Be My Witnesses – Sermon on Acts 1:1-11 for Ascension C

May 13, 2018 (Mother’s Day)

It’s time to go back to the beginning. Sometimes, we need a little refresher course in why we do what we do, who we are, and what our mission in life truly is. It’s easy to get off track. It’s easy to get lost in the details of day-to-day activities, and forget what our purpose was for doing those things in the first place.

The gospel writers knew this. As the church was forming and reforming in those early years, it was important to stay focused on the gospel, the Good News. It was important to know what to believe, and even more important to remember who to believe. The best way to keep things straight was to write down everything, from the beginning.John’s gospel even starts with those very words, straight out of Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning…” Luke writes, “Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account … .” (Luke 1:3)

During this season of Eastertide, we have explored some of Luke’s second volume of his story, the book of Acts. Some like to call this book “Second Luke.” Others call it “The Acts of the Apostles.” But if Luke’s gospel is an account of the things Jesus did and taught, what we’ve read these past few weeks might indicate that a better name for this second volume would be, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”[1]  So let’s go back to the beginning of Acts…

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They 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 1:1-11)

Every year, we hear the same exact readings on Ascension Sunday. Every year, we ponder the two versions of this story that Luke writes – one at the end of his gospel, and one at the beginning of Acts. It’s a little like Christmas Eve, when we always read Luke’s familiar story of Christ’s birth. Each time we hear these familiar words, we are given another opportunity to enter into the mystery of Christ.

Luke begins by addressing someone he calls “Theophilus” or “lover of God”. This may have been a patron, but it could also be any lover of God reading these words. It could be you and me.

The introduction to Acts reads a little bit like the opening scenes of a television show that had “to be continued…” on the screen at the end of the last episode. We can almost hear the narrator’s voice saying, “Previously, on ….” If you missed the previous episode, or forgot what you read earlier, Luke gives us a concise synopsis of post-resurrection events to bring us up to speed.

In his gospel account, those events are squeezed into a single day: The women find two men dressed in white standing at the empty tomb early in the morning, but when they tell the other disciples that the Lord is risen, those disciples don’t believe them. Then Jesus appears to a couple of discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, and after he reveals himself to them while breaking bread, he disappears, and they hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others. While they are all together, Jesus appears to all of them, and eats a piece of fish to prove he isn’t a ghost. Then he takes them out to Bethany, commissions them, and disappears in a cloud.

It all happens so fast.

But here in Acts, Luke tells us that Jesus remains with his disciples for forty days, and that number “forty” should ring a bell for us. Luke adds this detail intentionally to make a theological point: the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. It rained 40 days and nights on Noah’s ark. Jesus fasted for 40 days to prepare for Satan’s temptations.

Forty indicates a season of preparation. It prepared the nation of Israel to depend completely on God as they entered the Promised Land. It prepared Noah and his family to start over from scratch after surviving the great Flood. And now Jesus spends 40 days preparing his disciples for the time when they will no longer see him, but must carry out his mission.

And what is that mission? “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.” (v 8) This is the central core of the passage. The focus of these first eleven verses is not on the disappearing soles of Jesus’ feet. It’s on what he says right before those feet leave the ground.

“You will be my witnesses.” Not, “would you mind?” or “I’d like it very much if you could spare the time” but “You. Will. Be. My. Witnesses.” Period.

And then he’s gone. Just as Elijah was lifted up while Elisha watched him disappear in a cloud, just as Moses entered the cloud to talk face-to-face with God, the cloud that carries Jesus up is both a sign of God’s presence, and a veil to hide that presence from those who are looking intently into the heavens.

And then, just as two men dressed in white were suddenly standing next to the women at the empty tomb, asking “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” we have two men dressed in white standing next to these disciples, asking “Why are you gawping at the sky? He will come back the same way he went.” In other words, get out there and be witnesses to what you have seen for yourselves.

And it’s right here, in the middle of this paradox, that we can get stuck. I mean, if Jesus is coming again the same way he went, shouldn’t we be looking up? Shouldn’t we be constantly scanning the skies for just the right cloud formation with a toe peeking through?

The problem with this kind of thinking, this wishing for Jesus to come back so we won’t have to deal with the pain and sorrow and worry and mess down here on earth, is that being with Jesus doesn’t mean “being someplace other than where we are.”[2]

Timothy Tennent is president of Asbury Seminary, and he says, “Jesus did not just ascend from here to there. Because he ascended into the Heavens, he ascended from here to everywhere.”[3] Because he went to be with the Father, he went to be where the Father is, and God is everywhere. Which means that Jesus is right here, right now.

Jesus is every place he sent his disciples to be witnesses: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth … and that means right here, right now. It’s all part of that great theological paradox that has the least fancy name of all fancy theological terms: the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom has already been established through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it has not yet come into fullness.
It is not yet complete.

So what is God waiting for? God is waiting for us. At the close of his second letter, Peter – one of those disciples gazing up into the sky – writes, “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 )

Omar Al-Rikabi explains,
“God is not being patient with them; he’s being patient with us.
“Peter’s letter is written to believers. Why would God need to be patient for our sake if we already believe? Just come on and get us out of here, Lord!
“God is being patient with us because we’re the ones who are supposed to share the good news with those who would otherwise be destroyed. God is patience (sic) for the sake of the lost, but he is patient with us because we’re the ones who are supposed to be calling them to repentance.” [4]

We are the ones who are called to be Christ’s witnesses. We are the ones who are supposed to be following in Christ’s way, doing what he did and teaching what he taught when he walked this earth. So what happens when we get our heads out of the clouds and start looking for the footprints Jesus has left behind for us to follow here and now? Let’s look at what the disciples did, reading a couple of verses beyond today’s passage:

12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. In a few short days, the power of the Holy Spirit would overtake them all, and they would be propelled out into the world to bear witness that Jesus was indeed the Christ. To get ready for that work, they devoted themselves to prayer, just as they had seen Jesus do. He had given them a job. They were to be his witnesses. He has given us the same job. We are all Christ has to continue the work he started.

The sixteenth century mystic Teresa of Avila is credited with this prayer:
“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.”[5]

It’s time to stop staring into the clouds. It’s time to become apostles (sent ones) who are witnesses to God’s grace. Christ is here and now, calling us to be witnesses to his here-ness and now-ness. But you can only be a witness to what you have seen and heard and experienced for yourself. So, let me ask you, have you given your life to Christ?

Maybe you were baptized as a young child, maybe you grew up in the church. You were confirmed in the faith as a teenager, and you’ve been active in the church your whole life.
But have you surrendered your life to Christ?

Maybe you believe in Jesus. You know he’s the Son of God who died to save you from your sins, and you believe he rose from death and now reigns with God in Heaven, and he will come again. You get all that. But…

But heaven seems far away, and Christ’s coming in glory seems a long time from now to you. These things you believe in your head don’t have much impact on your life in the here and now.

So let me ask you again: Have you given your life to Christ? Is your heart fully surrendered to God’s will for you? Are you expectantly, eagerly waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow into you and fill you with power from on High?

Because Pentecost is only a few days from right here, right now.
And we are the only witnesses Christ has in this world,
right here,
right now.

[1] Noel Leo Erskine, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 502.
[2] Barbara Lundblad, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 505.
[3] J.D. Walt, https://www.seedbed.com/right-here-right-now/
[4] Omar Al-Rikabi, https://www.seedbed.com/just-a-little-patience/
[5] Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 504.

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