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Upward and Onward

May 4, 2008, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Seventh Sunday in Easter
The Rev. Beverly A. Bartlett
Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; Luke 24:44-53;

When you follow the common lectionary for the Sunday lessons and sermon texts, as we do here at MAPC, you have a choice on this particular Sunday in the church year--you can either observe it as the seventh and last Sunday of Easter or as the Ascension of the Lord. The church traditionally marks Ascension Day on the 40th day of Easter, because our passage from Acts says that Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection before ascending. But that means Ascension falls on a Thursday year after year, and unless we observe it on the following Sunday, most of us are not even aware of its passing.

What is this rather strange event all about? Like many happenings we read about in scripture, Jesus' ascension is something that we really don't have a framework for understanding in our modern western world. While we may still believe that miracles can happen, I don't think many of us believe miracles will occur today like they did in Biblical times. Many of us may know of someone who seems to have miraculously rebounded from a serious illness or accident, but we don't expect or experience miracles like waters parting to let a people pass through, or jugs of oil miraculously refilling to keep a widow and her son alive through drought and famine, or sight being restored to eyes blind from birth through the application of mud made with spit. We would be highly skeptical and probably even scoff at a story of someone being lifted into the sky and out of sight without the aid of some sort of machinery or at least a tornado-strength wind. Our cosmology is very different today, too. We no longer understand heaven to be up and hell to be down. We may still use those terms figuratively, but I think most of us today believe that heaven is being with God, rather than a specific location up in the sky, and hell is being alienated from God, not a subterranean, cavernous place near the hot core of the earth. So the description of Jesus being lifted up into the sky and carried out of sight in a cloud seems like something out of a fairy tale or an ancient myth. What possible meaning could it have for us now? Why pay attention to something as outlandish as the ascension of the Lord? Why does it or should it matter to us?

Our cosmology and our understanding of the physical laws of nature are indeed different, but the concept of the ascension remains key to our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are as his followers. For the past few Sundays, our gospel texts have been from John--John folds Jesus' resurrection, ascension and giving of the Spirit into one event. But today we are looking at the ascension accounts from Luke and Acts, which are really one book in two volumes, written by the same author. The author of Luke and Acts delineates between the resurrection, the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit more than John does. Both gospel writers agree, however, that Jesus had to ascend, had to go be with the Father, in order for the Holy Spirit to come in his place.

These two readings for today, from Luke and Acts, overlap each other. The reading from Acts is essentially summing up what has come before, and re-telling the story of the ascension. There are some differences between the two accounts. In the passage from Luke, it almost seems that the ascension is happening on the same day as the resurrection. The time frame is unclear; verse 50 begins, "Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany. . ." but 'then' could mean immediately following the previous scene or some period of time afterwards. In Acts, the author says that Jesus spent 40 days appearing to his disciples after the resurrection and continued to speak to them about the kingdom of God before being carried away and up into heaven. Most commentators I've read are not too concerned about what seem like discrepancies to us. They remind us that these accounts are not written primarily to be a factual historical record in the same way we expect historical accounts to be written today. As one scholar said, "Ancient historians were less fastidious in such matters of overlap than are some contemporary scholars."1 In Acts, the author is retelling and elaborating on a part of the story he's already told.2 There is a different focus in each telling. In the Lukan account, the focus is on Jesus himself--his resurrection, identity, purpose and departure; and in Acts the focus is more on the community of believers and their preparation to carry on Jesus' work, and so Luke tells of the protracted period of instruction with the risen Jesus in their midst.3 We don't need to be distracted by the differences or discrepancies. This is about theology and faith.

And the ascension is important for our theology and our faith. It's important for our understanding of who Jesus was, and who he continues to be, and for our understanding of who we are as his followers who remain here on earth to carry out his work, just like those first followers who were left behind gazing heavenward as he ascended into the sky. Though it doesn't fit into our current cosmology, seeing Jesus ascend up into the sky was of critical importance for those first followers. In their understanding of the universe, heaven was up. It was crucial that the early church and all who heard their witness knew that Jesus was in heaven with God. They were able to testify that they saw him go there themselves. He was risen not only from the dead, but risen and ascended to rule at God's right hand.4 He was triumphant; he returned to and reigns with God from whence he came and from whence he will come again. The ascension is a final confirmation of Jesus' divinity--he has returned to heaven where he belongs.

But he also belongs here on earth, and having ascended, he can now descend through the Holy Spirit. Jesus has gone away, but only to be with us in a different way, in a more full and complete way than he could be as a physical, human being. Jesus has told his disciples that he must go away in order for the Spirit to come. In both of today's passages, Jesus promises his followers that he will send the Spirit soon. In Luke, he tells them that he is sending what the Father promised them, and that they are to wait together in Jerusalem until they are "clothed with power from on high." In Acts, he repeats those instructions and says more specifically that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. One commentator writes that the "'withdrawal' of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: When Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life-giving Spirit."5

As I was reflecting on these texts, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be one of those first followers. Nothing like what they had experienced over the past two months or even the last two or three years had ever happened before. They didn't have two thousand years worth of belief and scholarship and Christian theology to stand upon like we do. It was all first-hand for them. Just experiencing Jesus' resurrection must have been completely overwhelming. But now to see him ascend into heaven, to know that he's gone and is not going to be with them any more as their companion, teacher and leader must have been another overwhelming experience. The author tells us in Luke that they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually blessing God. They seem to finally know and recognize who he is. But there had to be fear, trepidation and awe at what lay ahead mixed in with that joy. In the Acts passage, the author tells us they stood gazing into heaven after him. I imagine them with their mouths agape. They are on their own now. They know that there is something powerful coming--Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, clothe them, and empower them. But they don't have a clue what that really means. They haven't experienced it yet. And now they are on their own.

The whole point of course is that they won't be on their own--Jesus will still be with them in and through the Spirit. But he won't be a physical presence any more. He won't be there to clearly teach and lead and direct them. Now they've got to get out there and carry on his work themselves. "Over to you," is how Fred described it when we looked at these passages in the staff Bible study a couple of weeks ago--over to you. It's your turn now. You will be my witnesses--in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in the Luke passage he says that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached to all nations, starting from Jerusalem. The training period is over and they will soon be sent out into the world. That must have been an awesome and fearful prospect. They weren't going with a message that a lot of people wanted to hear. It was good news, but it wasn't received as such by most of those who would hear it.

As I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how wondrous, awe-inspiring, and frightening it must have been, it strikes me that we should probably feel a bit of that ourselves. We are in their shoes. We have taken their place in our day and time. We should still wonder at this God who became human, died, rose, ascended into heaven and came back down again to dwell in our hearts through the Spirit. And we should still feel a sense of awe, perhaps even fear, as well as feeling incredibly blessed that we are the ones charged and called and empowered to carry on Jesus' work, to be Christ's body in this world. We are the ones that Jesus has turned his work over to. The ascension is not just about Jesus going to sit at the right hand of God and reigning over all. It's not just about looking upward. The ascension is also about moving onward and outward. It is also our commission. Jesus sends us out to be his witnesses and to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.

Before the disciples went onward, Jesus told them they were to wait together in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them. They had a few weeks to sit tight, to absorb what had happened, to celebrate and pray and worship together--just as we have had these weeks of Easter to celebrate and reflect on what the resurrection means. But next Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus' followers. And as soon as that promised Spirit descended, it was time for them to respond to this gift of life and grace and forgiveness they'd been given. It was time to act on Jesus' commission and begin to share and proclaim the good news. As we come to the end of this Easter season, it is time for us, too, to respond to this gift of life we have in Jesus Christ. What shape does our witness take? How do we proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name? The Ascension is our commissioning as well. We can't just let it go by. I encourage you to spend some time this week thinking about how you respond to Jesus' commission to be his witness and to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. How does your life reveal the love of Christ? How do you live a transformed life? How do you share that life with others and invite them into it? We've all committed ourselves to be Christ's witnesses, or we wouldn't be here. How can we open our minds, hearts and lives so that the Spirit can work through us in even deeper, more profound ways? During this next week, take your cue from those first disciples. Find time to do what they did after the ascension and before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost--pray, worship, rejoice and give thanks to God for the blessing of new life. Look for the coming of the Spirit anew in your life, look for its movement and its kindling in our church community. Get ready for the fire of Pentecost, that we may move onward and outward as the body of Christ sharing the good news in all those places and with all those hearts who are longing for it.

And now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

  1. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina, Vol. 3 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 404.
  2. Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina, Vol. 5 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992) 28.
  3. Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003) 64.
  4. Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) 861-62.
  5. Johnson, Luke, 406.

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