Here is my sermon Ascension Sunday, with thanks to Fred Kane, the scholarship of Elizabeth Achtemeier, and Nancy Kollhoff for her work on the ascension and the UMC General Conference.
The scripture for this sermon was primarily Acts 1:1-11.
When I was young my home church spent a great deal of time teaching us about the Second coming of Christ and the rapture.
In fact, it was a rare service when this topic wasn’t at the center of worship.
From Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday Evening worship, Monday evening prayer meeting, Wednesday evening Bible study and Friday Night Youth service – I attended them all.
And when my dad became a preacher,
I also went with him to the Saturday evening worship service at his new mission church in a nearby town.
Seven services, each running about two hours each, every week,
and at almost every service we learned about how Jesus was going to come back to earth soon and rapture his disciples back into heaven with him.
I remember some nights after the services, my dad, Brother Pat, Brother Bob and I (and sometimes my brother though he was never as faithful or as devoted as me) would head over to McCubbin’s grocery store,
which had a row of soda machines in front of it.
Once there, we’d pop a dime into one of the machines (yeah, soda was just a dime), pick out our drink,
and sit on the sidewalk and talk more about the church, about Jesus,
and especially about his imminent return.
These sessions would sometimes last as long as the church services or even longer, if you can believe it.
And we would often find ourselves staring up in the sky,
wondering when the trumpet would sound,
Jesus would appear,
and we would be taken away to be with him in glory.
We’d pay special attention to the stars – debating whether one or the other of them was the New Jerusalem even now on its way to earth.
And when the moon was full and hanging low in the sky,
colored a deep red because of atmospheric conditions,
we’d recall how the Bible said the moon would turn to blood in the last days.
Comets, meteorites and other celestial phenomenon were a constant source of speculation for us,
and we were all in agreement that with the world being the way it was,
it wouldn’t be long before Jesus split the Eastern sky and called us home.
It’s a wonder we didn’t end up with a permanent crick in our necks from all the staring out into space we did back in the day.
Of course, we all know that Jesus did not come back,
and by now, at least according to our calculations back then,
Jesus is at least 30 years overdue,
and for some the delay has been almost 2000 years.
This long delay, however, has not stopped his disciples from stargazing.
There are plenty of people out there, who figuratively or literally, are getting cricks in their necks from all their looking up and staring out into space.
Waiting. Waiting for Jesus. Waiting for his return.
This has always been a temptation for Jesus’ followers.
In today’s reading from Acts we find eleven of the first disciples doing that very thing themselves.
I find Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage especially enlightening.
When they were together for the last time they asked,
“Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?
Is this the time?”
Jesus told them, “You don’t get to know the time.
Timing is the Father’s business.
What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.
And when the Holy Spirit comes on you,
you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”
And these were his last words.
As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud.
They stood there, staring into the empty sky.
Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes!
They said, “You Galileans!—
why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?
This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.”
Now there are a couple of points to be made about these verses.
The first is this:
While Jesus promises his return,
he clearly tells his disciples that it is none of their business to concern themselves about when this will take place.
To stand around gazing up in the heavens waiting for him to come back is not the task to which Jesus’ followers are called.
You have no doubt heard the saying that some Christians are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good?
Well that could characterize many of Christ’s disciples,
not the least of which were the good folks I knew when I was younger.
The story is told of a pastor who one day visited an elderly church member.
While there, he decided to check on her salvation,
so he asked here,
“Miss Susie, do you believe in the hereafter?”
Her answer? “Well preacher,” she said, “I think about it all the time.
I go to the kitchen and think to myself, ‘Now, what am I here after?’”
Our calling and mission as Christians is not set back and wait for and think about the hereafter,
but to consider, in the words of Miss Susie, what we are here after.
What is it that we are called to do in this time between Christ’s first and second advent?
And that is the second point I hope to make.
To answer this, I turn to the work of noted biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier, who spends a little time talking about the differences between the various accounts of Jesus’ ascension.
Now as you probably know,
the book of Acts is the second volume of Luke’s writing.
In his Gospel, he tells us about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection,
and in Acts he tells how the early church grew by the Holy Spirit’s power.
To begin his second volume, however,
Luke repeats some of the things he has said at the end of his Gospel.
Once again, he commands the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive God’s “power” in the form of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4).
Once again the apostles are told that they are to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Lk. 24:48; Acts 1:8).
Once again Christ’s resurrection appearances are recounted..
And once again, Luke tells us that the risen Christ ascends into heaven is stated (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:10).
It’s as if he wants to doubly impress all of these facts on our minds.
But then Luke includes some new content in the text for this morning.
First. he tells about the apostles asking that question of Jesus before the Lord ascends into heaven:
“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
You see, Israel’s expectation for hundreds of years has been that God would finally come to establish his kingdom on earth,
and when he did,
all the enemies of God would be done away and the faithful in Israel would be exalted as leaders in God’s Kingdom.
So in today’s reading, the disciples want to know when God would bring human history to an end and usher in his rule over all the earth.
In the same way, Acts 1:10 tells of the appearance of the two men in white, who are angels, to the apostles, after Jesus has ascended.
“Men of Galilee,” the angels ask the disciples, “why do you stand looking into heaven?” (v. 11).
Then the angels give the promise of Christ’s second coming.
“This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven,
will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In adding these additions to his story,
it is as if Luke knows we are going to have some questions,
and so he gives us the answers to them be
fore we even have a chance to ask.
After all, there are many people, like the good church members from my past,
who spend a lot of time, standing around,
trying to figure out the date of the Lord’s second coming.
There have been countless times in human history when some so-called prophet has decided that such and such a date will mark the time when the final cataclysm takes place and Jesus will come again.
It still happens from time to time,
and maybe you have even read or heard about accounts of such people.
They sell all their goods and go out and stand on a hill top,
gazing into heaven, looking for Christ’s appearance.
Indeed, when the year 2000 drew near, many people believed that would mark God’s final battle with his enemies, the end of human history,
and the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
But to such speculation, the risen Christ replies,
“It is not for you to know the times and the seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (v. 7).
On fact, Jesus said that repeatedly in the Gospel stories.
“Of that day or that hour no one knows,” Jesus taught, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32 and parallels).
Jesus himself did not know the time, and if people claim that they do,
they are saying that they know more than our Lord knows.
But that’s not the only question we have, however.
We also wonder what it means when Luke says Jesus ascended into heaven.
Is heaven up in the sky somewhere?
Such an idea doesn’t fit our scientific age.
How could Christ ascend to the Father?
Where is the Father?
Indeed, was Jesus really raised from the dead?
Did the apostles actually see him, or was that just some kind of psychological experience that they had after they mourned his death?
And so, as our questions go on and on,.
we too can become like those apostles,
standing and gazing up into heaven and wondering what it all means.
And the angels’ question in our text becomes a question addressed to us. “Why are you standing around, gazing into heaven, wondering, doubting, when there is a job to do?”
The good news, Luke tells us, is very clear,
Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father.
And so he is no longer limited by geography, by flesh, by time, and by space. Now he enjoys a universal rule over all people from the right hand of God.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him,
and now he has authority to rule over your sins and to forgive them and to do away with them.
Now he has the power to defeat the forces of evil and death in your life and to give you eternal life.
Now he has the love to send his Spirit into your hearts and to transform you and to make you a new person from the inside out.
Now he can give you the fruits of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness, gentleness and self-control
so that you have true life and have it abundantly.
The main point of our text, therefore, is that we are witnesses of these things.
We have not been called into the Christian faith as disciples of our Lord to stand around and to engage in idle speculation.
Rather, we have been called to tell about our new life in Christ to all people,
and in fact, to the ends of the earth.
We are called to go into all the world and to make disciples,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded us.
We are called by the way we live our lives and by the way we speak to testify in our homes and in our society and in our world that Jesus Christ is ascended to the Father and now reigns as Lord over all.
And we are called to witness to what Jesus has done in us and would do in every man, woman and child.
As one UMC colleague, Nancy Kollhoff, reminded me the other day,
for the past 10 days, the General Conference of the UMC has been meeting.
One of the many actions of General Conference was to change the liturgy we use when someone joins the church.
We used to say that we would faithfully participate “in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”
The General Conference voted to add “witness” to the liturgy to highlight the mission and responsibility of every church member.
So in the future, people who join a United Methodist Church will promise to be faithful in their “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness,”
and the congregation will share in that covenant with them.
When we’re faithful in that promise,
we will be carrying out the primary task that Jesus left us with.
This change recognizes that witnessing is something we’re all responsible for doing,
and this new liturgy now ties the promises we make upon coming into the United Methodist Church with the mission of the United Methodist Church,
which is to make disciples for Jesus Christ (for the transformation of the world)..
That’s really what we are called to do as the church,
and whet we are “here after” as followers of Christ.
There is a story told of a second-century angel who was sleeping and hadn’t noticed that Jesus had gone down to earth.
After his ascension the angel said to Jesus, “Where have you been?”
Jesus said, “I’ve been down on earth.”
The angel asked, “How’d it go?”
Jesus said, “They crucified me.”
“You must have had quite an impact to elicit such a response.”
“I had 11 followers.”
The angel asked, “So your work, it was a failure?”
Jesus said, “I’m not sure. I left it in their hands.”
And so he has.
Jesus was counting on his few friends—with the help of the Holy Spirit—to change the world.
According to noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor,
“No one standing around watching [the disciples] that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead…
With nothing but a promise and a prayer they consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again,
beginning with them.
The followers became leaders,
the listeners became preachers,
the converts became missionaries,
the healed became healers.
They stopped looking up toward heaven,
looked at each other
instead and got on with the business of being the church.
And once they did that, surprising things began to happen.
They began to say things that sounded like him,
and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before. They became brave and capable and wise.
Whenever two or three of them got together it was always as if there were someone else in the room with them whom they could not see—
the strong abiding presence of the absent One,
as available to them as bread and [cup],
as familiar to them as each other’s faces.”
So how about us?
The history of the church has shown that a faithful few,
following Jesus and witnessing to the Gospel, can change the world.
Today we can continue the world-changing work of the church,
if we dare.
If we dare to get our heads out of the clouds,
plant our feet firmly on the ground,
and get on with our job as witnesses to Christ and what he has done and what he can do.