Is This the Time?
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
May 21, 2023
Main Idea: Jesus calls us to be witnesses.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today marks the last Sunday in the season of Easter and a special festival day known as Ascension Sunday. The story of the Ascension either gets our minds whirring or causes us to tune out. The idea of Jesus floating around in a cloud like Peter Pan or hovering just outside of our perception causes some discomfort for those with a scientific bent. But this festival day, which was actually on Thursday, forty days after Easter, holds an important place in the church year. While this celebration doesn’t get the attention that Christmas, Easter, or even Pentecost receive, it is still a foundational story on which rests much of our understanding of Jesus and God and the church. The story of the Ascension entails saying good-byes and looking to the future. It is an opportunity to participate in the work of Christ. Jesus directs the apostles and us to be his witnesses. This morning we will explore what witnessing Jesus’ Ascension means to us.
Before we get to the text I want to differentiate between being a spectator and being a witness. Spectators watch a spectacle; like watching TV or a sporting event. Spectators watch but they do not participate. They might speculate, trying to figure out what will happen next, but they cannot alter or contribute to what is happening. Fans at a baseball game are not allowed to interfere with play on the field. Spectators are passive.
Witnesses participate in what they see. They claim the experience for themselves. They take responsibility for their role in whatever is happening. Witnesses are active. The Ascension is a dramatic spectacle but Jesus calls us not to be spectators. Jesus calls us to be witnesses to the power of God’s love.
Our text today comes from the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles which was written by the Gospel writer, Luke. The Ascension story is the hinge that holds the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles together. Luke actually tells the ascension story twice, ending the gospel with a similar account. Notice that in Acts, Luke has changed “Disciples”, meaning students, to “Apostles” which means those “sent out”. (gotquestions.org), in other words, witnesses. Luke begins with a short summary of the events which followed Easter and reports that Jesus taught for 40 days about the kingdom of God. Jesus tells the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for their baptism with the Holy Spirit.
So the apostles wait. And as they wait, they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6) “We have seen and believed some amazing stuff! We are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy that you have returned to us. So now how about you do what you have been talking about! Now you can overthrow Rome and liberate all of us who have struggled under Roman oppression. It will be easy! Why wait any longer? Let’s go!”
Even after all that has occurred, the apostles still do not understand what Jesus is all about. They are still looking for a political leader who will restore their nation. One person to fix everything. But the kingdom of Israel is not the kingdom Jesus is talking about. His plan includes the whole world. Jesus tells them “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” You are asking the wrong question. “But 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.7-8) The speculation about timing is a waste of time and an avoidance of real participation. The timeline is God’s. The apostles will be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and will be sent out to the whole known world, sharing the Gospel in places beyond their imagining.
But first, before they set out, Jesus is lifted up and a cloud takes him out of their sight. In this act, he continues to teach them about God. I imagine him saying as he leaves, “See me? See God! Know me? Know God! Hear me? Hear God!” Like a tracing overlay, Jesus’ life and works are seen as the very heart of God. “See? Watch! I and God are one and the same.”
The text doesn’t tell us so, but surely the apostles are stunned and heartbroken to see Jesus leave them again. They stand, as spectators, gazing at the spot where they had last seen him, frozen in their amazement and grief. Suddenly they are joined by two men in white. They ask “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 1:11). These two men in white, perhaps Moses and Elijah, certainly heavenly visitors, refocus Jesus’ apostles away from being spectators and toward their mission to witness God’s Good News. In today’s language they would say “Hey, why are you standing around? Go do what Jesus asked of you!”
So what does this story tell us about Jesus, God and the church?
When Jesus’ ascension is considered along with his resurrection we see that his victory over death is not just the good news that we can go to heaven when we die. Rather it is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord of Heaven and of Earth. “To proclaim Jesus’ resurrection is to claim that God exalted him — the same Jesus who welcomed sinners, who suffered and died in shame and rejection by this world — as Lord and Messiah. Jesus is God’s promise and plan for the whole world, and neither death nor any of its minions are able to stop that.” (Brian Peterson, workingpreacher.org) The apostles said good-bye to their friend and teacher Jesus so that their Lord Jesus Christ could show them the very heart of God and so that the Holy Spirit might be with them in their new endeavors throughout the world.
After the Ascension it is no longer possible to talk about God without talking about Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth; Mary’s son, itinerant preacher and healer, champion of the poor and the outcast, fully human and fully divine, who lived among the people, who suffered and died among the people and was raised. He, with all of his compassion and experiences both good and bad, He resides in the heart of God, the very center of God’s nature. As Brian McLaren puts it “God is like Jesus”. God is not detached from our human experience. God is at home among us. God is vulnerable, reaching out over and over to people who often turn away. God is approachable, a divine presence who knows each one of us by name and who cares about each one of us.
After the Ascension the stage is set for the giving of the Holy Spirit; that Holy Power which is poured over the people on Pentecost and that moves through the church throughout the ages. Jesus ascends because his physical body, even post-resurrection, is not big enough for the power that will be given through the Spirit. We will talk more about this next week, but it is the Holy Spirit which leads the church to be established worldwide.
In today’s text, Jesus tells his apostles what they are to do after he has gone. They are to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Spirit so that they might be witnesses to all the world. This guidance is not just for the apostles. It speaks to us today. We are called and empowered to be witnesses, not spectators. We can’t just sit back and wait for Jesus to come again and make everything right. We are not called to be speculators, looking for a pattern to history that aligns with our desires. We are called and empowered to participate in the earth changing reality of God’s love permeating everything.
So how do we witness? Are we looking up to heaven, waiting for Christ’s return? Or are we looking out, into the world, seeing the Spirit of Christ in those with whom we work for justice and peace?
As a church, we witness by our presence in this community, by our feeding ministries, by our support of American Baptist missions around the world, by our sharing of this building with the New American communities from Burma, Bhutan, and Nepal and others needing a place to gather, and by our connections with other churches and service organizations in Burlington and beyond. We witness through our actions and our advocacy for those who are vulnerable and in need. Our green steeple witnesses to the presence of Christ to all who walk through our city. There are now more people walking and living nearby and in the next few years there will be many more.
As individuals, we witness by recognizing and speaking about how Christ’s love has changed our lives. How in our darkest moments and in our greatest joys, Christ is with us. We witness by gathering for worship every week, by working together, and learning together, and caring for each other and by inviting and welcoming others into our community. We witness by placing our faith central to how we respond to the events happening in our world. Thoughts and prayers can be a powerful beginning of our witness for Christ. But if saying that is all that we do, we are acting like spectators not witnesses, expecting that someone else will solve the problems that confound us. To be a witness for Christ is to participate and to work toward making God’s love manifest.
The Apostles asked “Is this the time when you, Jesus, will restore Israel?” And Jesus tells them that they are asking the wrong question. But if we ask “Jesus, is this the time for us to act on your behalf? The answer is Yes! We are witnesses to the power of God’s love in our own lives and in the world around us. We are empowered and called to share that love, to work on behalf of that love, to trust that love at all times.
Ascension Day is a day to celebrate and to witness. As Charles Wesley writes in his hymn Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise; which we sang this morning.
See! the heaven its Lord receives
Yet he loves the world he leaves,
Though returning to his throne,
Still he calls the world his own, Alleluia.
Let us pray,
Ascendant Lord, we thank you for showing us the nature of God. We pray that we might be empowered by your Spirit so that we can witness to your love and grace throughout our community and our world. Amen.