13th May 2021 - Ascension Day
Acts 1: 1-11, Luke 24: 44-end
As we have just heard, Luke tells the story of the Ascension twice, first at the end of his gospel and then at the start of Acts. The second time he includes an extra image: Two men in white stand alongside the disciples as they look up to where Jesus has gone.
Luke’s readers would have recognised them as Moses and Elijah, who were also present at Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top in Luke chapter 9. Their presence is a visual reminder of Jesus’ remark at the start of our gospel reading, about the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms and how they are fulfilled in him. There is much that is breathtakingly new in Luke’s gospel, but this is balanced by a deep continuity with the past, affirmed many times in Jesus’ teaching. The revelation which flowers spectacularly in him can be seen growing up towards this point all through the Hebrew scriptures.
Moses and Elijah accompany us in other allusions through Luke’s gospel, too many to mention this evening. I would like to show you how Luke’s Ascension story itself follows a pattern of continuity we find with Moses and especially with Elijah.
In Deuteronomy 34, God takes Moses up to the top of Mount Nebo, from where he can see “all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea.” This is the promised land, but God says to Moses, “I will let you see it, but you will not cross over to it.” And Moses dies and is buried, and his leadership is transferred to Joshua, with these words:
Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit[b] of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him…”
And then Elijah, who in 2 Kings 2 passes the spirit on to Elisha in a scene with echoes of Moses. Elijah leads Elisha to the bank of the Jordan river, then parts the waters to right and left and they cross over on dry ground. Then he asks, “tell me what I can do for you before I am taken from you?” and Elisha replies: “let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” And then Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha takes up Elijah’s cloak, and the prophets of Jericho declare that “the spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” So the spirit of God, and with it God’s wisdom, passes from one prophet to the next.
The same theme of continuity, then, infuses this final section of Luke’s gospel. The disciples’ minds are opened to a full understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ crowning place in them, truths they consistently failed to grasp before his passion and which only fall into place in the light of his death and resurrection. As witnesses they are commissioned to preach his message of repentance and forgiveness of sins, in his name, to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. And Jesus blesses them before he disappears. Whilst they must wait for the spirit they will receive at Pentecost, I wonder, is not this spirit already in their hearts? Is this perhaps the “double portion” which Elisha asked for? And here is there not also a kind of continuity, that Jesus does not leave them to return later, but changes from the particular and singular, to the communal and universal?
Luke leaves his gospel with the disciples in the temple, praising God. Hindsight makes this a poignant image, on the one hand full of hope and portraying a natural continuity with the past; and yet within a few decades the temple will be destroyed and at the same time a bitter rift will open between the new Christians and their Jewish compatriots, elders and friends.
And so as we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, looking forward with hope to Pentecost, which completes the transition to the new community indwelling with his spirit, let us also mourn a little the breaches which followed in that sacred continuity so loved by Luke, between Christians and Jews and between fellow Christians, breaches which have marred every age, including our own.
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Richard Young (Rector)