the incarnational ministry that God has made for us! As Fr. Brian preached on Thursday, Jesus’ ascension includes his enthronement, and we, even now, are seated with him. So there is a triumphal and exciting side to the ascension, it’s not just the passing of the to-do list.
Here we’re going to look at the ascension of Christ from a slightly different angle, starting by looking at the ascension of Elijah. In particular we’re going to look at how Elijah’s ascension pointed to his successor Elisha. Then we can look at how Jesus’ ascension pointed to his successors – the Apostles – as well as the Apostles’ successors – the Church today.
The ascension of Elijah is founded in II Kings 2:1-15. From the way this story was written down, we can see the sucession from Elijah to Elisha is shown by symmetry. I don’t want to get bogged down in literary analysis, but there are a couple neat things worth pointing out.
- First of all is the physical locations they go through. Elijah’s final journey to the place where he ascended had three legs to it: first he went to Bethel, then he went to Jericho, and then he crossed the Jordan River. If you read the rest of chapter 2, you’ll notice that Elisha literally takes up Elijah’s mantle and retraces that journey: crossing the Jordan, returning to Jericho, and then to Bethel. There’s a symmetry in the geographical details showing Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s role.
- Secondly, at the beginning of the three legs of the journey to Elijah’s ascension, Elisha is tested. Three times, Elijah asks him to stay behind. Three times, Elisha insists on staying with him; he wants to be with his master to the bitter end. Passing these tests, Elisha is made worthy to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. There’s also a powerful symmetry with Jesus asking Peter three times, “do you love me?” and subsequently commissioning him to take care of the flock.
- Thirdly, Elisha requests a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit. At first glance this might seem like Elisha’s asking to be doubly as awesome as Elijah, working twice as many miracles, being twice as snazzy. But in fact, the Hebrew idea of a “double portion” comes from inheritance rights – the chosen heir of the family got a double portion compared to the other children. So this was written to show equality between Elijah and Elisha. This request is proven to be granted over the course of the rest of chapter 2 when Elisha parts the Jordan River exactly as Elijah had, is acknowledged by the prophets of Jericho, and works miracles of life and death in Jericho and Bethel, respectively.
So through their journeys, testing, and ministries, the succession from Elijah to Elisha is shown by symmetry.
Much of that can be said for Jesus passing the baton to the Apostles, too. Indeed, we already saw the parallel between Elijah testing Elisha and Jesus testing Peter. But the proof of the succession from Jesus to the Apostles is better shown by signs. The Bible is peppered with prophecies of this fact. In John 14, Jesus told his disciples that they’d do “greater works” than his because he would be going to the Father. In Acts 1, right before his ascension, Jesus told them that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes.” In Acts 2, we see that come to life in gifts of prophecy and tongues and other miraculous signs and wonders. And this continues through Acts 3, 5, 6, 8, and 14, and so on. In II Corinthians 12, Paul goes so far as to say that “the things that mark an Apostle – signs, wonders, and miracles – were done with great perseverance.” As Fr. Bill Haley put it at CtR on Sunday, the Apostles were “the incarnation of the incarnation!”
Of course, the Apostles were not alone in following in Jesus’ footsteps. Although not every Christian has performed miraculous signs like Jesus and the Apostles, we do participate in a succession shown by the Spirit. The gospel of Matthew ends with the famous great commission – to make more disciples by going and teaching and baptizing. Throughout the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, baptism is so often accompanied by visible signs of the Spirit’s presence and activity. Paul tells us in multiple epistles that all Christians have received the Holy Spirit and have received various forms of spiritual gifts. Some are miraculous signs and wonders, but even more are listed that sound much more mundane: giving, leading, serving, encouraging. These are all gifts from God, and they allow us to be successors of some part of the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. There’s a succession from him to us, shown and enabled by the Spirit.
We’ve now seen three of the ways that the Bible denotes succession: symmetry, signs, and the Spirit. And although I’ve used these three ways in different examples, they’re all present in all. The ascension of Elijah wasn’t the end for Elisha any more than the ascension of Jesus was the end for the Apostles, or the death of the Apostles the end of the Church. Yes there was a mourning at the loss of those who came before, but sooner or later, the successors take the place of their former masters, not as mere shadows of what once was, but as direct inheritors, successive ministers, with equal authority.
The ministry of Jesus was very broad; according to the Apostle John, Jesus did more things than could be written down! This doesn’t mean that we have to do everything ourselves, too. For the successor of Christ today is not any one single person, but the whole Church. We each receive gifts from the same Spirit to carry on some aspect of Christ’s ministry, so that when we all work together as God calls us, the amazing power of Jesus’ ministry will shine forth throughout the world!
Ascension Day was Thursday; we’ve entered an historic waiting period between the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit. In a way it’s like a mini-Lent; there’s a triumphal scene followed by a momentary feeling of loss, but a greater joy is quick to follow. Only here it’s a ten day wait, rather than 40. Nevertheless, many Christians from nearly 20 congregations across the North Shore have taken this time period of time to fast and pray for the Church – its unity and the empowerment of all its members with the Holy Spirit. Whether you participate by fasting or not, I invite you to consider during this week ahead what gifts the Spirit has given to you, or might have yet to give you. Await Pentecost expectantly and prayerfully, and see what the Lord will do; not only in bringing the Church closer together in unity, but in our individual lives and ministries.