Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11
This morning’s lectionary readings give us the very end of the gospel of Luke and the very beginning of the book of Acts. Biblical scholars believe that these two books of the New Testament were written by the same author sometime during the last third of the first century, probably between 80 and 90 A.D. They consider Luke and Acts to be companion volumes and sometimes refer to them together as “Luke-Acts.” Neither book says anything explicit about the author, but both books are written in the same style and are addressed to the same person, someone named “Theophilus,” which means “lover of God.” It could be that these two books were both written to an individual by that name. Or it could be that the two books were intended for anyone and everyone who considers himself or herself to be a lover of God. In either case, whether intended or unintended by the author, we now have the privilege, as lovers of God ourselves, of reading these two books centuries after they were first written.
As we move from the end of Luke to the beginning of Acts, we are given two accounts of how the resurrected Jesus, after appearing to his disciples, departed from them –how he was “carried up into heaven.” The book of Acts says that “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” This is known as the ascension, and, like the resurrection, it is one of the great mysteries of the Christian tradition. Did it really happen that way? Who can say? It is a mystery of the Christian faith.
Tradition says that 40 days after Easter the Church celebrates Ascension. The Sunday following the 40th day after Easter marks the day Christians traditionally commemorate the Ascension of Christ, also referred to as the Ascension of Our Lord. (Ascension Day itself always falls on a Thursday). Sadly, overlooked by some churches, the Ascension of our Lord is of paramount importance in the Christian faith because it signals the completion of God’s saving work in Christ. The gathered witnesses saw Jesus bodily ascend into heaven, showing that He is risen. We proclaim plainly: Jesus is the Christ. He has died, He has risen, He will come again. In Him, we have life.
This past Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension Day? What comes to mind when you think of Ascension Day? Ask anyone about the other great Christian festivals and the answers will be quick. Christmas? There are lights, Christmas trees, parties, the birth of a baby, and family gatherings. Easter? Resurrection, new life, Easter lilies, painted eggs, and lots of chocolate. Ascension Day? How many Ascension Day gifts have you received? Have you ever given someone an Ascension Day card? How many times have you wished others, “Happy Ascension Day”?!Ascension Day? If we are honest, it is a weird story. I mean, sure, Jesus performs miracles throughout the Gospels, but they’re mostly functional: some water into wine to keep the wedding feast going; multiplying loaves and fishes to feed the crowd; healing people’s bodies and spirits. On Ascension Day, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and, after lifting his hands in benediction, he just “took off”—not like an airplane, but as if he were in an invisible elevator. He just started to go up, up, up, up—straight up, until he disappeared. There were the disciples, their necks cranked back as far as they would go, mouths wide open, faces shielded from the sun by the cloud that took their Lord away. Ascension Day is known in German as Himmelfarb. It literally means heaven journey. Jesus leaving the earth to go up into heaven. Jesus departing. Is this what Ascension Day means? Jesus left his disciples, left us, left this dark, war-torn, confusing world for the warm, safe confines of heaven where there is no weeping, tears, pain or hurt? Let us look at how the scholars describe this holy event.
The story of the ascension is compared to “those of the creation of the world, the incarnation of Jesus, or his resurrection, in which events that bring together the transcendent reality of God and the physical world; therefore, it cannot be described fully in terms and categories; they are expressed in a symbolic, pictorial manner. ”How could they explain the unexplainable? How could they represent the resurrected Jesus returning to God?
Well, in the first century, people believed in a three-tiered universe with the earth in the center, heaven above, and the underworld below. Heaven was the home of God and celestial beings – angels. So, given their first-century worldview, Jesus returning to God meant his rising up into the sky to heaven. Of course, today we no longer think of the universe in the same way. We know it to be infinite and expanding. We know it to be filled with billions of galaxies each with billions of stars. And we believe that God is behind it all. Furthermore, I believe Jesus’ early disciples experienced his resurrection initially in profound and immediate ways.
Shortly thereafter, their experience of the resurrected Jesus changed. No longer did they refer to Jesus appearing before them. Reasonably, they wrote about Christ living within them, about their living in Christ, about their community of believers being the body of Christ. At some point, the resurrected Jesus left his disciples and returned to God. That event is depicted as the Ascension.
Ascension Day, which is always 40 days after Easter, offers a point of transition between Easter and Pentecost. It marks the end of Jesus’ post-resurrection manifestations and the prelude to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Instead, he would be with them spiritually – omnipresent and eternal, everywhere and always — through the power of the Holy Spirit. “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” Jesus told them. This was good news. How else would the disciples be able to go on without Jesus with them to lead them? How would his movement continue? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” Jesus said to them, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The gift of the Holy Spirit would give them the power to carry on without Jesus, to be his witnesses throughout all the world; and so, they were! Jesus’ early disciples were witnesses. They gave testimony about what they had seen and heard. They traveled far and wide to spread the good news of Jesus, the Christ. They risked their reputations. They risked their fortunes. They risked their very lives to tell the story of Jesus and his love for all people. Some of them were imprisoned. Some of them were killed. But it is thanks to the testimony of those early disciples that we know who Jesus was and who Jesus is. And it is thanks to the early church that we have a New Testament, a collection of their testimonies about Jesus’ life and teachings and their experience of him.
We, too, are called to be witnesses, to tell the story of Jesus and his love. There’s a saying attributed to the 13th-century Christian mystic, Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” We say much more with our actions than with our words. As Christians, we testify to Jesus and his love in how we live our lives. May we do so with integrity, in word and deed, in truth and love, so that others will know who Jesus is and will want to follow him, too, as we do. May it be so.
Before I say Amen, I would like to .remember the holiday for our fallen veterans and give thanks to our military keeping watch over us, as does our Lord, letting them know the sacrifice they presently occupy.
A Prayer for Our Veterans
Oh God, Our Heavenly Father,
You have blessed us with
Brave men and women
Who are willing to defend our freedom.
Surround them each day.
Let Your healing hand be upon those
Who suffer wounds and injuries.
May those who have made the
Ultimate sacrifice rest forever in
Your Holy Presence.
Comfort the families who mourn
And are to remember
The precious lives of their loved ones.
Help us to honor and support them.
Let us ever be mindful of each sacrifice made
on behalf of the American people by our
sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers.
Fathers and friends.