Artwork from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do The Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Dusty Springfield, and Marvin Gaye (with the Supremes singing back-up vocals) all have in common? At some point over the span of a year, they all recorded “Can I Get A Witness?” – a gospel-style hit that got its start in 1963. While the song didn’t have remarkable lyrics, and the melody only consists of about three notes, it put Marvin Gaye on the Billboard 100 top songs list. The hook that inspired such popularity was the refrain that sounded like a revival preacher’s chant, repeated over and over: “Can I get a witness?” In other words, can anybody out there affirm that I’m telling the truth? Are you with me here? Can I get an Amen? Will you say it with me, over and over? Can I get a witness?
As Jesus talked with his followers in the days after the resurrection, he found himself repeating the same words over and over for them, too. As we heard a moment ago, in the story from Acts, they still didn’t fully understand how his reign was supposed to work. “Okay, Lord, we get it that you had to die, and be raised from the dead to prove that even death has no power greater than yours. We get it that you came to offer forgiveness of sins. That’s great. But now that you’ve done all that, isn’t it about time for you to overthrow the corrupt Roman oppressors? Can we get on with the revolt, Lord? Isn’t it time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples were still trying to make Jesus into a military hero. They still didn’t understand that Jesus had come to save the whole world. Time was growing short. Jesus knew he would not be with them much longer. But the only way to help them see the truth was to tell them again and again, over and over. So, just as he had done before, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus started at the beginning.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44)
Last week, as we witnessed our confirmands declaring their faith, and as we welcomed them into the full life of the church, we recited the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed is organized around God’s identity as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the central part of that creed focuses on the work of Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception through his ascension and heavenly reign. As often as we say those words, I wonder if we really pay attention to the mystery they describe. I wonder if we realize how each element of the life of Jesus affirms both his divine and human natures, how each phrase we repeat when we say, “I believe” connects the earthly life of Jesus to everything that had come before, and everything that would follow. That narrow band of time when Jesus walked on earth was the turning point of salvation history, and this final moment Jesus shares with his disciples falls into a similar pattern: a narrow band between what was, and what will be.
First, Jesus repeats what he has been telling them – and us – all along: since the beginning of creation, God’s plan has been clear. Jesus is the culmination of the whole story up to now. Every bit of his life and ministry is the answer to Old Testament questions, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. It all comes down to this: Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
Like the disciples, we might say, “Yes, Lord. So what now? Now that you have topped every miracle in the history of God’s people, now that you have even defeated death itself, what are you going to do now? Are you finally going to restore the kingdom?”
But Jesus lifts up his hands as Moses did when he blessed Joshua as the one who would lead God’s people into the promised land. He lifts up his hands in blessing, as Elijah did when his successor, Elisha, asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit. Jesus lifts up his hands, with the marks of the nails still showing, and he blesses his followers. Then he says, in effect, “It’s up to you. You are going to be my witnesses.” And he’s gone.
I don’t know about you, but if I had been standing there, looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds, my gut reaction would probably have been something like, “Wait a minute! What?! How can we possibly do that?” Just like Thomas in last week’s reading, when he blurted out, “We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?” I would be dumbfounded. How could Jesus expect so much of me, when I am so clueless?
But that isn’t what the disciples did.
Instead, “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (vv 52-53).
Every time I read this passage, I wonder about the transformation that happened to the disciples between Easter morning and the ascension. They have become completely different people. This is even more amazing when you realize that in this version of the ascension, Luke still has us gathered with the disciples on Easter night, not 40 days later, as we find in the Acts version of the story (Acts 1:3). We have scarcely made it back to the room where the disciples have gathered, we have only just heard Cleopas and his friend, who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We have barely just seen Jesus reappear in our midst and ask for a piece of fish to prove he isn’t a ghost.
Now I know this version of the story doesn’t agree with the other gospels, or even Luke’s own later writing, and scholars can’t agree on why Luke might have collapsed all the events between the resurrection and the ascension into less than 24 hours. To me, it isn’t really the timeframe that matters. It’s what happens to the disciples, those followers of Jesus who were scared out of their wits on Easter morning, and here we find them worshiping Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually blessing God in the temple. They had already lost Jesus once, on the cross. And their sorrow at his death is completely understandable. But now, when they lose him a second time, they rejoice! What happened to them in the meantime?
They became witnesses.
They knew they had seen God.
When Luke says they worshipped Jesus as he ascended, he doesn’t use that word lightly. In fact, this is the only time in Luke’s entire gospel when the disciples worship Jesus. These were good Jewish kids, remember. They knew that first commandment backwards and forwards. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7) They knew that only God deserved their worship, their praise, their adoration. So when Luke says, “they worshipped Jesus” he’s really saying, “they finally knew Jesus was God.”
This new understanding that Jesus is God required a completely new understanding of who the disciples had become. Not only did the disciples become aware that God was redeeming all of Creation through Jesus, they also realized they had a role to play in that redemptive work. “You are going to be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. You are going to show the world what you now know to be true.
“But how can we possibly do that?” you may be wondering. Well, notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Go do witnessing.” He said, “You will be my witnesses.”
God is not asking you to add more things to your To Do list. God is asking you to make a new To Be list. Not that you need more items to check off, but that each item on your To Be list makes you more like Jesus.
So, instead of going to more Bible studies or reading more chapters and verses each day, Christ calls us to be more hungry for the Word of God.
Instead of signing up for more projects, participating in more programs, and doing more work, Christ calls us to be more aware of the needs we see around us.
Instead of attending more prayer circles or reading more devotional books, Christ calls us to be more present with God, and more attentive to God’s still, small voice throughout the activities and routines of our day.
Instead of doing more work for the church, serving on more committees, teaching more classes, organizing more events, Christ invites us to be more of who God created us to be.
Instead of doing more for Christ, we are to be more like Christ.
And that is our witness.
But we cannot be witnesses on our own. In fact, we can’t be Christ’s witnesses under our own power at all. If we depended on our own strength and will, we would only be witnessing to ourselves, not Christ.
Jesus told his followers they would be “clothed with power from on high.” In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate that initial baptism in the Holy Spirit that came like a mighty rushing wind on Pentecost. The same power that Luke ascribes to God, Jesus, and the Spirit throughout his Gospel becomes evident in the lives of the apostles in Luke’s second book, Acts. Remember last week that I told you, “becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work.”
This is the central theme of Ascension: Jesus has completed his work on earth. Now it’s our turn. He leaves, but not without saying a proper Goodbye. He leaves, but not without reassuring us that this is not the end, but the beginning. Just as our confirmands last week affirmed that they are at the beginning of a life of faith and faithfulness, so the church is at the beginning of a new age of ministry.
Christ calls us to live into our faith, willing to share good news, certainly, but aware that our very lives are the witness we bear. How we live shows Jesus to others. We have not been given this grace to keep it locked up inside this building, despite the sign on the front door that says, “do not open this door.” Despite the stained glass windows that prevent us from seeing out into our community unless we go outside, we are called to be witnesses. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are witnesses to what we now know: that Jesus is the Son of God, who calls us to repentance and forgives our sins.
So the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God. Isn’t than an interesting way to put it, “blessing” God? Jesus had blessed them as he left their sight. Now they were blessing God in the temple, as they waited to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. That narrow band of time, the bridge between what was and what will be, has come to completion. What lies ahead is the Kingdom of God, in which we all participate, to which we all belong. As our lives bear witness to this good news, we are called to receive Christ’s blessing, to accept the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, changing us as it did those first disciples. And we are called to worship Jesus, the only Son of the Living God.
Can I get a witness?