Don’t Just Stand There!
Grace United Methodist Church
June 5, 2011
Luke 24: 44-53 (NIV)
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
So imagine you’re walking down the street, minding your own business when you happen upon a large crowd. You notice that all faces are turned upwards toward the sky. You follow the gazes of the crowd and see above you a massive cloud with a pair of feet showing just below the bottom edge of the cloud. It’s too strange a sight to just continue on your way. So you stop and stare upwards with the rest of the ever-growing crowd. All around you, people begin to mumble. There must be some logical explanation for this; maybe the guy is hanging from a hot air balloon that can’t be seen because of the cloud, or perhaps he’s hang gliding. Whatever the cause, it’s like a train wreck, and you just can’t stop looking, you stand transfixed with many others, wondering what on earth is going on.
There is a tradition in art that shows just such a scene, only 2,000 years ago. It depicts the disciples gathered on a hilltop, straining their faces upward. Above them is a cloud with a pair of feet just showing beneath it. Of course, the painting is of the ascension of Jesus Christ, but the disciples are noticeably amazed. Despite three years of watching Jesus perform miracle after miracle, the painting shows the disciples noticeably transfixed by the wonder of this strange sight. To witness such a sight would indeed be most unusual. We may try to puzzle about what “really happened” and offer some reasonable explanation. In the present day, we wonder exactly what Luke might have been trying to describe when he said Jesus “left them and was taken up to heaven.” Where did he really go? What did the disciples actually witness?
These are the questions that surely run through our mind as we ponder Christ’s ascension. In the wake of such a phenomenal event, it would be easy to stand around with the others who saw a man miraculously lifted into the sky, or perhaps only caught sight of his feet hanging just below a cloud. But to do so would miss the point of the ascension itself. Here at the close of his ministry on earth, Jesus is focused on helping believers understand his life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the scope of God’s saving love. And these moments surrounding Christ’s ascension are meant to open our eyes to see the power of God’s love that takes the worst the world can do and transforms it into a witness to God’s redemptive love and power.
The ascension is about understanding the depths of God’s mercy. Throughout Luke’s gospel, the disciples have had difficulty understanding how Jesus fits into God’s overall plan. But now, Luke tells us that Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” And Jesus reminds them of all he has told them about his connection to the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms. So Jesus puts the pieces together in a compelling way so that their eyes are opened and they recognize him, not only as the risen manifestation of the teacher they have followed, but as the risen Lord, the son of the living God. Now they can see more fully that God is actively at work redeeming all of creation. And then Jesus says, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” God’s story, told in all of Scripture, continues through Jesus, and continues yet again in the work of the disciples. The disciples, each of us, have to understand fully the depth of God’s love for the world, and then we have to see that we have a role in sharing the message of God’s mercy in the world. Knowing that he was about to leave, Christ opened the minds of his followers; they were witnesses of all that he embodied. And being a witness, as the disciples were already discovering, was a big deal!
The Greek word that translates into “witnesses” literally means “martyrs.” In a legal sense, a witness is a person who, because of some experience or something they have seen, are in a unique position to tell the truth about some important matter. Jesus commissions his disciples to witness to God’s mighty acts in history, to proclaim good news in an empire that has crucified Good News. They’ve been called to tell the world that God has overcome death, that God has defeated and made a mockery of the empire’s myth of violence by raising Jesus from the dead. They’ve been called into a proverbial courtroom to witness about Jesus Christ amid the competing testimonies—testimonies that promise peace through violence, fulfillment through wealth, and power through exploitation.
It is the greatest story ever told. And now, the great story of God’s faithfulness and justice and mercy, is being entrusted to the witnesses, to Christ’s disciples, to proclaim to the world. Jesus directs the disciples, soon to be empowered by the promised Holy Spirit, to go forth and proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. Interestingly, Jesus does not explicitly direct them to tell his story or proclaim his messiahship. He does not send them out to convert the world to believe in him alone. He does not even direct them to promise resurrection. No, their message is very simple. The message they are to take abroad is the good news of God’s mercy. But they are witnesses now, and they know that the story of God’s mercy is not complete without the accounting of the crucified and risen Messiah who offers forgiveness of sins to all who will believe.
This is no easy message to carry into the world because the sort of loving God we proclaim defies the ordinary understanding of power. But it is the message of God’s mercy for all nations, a message that came first in the person of Jesus Christ, and now must be spread through the work of Christ’s disciples. And the message they will bring the world will be a message of a better life! As the Church of Jesus Christ, they will be empowered to take over where Jesus left off. They will become Jesus’ arms and legs and voice once the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. They will be the Church. They will defy the evil powers of the world and set the captives free with the good news of Jesus Christ. But they cannot do this on their own. They need Jesus to be with them through the power of the Holy Spirit! Without that power, they would have failed miserably. Without that power, no one would ever have even heard of Jesus Christ, let alone the Church or the name “Christian.” So as Jesus sends his witnesses to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name, he promises to them the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples were connected with Jesus, and connected to Jesus, they were connected to God. And no matter what obstacles were before them, no matter what resistance they met, no matter what the future held for them, they were okay. Even though they did not know what the future held, they knew who held the future. And that was enough. That sense of being connected to Jesus enabled them to face persecution and suffering knowing that God was on their side, knowing that God’s mercy enveloped even them. They could trust God because they knew Jesus. And in Jesus, we are given our great “commission,” a great purpose for living, to share the caring love of Christ. It is the task of all disciples, all witnesses. It is the task of the church.
But this can only happen if the love of Christ is real for us. It is only possible if the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. We may not have the “eye-witness” benefit of those first disciples, but that doesn’t make us any less the witnesses of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Especially not if the Holy Spirit is working in us. And we have to share our story, because it is also God’s story. And it’s urgent breaking news for the whole world! When we embody the good news of God’s love in our own lives, we cannot help but share that message, can we? Think of the most exciting news you’ve ever had to share with others. Perhaps it was your acceptance to your dream college, or your engagement. Maybe the big story was the birth of your first child or grandchild. We all know that when such wonderful things happen in our lives, we immediately pick up the phone and share the news with the people we love most. In our elation, we are happy to share the news with coworkers and strangers, too! And this exactly what Christ commissions his disciples to do before ascending into heaven. We are to spread the good news of God’s mercy. We are to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.
As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to welcome one another, to forgive, to love, and accept each other with the same forgiveness, love, and acceptance we have received from God. The church is to be rooted in scripture and active in mission. “Repentance and forgiveness of sins” is to be proclaimed to all nations. The bible always portrayed that when God finally acted to fulfill all the promises made to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, then the whole world would be brought into the embrace of God’s saving love. That is what must happen now. As Christ ascends into heaven, he knows that God’s redeeming work must continue, and so he commissions his disciples to do just that! We are called to be those who speak of God’s love to others. We are called to share the message of God’s love for all!
It’s a strange sight to see a man ascending towards the heavens. It’s a difficult message to tell the world God’s love and mercy defies even the greatest powers. But standing around, staring at some feet dangling from a cloud and wondering what it all means and how on earth we are going to share this message doesn’t accomplish anything, and it misses the message of the ascension. We don’t need to wonder. We don’t need to be afraid. We are promised the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can go from this place with joy; worshiping, praising, and praying to God just as those first disciples did. And we can go from this place carrying with us the message of Jesus Christ, taking the news of his resurrection to all the world.
So the question for us today is: are we going to share our witness, or are we just going to stand around? May we all ponder that question as we meet Christ at the Table today.