Tag Archives: Ascension

You Shall Be My Witnesses (Easter II) – April 3, 2016 (NL Week 30)

Sunday’s Reading:
Acts 1:1-14

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 

Say what you want about Mark, the Evangelist, but he certainly knew how to keep an audience wanting more. The end of his account of the life of Jesus left us hanging with the images of an empty tomb, a young man wearing a white robe, and three women running away in terror and amazement. Even more importantly, Mark tells us that the women did not heed the command of that young man to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection; instead, the gospel writer tells us that they said nothing to anyone.

As we shift from Mark’s Gospel to the story of the early church that follows Christ’s rising from the tomb, we are jumping smack dab into the middle of Luke’s two volume account of the church’s history. In Luke’s version of “the first Easter” we are told that the women who showed up at the tomb that morning were confused and frightened. Again, we can’t exactly blame them. They were greeted in that garden by the sight of an empty tomb, and by two men in dazzling white clothes, who reminded them of everything that Jesus had told them about his death and resurrection while he was still alive. Immediately, they rushed back to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard, and the disciples responded to the news they brought by dismissing it outright as an idle tale. Later in the day, the women’s story was confirmed by two appearances of the risen Christ, and the church as we know it sprang to life. Today’s reading recounts the last in a series of appearances by Jesus to the disciples, including those women who had faithfully proclaimed the good news about the Lord’s death and resurrection. During this final visit, the Lord commands the eleven remaining disciples – and anyone else within earshot – to be prepared to give an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and to tell the good news of Jesus to people in every language and tongue. After this commissioning, the disciples watch as Jesus is taken up to heaven, and just like the women at the tomb in Mark, they end up getting stuck. Maybe it’s the wonder of it all; maybe it’s the fear of moving forward without their teacher and Lord; whatever the reason, they stand rooted to the spot, their eyes raised up to the heavens to follow the ascent of Jesus, until a very sharp question from another couple of heavenly visitors brings them back to reality: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into the sky? Why, indeed? Why, in the midst of this incredible display of power, didn’t they simply listen to what the messengers told them about Jesus?

I think it’s likely that – with apologies to the musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – they had “too much heaven on their minds.” They saw Jesus taken up and away from them, and because they had built their entire lives around their fellowship with him, they weren’t sure what to do now that he was no longer bodily present with them. It’s understandable that they would want to be where their Lord was. But that wasn’t what they were called to do. Their mission had changed. Instead of “Follow me,” they were now being sent out to be witnesses to the power of God in Christ, beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the very ends of the earth.

What does that have to do with us? Well, it seems to me that we modern Christians sometimes suffer from the same problem that those first disciples did – namely, that we are in danger of having too much heaven on our minds. It’s popular to say that this life is training for the next life, and in a way that’s an indisputable fact. All the Biblical language about accountability and judgment suggests that what we do matters. But it doesn’t just matter because of how it sets us up for eternity. It matters because what we do in this life has the ability to make the gospel real for the people around us. It matters because when we are inspired by the grace and love of God to go out in service to God and our neighbors, when we bear witness to the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil, we are participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Where life and love and joy and peace are made known to our neighbors and friends – and even (especially!) our enemies – the gospel takes on flesh and blood, and people can encounter the risen Christ in real, tangible ways that make a difference in their lives. If, like the women at the tomb in Mark’s Gospel, we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear, we miss out on the chance to share good news with people who need to hear it. If, like the disciples who stand around with their heads in the clouds, we allow ourselves to be distracted by what is yet to come, we miss out on the chance to be Christ’s witnesses today. We would do well to emulate the women in Luke’s account of the first Easter, who were so eager to tell what they saw that they didn’t even need to be commanded to go and share the news! Their bold witness to the resurrection of Christ made the story of the early church – and, by extension, our story – possible.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore how the church’s early witness played out in the lives of real people in real places. We’ll learn about the ministry of Peter, the missionary zeal of the apostle Paul, the gift of the Holy Spirit that empowered those early Christians to risk life and limb in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll ponder what lessons we can glean from our forerunners in the faith as we seek to proclaim the good news in a world that is rapidly changing around us. Today, we celebrate the first apostles, those women who brought the good news of Jesus to light, and whose example continues to inspire men and women alike to acts of bold and faithful service within this congregation, in our community, throughout our state, across the nation, and around the world. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will surround and fill us, and give us the courage to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, so that we can journey in faith toward a world in need, and bear witness to the power and presence of Jesus in this and every place. Thanks be to God! Amen!

Ascension of Our Lord – Sunday, June 1, 2014

 Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the people we love. When someone comes to be such an important part of your life that you can’t imagine what things would be like without them, and then you are forced to reckon with their absence, there is always a void, even in those situations when you know their absence is temporary. Anyone who has ever had to endure the pain of absence knows this truth all too well. Today we gather for what I would call one of the most counter-intuitive festivals of the Christian year: the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Knowing what we know about the heartache of saying goodbye, it seems odd that we would set aside time to reflect on – and, in truth, to celebrate – the absence of Jesus.

Our readings walk the line between the two reactions that have characterized this observance: reverence, sadness, and fear at the departure of Jesus, as well as overwhelming joy and an outpouring of praise.  The first reaction seems obvious. The apostles and their company, the people who had walked alongside Jesus throughout his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching, who had seen their lives shattered at the sight of their Lord hanging on the cross, and who had been witnesses of the resurrected Christ, must have found it difficult to watch him leave them again. That seems to be the theme in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a reason those two angels needed to show up and bring the apostles back to reality: they were stuck, already yearning for Jesus even as he ascended from them, fearful that the commission that he had just given them would be too difficult for them to take on without his presence among them. They needed to hear the words of those heavenly messengers to move on: “Men of Galilee, what do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven!”

So that’s Acts, with its record of the apostles’ understandable reaction to the ascension of Jesus. But then we turn to Luke, and see something entirely different. The stage is set up exactly the same way: Jesus leads the apostles out of Jerusalem, instructs them to return to the Holy City and remain there until the Father’s promise is fulfilled, and then is carried up into heaven as he blesses his followers. Here, however, there is no mention of the disciples lingering in that spot, gazing into the heavens with heavy hearts. No, here the apostles head back to Jerusalem straightaway, with great joy, and they commit themselves to spending their days in the temple praising God for everything they had seen and heard! How do we explain the fact that Scripture contains two accounts of the ascension, written by the same author, recording two completely different reactions to the reality of Jesus’ absence?

Maybe we don’t need to. Each of these accounts represent an authentic response to the ascension of Jesus. The Church’s ancient prayer – Come, Lord Jesus – contains the longing we share for the bodily presence of Jesus to be restored to us, so that God’s will for the world might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a long history in the Church of celebrating this festival with great enthusiasm and fervor. Why? What is there to celebrate about the Ascension of Jesus? What good could possibly come from the absence of God incarnate? Mark Oldenburg, professor of worship at Gettysburg Seminary, proposes the following theme for the observance of the Ascension: In his glory, we and Christ are together. That reality, it turns out, is good enough to totally justify every bit of that celebration and joy.

Despite the fact that Jesus is God, and though we claim that God is capable of anything, there is no story anywhere in Scripture of Jesus appearing in multiple places at once. When God walked among us in the person of Jesus, the presence of Jesus was limited to wherever Jesus happened to be at the time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God – as Paul asserts in the second reading from Ephesians and we affirm in the creeds of the Church – that presence was unleashed. No longer was it necessary to gather around the person of Jesus; instead, his power and presence are now available in every time and place.

Perhaps the more stunning thing about the ascension is that it makes the inverse true. That is, if we and Christ are together in his glory, then our humanity has now been bound up with God. Put another way, if the ascension means that there is nowhere that we can go where God isn’t present, it also means that the needs, yearnings, and longings of humanity are always known to God. In Jesus, God took on our nature, and by ascending that nature was also brought into the presence of God eternally. As Dr. Oldenburg so eloquently puts it:

The creature’s nature becomes part of the Creator’s.  No longer are human (or even creaturely) matters foreign to God.  They have become known, experienced, and important.  Again we see that there are no God-forsaken places or unGodly times, because God has experienced and taken into the very being of the Holy One all that makes humans hu­man –  from the shock of light at the end of the birth canal to the extin­guishing power of death.  Even despair and dereliction become a part of God. What we rejoice in at the Ascension is a culmination of God’s work of reconciliation, of at-one-ment.  With Jesus, the fully human one, where he belongs, we are no longer estranged from God.  God will no longer ask like the clueless angels at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?”  God comprehends.  And we may no longer play the victim’s trump card: “You don’t understand what it’s like.”  God comprehends.  Humani­ty has been given a place in the conversation of the Trinity.*

What a gift! What a comfort to know that the apparent absence of Jesus is in reality what makes possible our intimate connection with the triune God!

That gift makes itself known not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a church community.  The ascension unleashes the church to do its work in the world. While Jesus walked the earth, people were drawn to hear him, and any other voice that attempted to speak for him or on his behalf would always be judged lacking, seen as secondary to whatever Jesus himself might have said. Because of the ascension, the Church is free to carry out the commission given by Jesus himself: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth! That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church can say whatever it wants without criticism or complaint. That commission is always grounded in faithfulness and fidelity to the message that Jesus came to proclaim: That the kingdom of God has drawn near, and that God’s love for all the world has been demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of the whole creation. But the ascension of Jesus makes it possible for the Church to exist and to love out its calling to be – as Ephesians puts it – “the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate an odd and wonderful festival. Even as we long for his return, we rejoice that, because of the ascension, Christ’s presence has now been unleashed for us and for the whole world. We marvel at the knowledge that Jesus bears our very nature to the presence of God so that we might be fully known and understood. We are humbled by the calling to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us bless our God for the victory of our Lord Jesus, who died, rose, and ascended so that we might know his power and presence and be partners in extending it to a world in need. Thanks be to God! Amen!

*Mark W. Oldenburg, Here and Now: The Year in the Presence of the Resurrected Christ, (unpublished), p. 81.