Believe it or not this week is a very special and pivotal week in our Christian calendar. You may be confused as to what that is. As you know we celebrated Easter some time ago and you probably remember me saying that Pentecost isn’t until next week. However, the week before Pentecost holds special significance in the story of our faith.
Now if you do not know, or maybe you might have forgotten, the season of Easter is 50 days long. However, that is split somewhat in to two segments. You have the first 40 days and then the last 10. The key marking point being this past Thursday, which is the celebration of the Ascension of our Lord. Now as I just said the actual day it is observed is always the Thursday before the Seventh Sunday of Easter…this last Thursday. In our Protestant tradition we often celebrate this Sunday, the seventh Sunday of Easter, as Ascension Sunday, and celebrate this great event.
This background and this story we read in our scriptures today. Between our two scripture passages today we have an overlap of sorts in terms of the storyline the author is seeking to get across. The big reason behind this is that it is the same author. Both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author who is believed to be Luke.
Luke writes each of these to give account to two things. First we have the Gospel which as we can surmise gives us an account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Acts passage today starts with, “In the first book [Luke], Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1-2) Luke uses the Gospel to talk about what Jesus did and the role he played for his disciples.
Then you have this book called, The Acts of the Apostles, which gives an account really of the Holy Spirit and the role the Spirit plays in the history of the church. This Summer we are going to walk through the early church…the hardships and what it took to get the church started and off the ground. This time was so pivotal to the church because without this time and this growth our church would look very different.
So back to these scriptures as we end Luke and start Acts we see a common tool used by any great Television series writer. These verses serve as a crossover of sorts between episodes. A “to be continued…” at the end of Luke, and a “last time on…” in terms of the beginning of Acts.
And what is the story that connects the two?
It is the Ascension of Christ. This story represents the beginning of the beginning of our church. If you think about it we always say the birthday of the church is Pentecost, and that is the truth, but without the Ascension none of that would have been possible. So what happens?
In both stories we have an understanding that Jesus rose towards heaven. Acts says, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9) In this manner we understand that Jesus was physically taken away from the presence of the disciples.
Why did Jesus have to ascend? Why did Jesus physically, as a human being, leave us? I mean think of how much easier our faith could be if we had a physical Savior whom we could point to anytime we wanted to. But no Jesus ascended. Jesus didn’t abandon us, but he made a way for the ultimate fulfillment of what God had promised to us. In the Gospel of John we read, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
In order for us to receive the Spirit, Jesus had to go to heaven. He did not go to leave, forsake, or abandon us, but to pave the way and make room for the Spirit. But why is it that this is an important physical moment in our churches history? Well it teaches us an important lesson about who we are in Jesus. It teaches us that Christ not only ascended to help pave the way for the Spirit, but as his last lesson to show us what we do…to set the way for “the church”
When we read along in the end of our story today in Acts we read,
“While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.’” (Acts 1:10-11)
Now this is quite a profound statement as we begin to understand what Jesus’ last lesson for us was. When we look at the Greek we see the word hitskete which is derived from the word histemi. This word means what it is translated into here “to stand” but another translation for it is to “stand still,” or not move. Think about what those two men were saying. Why are you standing still just looking toward heaven? (greattreasures.org Acts 1:10)
The fact of the matter was that Jesus had ascended to heaven and now the real work was to begin. In a commentary I read about this passage, it asserted that this passage was on one hand about Jesus and the end to his miraculous life. However, the author continued writing,
“On the other hand, this is a story about the disciples and us. It is the event that changes the locus of Christ’s work and ministry from Jesus himself to those who follow him. Jesus is no longer here to preach the good news, heal the sick, and feed the hungry. The mission now falls to the disciples.” (Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2. pg. 504)
This passage therefore, stands to be the equivalent to the Great Commission for the writer Luke. This is where Jesus gives forth his final instructions and we understand what is to happen after his ascension. His ascension then means for us a benediction of sorts for the disciples and for us as we read these words almost 2000 years removed from these events.
Christ’s ascension bring the disciples from the point of reliance upon Jesus being physically next to them, physically preaching and teaching, physically healing, and physically in mission to the point where they understand the reason for the Spirit coming to be with them always. This is truly the point in our history where the seedlings for what the church becomes on Pentecost is.
Jesus’ Ascension is a reminder that we are sent out, and the questioning of the men in white robes tell us that we cannot do that just standing and looking up towards heaven. It is that we must get out and be Christ for the world. Before Christ leaves he gives us the commission to do just that. Jesus says to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 1:8)
We will be the witnesses, the testifiers, the preachers, the teachers. We will be all these things to help spread the message that Christ gave to us. And Jesus gives us the levels at which we are to serve. That it is not any one of these, but all of them. That we should do it not only in Jerusalem, the city. Not just in Judea, the nation. Not just in Samaria, the surrounding nations, but “to the ends of the earth.” Jesus was saying that the extent to which we should be witnesses and teachers should not be limited by any physical limitations we try to put on it.
Jesus’ ascension means that without Jesus’ physical presence on earth we become the physical Jesus for all of those whom we witness to on a day-to-day basis.
How do we do that though?
Well we have talked about it on several occasions. It is about the life you live. It is about going out and being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Going out witnessing, teaching, preaching, and sharing Christ’s message. That message of love and salvation that Jesus preached. Not a message of judgement or persecution, but the message that no matter who you are, where you have been, or what you have done there is a God who loves you, and a community that shares that love for others.
Teresa of Avila was a nun in the 16th century located in modern day Spain. A prayer attributed to her says,
“God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.” (Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2. pg. 504)
This should be our prayer as we contemplate on Christ’s role in the world today. Christ’s ascension means for us the work he called us to do. It means that the ball is in our court to do the work, and the Spirit, as we will talk about next week, is our guide along this journey.
So go out and be the witnesses in Dinwiddie, in Virginia, in the United States, in North America, and to the ends of the earth. That in your witness the message of Christ may bless all of those who hear it.