Jesus, as we hear your story, may we also recognize where it connects with our story and what you ask of us for our own lives. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSON Matthew 28:16-20, CEB
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Acts 1:6-11, GNT
6 When the apostles met together with Jesus, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time give the Kingdom back to Israel?”
7 Jesus said to them, “The times and occasions are set by my Father's own authority, and it is not for you to know when they will be. 8 But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 After saying this, he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away, when two men dressed in white suddenly stood beside them 11 and said, “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.”
SERMON Ascension Story
Today we have two pieces to Jesus commissioning his disciples. From Matthew we have the classic words Christians refer to as the Great Commission. It is one of my favorite passages from the gospels. We begin with a gathering of the disciples, the eleven who remained after Judas’ betrayal and suicide. They had a divine appointment after witnessing the risen Jesus on various occasions. They were to meet him in Galilee, home to some, and the starting place of their time together with Jesus. They are in an attitude of worship, yet this text claims some still doubted.
I wonder how it is for us. Do you see Sunday worship and your daily devotions as a divine appointment to meet with Jesus? That was one detail that caught my attention preparing Dora Wynes’ memorial. Every morning she had her devotions and read her Bible at the kitchen table. Many of you have your own version of that habit.
We come at those times expecting to worship, but sometimes there are other thoughts or questions crowding our minds, perhaps even doubts. Christians may at one time or another question if this is all real but doubts also ask if Jesus really had such power or if Jesus really can use us. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Sometimes doubt is asking questions to help us define and refine our faith.
The disciples had been through the trauma of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. They had been through an emotional wringer dealing with their own disloyal response to that situation. Then, miracle of miracles, word spread, “Jesus is risen just as he said!” Again it was an emotional rollercoaster as shock registered and relief celebrated while reason and logic questioned the possibility. Then they had seen the risen Christ for themselves, seen his wounds, received his peace, even shared breakfast with him after fishing all night. But this was to be the last physical meeting on earth. It would be hard not to be overwhelmed by emotions and questions.
Jesus claimed the authority God gave him over all things. I think back to what Peter, James and John glimpsed at the transfiguration. Did they remember in that moment seeing Jesus in all his glory? But for now this authority had a purpose. Jesus was sending them out to continue the work. I think of Moses’ farewell speech in Deuteronomy as he sent the Hebrews in to claim the promised land under Joshua’s new leadership. Jesus was sending the eleven into his kingdom to continue his teaching and ministry. They were to be the new leaders bringing forth God’s Kingdom.
Here is the work Jesus handed to them. It is still the work of Christians and the Church today: Go to all nations, make disciples, baptize, and teach. That is what we are called to do. But lest we give up thinking we are alone, there is the reminder that Jesus is still with us.
We shift now to Luke’s telling of the story. Most scholars accept Acts as the sequel to the gospel of Luke, since both are identified as being written especially for the unknown Theophilus. I like Bart Ehrman’s take in his New Testament lectures that the gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus while Acts is not just the story of the disciples or the Church, but it is really the story of the Holy Spirit who empowers, guides, and works through them.
Toward the end of Luke’s gospel, after the resurrection appearances and the promise of the Holy Spirit, we are told briefly of the Ascension:
50 Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 So they worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. 53 And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.
Yes, there are a few differences in details from Matthew’s commissioning story, but I find it significant that both versions incorporate the important note that they worshipped Jesus. Now that they were finally grasping that Jesus was all he said and more, worship was the only appropriate response. When we recognize how God has been at work in our lives or God’s intentions for our world, isn’t worship a natural response?
Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit, so that is where they returned, filled with joy and praising God. I imagine their wonder and awe being like that from the Christmas stories. It reminds me of the shepherds who returned to their fields glorifying and praising God after seeing the infant Jesus. It reminds me of the wise men filled with great joy as they followed the star to meet him. Again, worship, joy, and praise are appropriate responses to meeting Jesus.
Luke refers back to this scene of the Ascension as he begins the book of Acts. Note as the conversation took place, the disciples hadn’t yet fully grasped God’s intentions for the kingdom. They were still focused on overcoming the earthly enemy of Rome and restoration of Israel’s independence and glory. It had been the messianic expectation for so long, their vision struggled to see the grander picture Jesus had been trying to show them. Jesus gently chided them saying that the times are God’s business not theirs.
It occurs to me that most human beings are small minded like that. We want to shake up the disciples and say, “Don’t you get it yet?” But then if we look at our own lives and opinions, perhaps our own vision isn’t much broader than theirs. We tend to look at our own well-being or that of our loved ones; we look out for our own group, community, congregation or nation. God sees a much bigger picture: global, universal, multidimensional vision in a way that our minds can’t fully grasp either. Sometimes we just have to trust God’s answers to our questions of what, when, where, who, how, and even why. All of that lies within God’s authority not always ours. We do our best to follow the steps of God’s plan as he puts them in front of us.
For me the key verse to this passage is verse 8, so let me repeat it, “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is the commissioning statement for Luke’s version of the story. First, notice that it is necessary to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit. When you get ahead of God’s Spirit, you are going to fail in carrying out God’s mission.
Second, there are parallels to Matthew’s rendering. Luke emphasizes witnessing, which we take to mean giving testimony, telling the story of Jesus. Matthew is giving us the purpose of that witness – to make disciples! The witness may draw a new believer to Jesus, and they may desire to follow. Becoming a disciple is affirmed in the baptism covenant and must be accompanied by teaching. Making a disciple is a lifetime investment. There is always more to learn and a call to continued growth.
There is one more aspect of the word used here for witness. In the original Greek it is the same word as martyr. Jesus is honestly telling them that their lives will be at risk as they carry forward his message into the world. We know from history that this was certainly true. Most of these disciples suffered and eventually were killed for the sake of the gospel.
Another parallel is carrying the gospel into the world. Matthew reported Jesus saying, “Go into all the world.” That is put in perspective with the ever-widening regions of Acts 1:8, “in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As you consider this mission in your own life, consider your spheres of influence. Share your story of Jesus in your life with family, with friends, with colleagues, with the community around you. Through the church you also share it in mission with other communities, even other nations. That is still the work Jesus calls us to do.
Some see missions as doing good. Some see it as evangelism. I think from Jesus’ perspective it is both. We know that Jesus taught others about God’s Kingdom, but scripture also says he went about doing good. If you live out the teachings of Christ you will feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for the widow and orphan, visit the sick and imprisoned, bring healing and stand for justice. If we do these things in the name of Christ, don’t we also share the teachings that are our motivation? Whether we are helping our neighbor here at home or in a global arena, it is our task to continue the work of Christ our Lord.
Now come the verses that have left a puzzling image upon which much speculation is based, and others have perhaps dismissed as unrealistic. Jesus was taken “up” to heaven and disappeared in the clouds. Two young men appear announcing that Jesus will return in the same way.
You know that in ancient times people’s concept of the world was a flat earth in a three-tiered universe, the place of the dead below us, the sky and stars above us. That pretty much went out the window when Columbus landed in the Americas rather than sailing off the edge of the world into an abyss. Then Magellan circumnavigated our planet proving it was round. Sometimes when we are reading the ancient biblical texts, we need to remind ourselves of the times in which they lived rather than expecting them to think like we do today. So, when our literature says that Jesus “ascended,” you don’t have to take it only as literally going up. I’m sure to their eyes he was lifted up, but more than that he returned to the heavenly realms however you conceive of them in your own minds. Personally, I think of it as another invisible dimension.
Did you notice that he disappeared into a cloud? I was given a new perspective on that reference in McArthur’s commentary, so let me remind you that in the Exodus stories God appeared to lead his people as a cloud by day. It makes perfect sense to me that Jesus disappeared back into God’s being which we cannot see face to face, but only in the ways God chooses to make his presence known. There was a time when a movie based on Jesus’ anticipated return in the clouds was presented in such a way that I was afraid of clouds for two years. But now I’d like to look at clouds as a reminder of God’s presence with us.
The two men who appeared to the disciples next were God’s messengers; that is the true meaning of angels. Perhaps these were the same messengers who met the women at the empty tomb. They asked the women then, “Why are you looking for Jesus here? He is risen as he said.” Now they ask the disciples, “Why are you standing here staring up at the sky? Jesus will return.” Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus returned to the heavenly realms in God’s presence. So now what?
There are those who spend a lot time speculating on the when Jesus will return, and some argue various theories. But Jesus told us plainly that is NOT the point. Jesus had already told the disciples what to do, “Wait for the power of the Holy Spirit” and THEN “Go! Be my witnesses, make disciples, baptize, and teach them what I taught you.” I think this also implies, don’t just talk about it; live it!
As we celebrate the Lord’s ascension, don’t get hung up on the images of Christ amidst the fluffy clouds. It’s a beautiful picture, and I also have my favorite artistic renderings, but we can’t just stand here staring at the sky either. We have work to do. So, as the Holy Spirit leads and empowers you, continue the work of Christ in the world around you until in God’s timing, you meet our Lord again face to face.