In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning is the Sunday after the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday. A little background. Earlier in Acts 1, Luke reports that the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days from the time of his Resurrection and then was taken up into heaven as described in today’s NT lesson from Acts. Thursday marked the fortieth day from Easter and thus we celebrated it as Ascension Day since Easter is a movable feast.
To modern ears, the story of Jesus’ Ascension can sound a bit strange. What is going on here? Is Luke trying to tell us that Jesus has become some kind of cosmic spaceman who has basically checked out on us and gone away to be with his distant Father and God who is not particularly interested in us, or is there something else going on? As you might guess, there is indeed something else going on in Luke’s Ascension story and today I want to look briefly at what it might possibly mean for us today.
We humans have an unfortunate tendency to want to know the future, especially the end times, and can often obsess about it to the point where it distracts us from paying attention to the here and now. Harold Camping’s failed prediction that the Parousia would occur on May 21st is a notable example of this sad fixation over the eschaton, a fancy word that refers to the end of the world (undeterred, Camping has now revised his calculations and predicts October 21st to be the real date). We also see this unfortunate tendency illustrated in today’s lesson from Acts. Jesus’ disciples are apparently getting the sense that something else big is going to happen, that he is about to be taken from them, and they want to know about what the future holds in store for them and their beloved Israel. But Jesus will have none of it. He reminds them that the time and date for the eschaton is not for them (or us) to know.
That is precisely the point of the angels’ question to the disciples. “Why are looking heavenward when there is work for you to do here on earth right now?” While the angels do not say the latter explicitly, it is quite clear from the context that this is their intention. Before he ascended Jesus told his disciples that they are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. In Matthew’s account of the Ascension (28.16-20), which omits the actual ascension narrative, Jesus tells his disciples that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and that the disciples are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It is clear, therefore, that Jesus does not want his followers to be engaged in some kind of introspective and otherworldly navel-gazing. No, there is quite a lot to do right here and now and we who claim to follow Jesus had better be ready to roll up our sleeves and get busy because it will be both immensely satisfying and terribly hard work. As today’s Epistle and Gospel lessons make clear, we will meet massive opposition in our work, both from the systems of this world and from the powers and principalities themselves, of whom Satan is the ringleader, and we dare not take that lightly.
When we understand that there is work for Christians to do right here and now in God’s broken and hurting world, we are ready to look at why the Ascension is important for us today. When Luke tells us that Jesus was lifted up in a cloud and taken to heaven, he is simply using language to tell us that Jesus has gone into God’s dimension or space, which is separate from our human or earthly dimension or space. Clouds in Scripture always indicate God’s Presence and we think immediately of God leading his people through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud and the cloud that enveloped Jesus and his disciples on the mount of Transfiguration.
What Luke and the other NT writers are therefore trying to tell us is that the Ascension points us to a bigger truth. Jesus had to ascend to the Father so that he could assume his rightful place as ruler of the universe because God’s space is the control room for our space. That’s what the NT writers mean when they say that Jesus has sat down at the right hand of the Father. They do not mean that Jesus has left us to our own devices by going away to hang out with some distant and uninvolved God. Rather, the NT writers are telling us that Jesus is now in charge and he’s actively and intimately involved with us. He’s assumed his rightful place and he has sent his Spirit to help us do the work he calls us to do.
When Jesus returns in great power and glory to establish God’s New Creation, the new heavens and earth, God’s dimension and our dimension will be fused into one and all things will be transformed into New Creation. Our mortal bodies will be raised and transformed, never again to die or be afflicted with all the nasties that can beset our mortal bodies, and we will get to live directly in God’s presence forever in the new heavens and the new earth. This is our Easter hope and this is what the Resurrection and Ascension point to.
In the interim between now and then, what the NT calls the “end times” or “the last days,” we have work to do here on earth. Because we know that God loves his creation and intends to fully redeem it (and us), we are called to help Jesus in his work of New Creation. We do that by denying ourselves, taking up our cross each day, and obeying Jesus’ call to us, both as individuals and collectively as his body, the Church. We cannot do that on our own, however, and that’s why we need the Spirit’s power and Presence living in us. Neither can we be agents of God’s New Creation if Jesus really isn’t in control of all things or has checked out on us. That’s why the Ascension is so important because it reminds us that Jesus, while currently out of our dimension and out of our sight, really is in control and really is providing us with much needed help, both through his prayers for us and in the person of his Spirit.
So why is there still so much sin and brokenness in this world if Jesus really is the sovereign ruler of the universe? Because God has not yet finished the task of redemption, a task that only he can complete. Until that time, God in Christ has chosen to exert his sovereign rule during these last times through his people. He is sending us out to be his advance guard, so to speak, and because we are mortal and finite our work will necessarily be painfully slow and incomplete.
We see this illustrated plainly in today’s lesson from Acts and in the ending of Matthew’s Gospel. Those who follow Christ are to baptize new believers and then teach them, with the Spirit’s help, to obey their Lord. This is not unlike how yeast works in dough. The more disciples of Christ there are, disciples who truly love the Lord and are obedient to his commands, the more he can bring his healing touch to bear on his hurting and broken world.
If we think about this for a minute, we cannot help but have our breath taken away. God intends to use his human creatures to be the agents of his healing and redemption. What an awesome responsibility and opportunity for us! Talk about the potential to find real meaning and purpose in your life. This surely is it! None of us can say why God has chosen to restore his broken creation in this way but all of us can be thankful that God thinks enough of his human creatures to give us the opportunity to be his agents of New Creation until he returns again in great power and glory to finish the work he started.
And as our Lord reminds us in today’s lesson, we do not have to do this work alone. He promises to be with us always–even to the end of the age–in and through his Spirit. It is by his Spirit that we become his Kingdom workers. This is not of our own doing because left to our own devices we are part of the problem rather than becoming part of the solution. But when we are empowered by the Spirit, the sky’s the limit in what we can do for our Lord. We can also be assured that he will help us overcome anything the powers and principalities can throw at us and to empower us to be his Kingdom workers, to bring his healing love, mercy, and grace to a broken and hurting world that desperately needs it.
This is the promise of the Ascension. This is worthy of our time, our reflection, and more importantly, our obedience with the help of the Spirit. Are you ready for this kind of action? You simply cannot be an armchair quarterback if you are. The very God of this universe has work for you to do and he loves and respects you enough to give you the opportunity to do your part in his redemptive plan for this tired and broken old world. What a grand opportunity!
What is it that Jesus is calling you to do? If you don’t know, take your cue from the disciples in today’s lesson and start praying about it, both privately and in the fellowship of other believers. Whatever it is Jesus is calling you to do, when you understand that he is calling you to be his Kingdom worker, and when say yes to God’s gracious invitation to you in Jesus, you will discover that you are really have and are living the Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.