Grace Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
It’s right there, in the Apostles’ Creed, the one we use most Sundays for the Affirmation of Faith. The same line is also found in the Nicene Creed, the one the church typically uses when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. It’s a pretty basic statement, made without much elaboration or development. It goes like this:
“He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father…”
That event is the subject for today. Actually, if you want to be precise about it, it is the subject for Thursday, which (ten days before Pentecost, or forty days after Easter) is marked as the day for observance of the Ascension of the Lord. As most Protestant churches have no service planned for Thursday proper, some of them will observe the Ascension next Sunday, while many will let it pass unobserved. As New Testament scholar Brian Peterson observes, “we really don’t like goodbyes, and we don’t quite know how to celebrate this one.” Forgive me for jumping the gun and observing the event a week early.
For an event that shows up in creedal statements and gets its own separate day on the liturgical calendar, it’s curious that only one biblical author actually describes the event itself. As we discovered on Easter Sunday, the gospel of Mark offers no accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances at all, and while the gospels of Matthew and John both cover at least some of Jesus’s time on earth after the resurrection, somehow neither of those authors saw fit to describe the event in which Jesus departed from earth to be with God the Father.
On the other hand, the one author who did cover the event apparently felt that it was so important that he actually recorded it twice. Both at the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, this author includes an account of the ascension. It’s not completely unlike an author writing a sequel to a novel in which he or she finds a way to recapitulate events from the first book, or a television show picking up where its last episode left off with a few scenes from that episode with the foreboding introduction, “Last time, on…”. Of course we’ve just heard both accounts.
It seems that in Luke’s second account of the ascension, found in Acts 1, the author felt the need to fill in a few more details than had found their way into the first. For example, in Luke 24, the author makes no mention of the forty days Jesus spent appearing with and among the disciples that are mentioned in Acts 1:3. There is a bit more dialogue between Jesus and the disciples as well, and Jesus leaves the disciples with a much more direct and clear commission in verse 8, not unlike the “Great Commission” found in the last two verses of the gospel of Matthew. Perhaps most notable is the appearance, after Jesus has ascended and been caught up in a cloud, is the appearance of two men, dressed in white robes, chastising the disciples for staring up into the sky and leaving them with a promise that Jesus would return in they way they had just seen them leave.
As our reading from Acts describes the event, there are important things happening here that we could wish our co-religionists would heed. While the disciples were promised that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” they were also told that they had to wait for it. Their commission wasn’t to charge off into action immediately; they were to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father.”
Waiting, to put it precisely, stinks.
It isn’t in our nature to be patient. We are conditioned, by our culture or our own personalities or by need, to charge off into action. No time to wait; we have to take action now, before it’s “too late.” Churches, maybe even churches like ours, face this temptation routinely in a time in which there is no branch of the church that is not seeing its numbers in decline. We’ve got to do something. We think we can’t wait. And the church rushes off and does something rash or even destructive.
Our time, as we are reminded in this story, is not God’s time. Even Jesus himself says, for example, that “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Aside from being a rebuke to those wannabe preachers who appear at regular intervals claiming to have deciphered the exact time and date when the “rapture” will happen or when Jesus will return, this is a rebuke to us as well, when we as the church charge off without the time for discernment or listening for the moving of the Spirit.
I get it; that’s hard to do, not just because waiting is hard, but because we probably feel like we don’t even understand what we’re listening for. If you had asked the disciples what it would be like to be “baptized by the Holy Spirit” as they stood there watching Jesus lifted away from them, I doubt any of them would have come up with the kind of event that happened a few days later, the day we call Pentecost. We don’t know what it means to listen for the Holy Spirit, and we don’t know where that will lead us. When what is safe and familiar has been pulled away from us, and we don’t know what’s next, waiting, discerning, and being patient is the hardest thing. We are, you might say, in the “in between time,” and no human being can usually exist there comfortably. Still, the church, or a church, or even our church is still called to listen, to discern, and even to wait.
There are other key points to glean from this story. It is this story of ascension, the story of God the Son going to God the Father, which ultimately changes the way we understand God. Another scholar, Mark Travnik, describes the change this way:
The ascension of Jesus into heaven alters our picture of God. We can no longer define God in a way that leaves God completely detached from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, reveals a God who is vulnerable and even approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we are not addressing a deity aloof and unfamiliar with our struggles. God knows our trials intimately well and not only comforts us by identifying with our pain but also assures us that affliction will not have the final word because it is the risen and ascended Christ who intercedes for us and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:34).
The presence of Jesus at the right hand of God means that God is not a distant, unfeeling God; because Jesus, who has lived among us and with us and knows our weaknesses and our sorrows, God the Father knows our weaknesses and our sorrows.
We are also reminded that even as we wait in the “in between” time, we do have a charge. Verse 8 puts it in terms that are unambiguous; we will be witness to Christ, in every reach of the earth – “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” While the urge to do something is strong with us, it’s also true that such an expansive and formidable commission as this can stop us in our tracks a bit. We have enough trouble conceiving of being a witness to Alachua County. How can we possibly be a witness to “the ends of the earth”? Look at us. We are, by any official metric you can find, a small church. We’re not particularly rich. And for many of us, getting around ain’t what it used to be.
Obviously we don’t go it alone. We are one church, part of the church, the body of Christ. The church, the whole church, answers the commission. We are all in it together. We work as one. Even so, it’s a daunting commission. Where do we start? Where do we fit into this commission? What is our place? See, this is why patience and discernment is important. We have a role to play, as a church within the church, and our task, in this “in between” time, is to discern where God is leading us to be witnesses, to find whatever “end of the earth” is in need of the ministry we are prepared to offer.
We also need to remember from this story that the absence of Jesus from the earth physically does not equate to the absence of Jesus from human life. Because God the Son goes to God the Father, Jesus is able to send God the Holy Spirit to be with us and among us, to be our comforter, our Paraclete. All of this gets heavily Trinitarian, which is a subject we will get to explore in a few weeks, but for now let us take note that Jesus’s physical departure may be discomfiting to the disciples, but it is our preservation; it is the reason we can claim the presence of God among us. Pentecost is coming, and our God will be among us.
And this continues to be our comfort even today. Because Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God the Father, the Holy Spirit continues to be among us and minister to us even now. We continue to encounter the risen Christ in worship, in preaching, in sacraments; through ministering to the world around us; and in the fellowship and support of one another. Because Jesus has ascended to God the Father, the ministry of Jesus continues. “All that Jesus began to do and preach” – a frankly more accurate translation of verse 1 – continues because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit among us.
On this day, however, we are “in between.” We are waiting. We are listening. We are seeking to hear, to understand, to know, and to be prepared for whatever unpredictable and unknowable thing the Holy Spirit is going to do among us.
For patience and trust in the “in between,” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH '90): "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" (462), "You, Living Christ, Our Eyes Behold" (156), "We All Are One In Mission" (435)