Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 24, 2020
[COVID-19 Pandemic, Week 11]
Acts 1: 1-14 (CEB)
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
7Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
9After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— 14all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
When I was a kid, a big movie franchise at the time was Superman. I watched all of the 1970s and 80s Superman films at some point in my elementary years. Of course, there’s a lot about the Superman character that is iconic, but one of the things I remember is that nearly every time Superman was flying through the air, there was a crowd on the ground, mouths hanging open staring in awe and wonder at this strange sight. Many of you probably know that famous line, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ ascension, which we heard just a moment ago, this is the image that comes to my mind. In fact, Luke tells us that 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus was suddenly lifted up and cloud took him out of sight. Those who had gathered around to hear his teachings stared toward the heavens as this happened. And they must have stood there in awe and wonder, mouths probably agape, for some time, because the next thing that happens is two men in white robes suddenly appear and ask why they are looking into the heavens.
Superman is a character. Jesus is real – son of God and son of man. It’s hard for any of us to fathom a man lifting from the ground and floating toward the heavens. But just as God took on flesh in the incarnation, and was born among us, so – 40 days after his resurrection – Jesus returns, ascends, to the Father. Today, on Ascension Sunday, we remember and celebrate that moment of return. This is a day that is sometimes overlooked in the move from Easter to Pentecost. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection and we celebrate the birth of the church, forgetting this intervening time of Jesus’ final moments on earth, among his apostles and followers.
As we continue our series on being disciples and making disciples in uncertain times, this moment of Jesus’ ascension is important. Indeed, Jesus has some final words here for his followers, and we will look at that in a moment. But I also want us to remember the ascension this morning because it is more than just the reverse of the incarnation. This is about more than Jesus just being lifted up into the sky. Not only is Jesus ascending and returning to the Father, but humanity is elevated in a sense in this act as well. Here before us is a visual signal that the path has now been taken by Christ himself, and we are to take it as well.
But following Christ on this path also means we must continue to follow Christ’s example, and his instructions. That’s why I wanted us to spend some time thinking about the ascension today. Most of the time, this Sunday is just the Sunday before Pentecost. But 2000 years ago, 40 days after the resurrection of Christ, this was a time of great uncertainty. Right now is a time of great uncertainty for us, as well. But this story of Jesus’ final instructions to his followers and then his ascension into heaven can serve to pull us out of the anxiety of not knowing because in this moment, Jesus has established a purpose for our lives “in the meantime.”
I learned a little bit this week about how our brains are wired for creative activity. The problem, though, is that over time we learn how to suppress that activity. Usually that suppression happens because we are afraid, or ashamed. We are fearful of rejection, or worried about failure. So we make excuses and then stick to our comfort zones. I think if we’re honest, we would all acknowledge that this is true about a lot of things in our lives – we make excuses and then stick with what we know. The problem, though, is that now we are living in the midst of a lot of unknown. And it might be easy to say, well, things will get back to “normal” eventually, so we’ll just wait ‘til then. But Jesus’ message to his followers this morning is that there is no waiting. There is work to be done in the meantime. That is as true today as it was for the apostles 2,000 years ago.
I think the question for us all is, “How do we proceed right now?” If you’re like me, this is definitely one of those situations where it is a lot easier to just make some excuses and try to put stuff off until things are back to normal. But the truth for the earliest followers of Christ in the days following his resurrection and ascension is the truth for us as well – we probably won’t ever get back to the normal we knew before. The apostles had to learn how to continue on without Christ present and leading them. We must learn how to continue on as the church in a time when church is not as we have always known it.
The heart of Jesus’ final message here is this: “Wait for the Spirit…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 end of the earth.” If you all remember, we talked last week about the presence of the Holy Spirit which undergirds us and empowers us to do the work of Christian disciples. That message is reinforced by Christ again today, and accompanied with a very specific vision of that discipleship – to be witnesses to the end of the earth. Now, we can make all kinds of excuses about why that’s not possible right now: we can’t leave town, we can’t fly in an airplane. But that’s our learned response – our brains throwing up excuses in the face of new opportunities to be creative. The “where,” or even “how” though, is less important than the “what,” and our “what” is to be witnesses. That’s what we’ve got to figure out how to do. The earliest Christians had to learn how to be witnesses of Christ, how to continue Christ’s work even though Christ was no longer with them. I think what we see in this passage is that they set an example we can follow.
Luke tells us that after Jesus ascended to the Father, the apostles and other followers returned to Jerusalem. They gathered in an upper room, where they were united in their devotion to prayer. We are not told what they prayed for, but I think we can guess. I suspect they prayed for wisdom and guidance from God. I’d imagine they prayed for courage and strength to do the work Christ was calling them to do. I think that they probably prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit to be present with them. Like us right now, I’d imagine these followers of Christ were longing for an anchor in a sea of change. In the times of deepest uncertainty and insecurity, we can find comfort in the familiar. Prayer can center us. Prayer can help us stay focused. Prayer guides us in God’s way. Amid everything else, and especially in this time of uncertainty, we too, must be united in our devotion to prayer.
I think here, in 2020, we will witness the re-birth of the church. I truly believe that as we seek to continue our calling to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, we are going to see that happening in lots of new and creative ways. I’ll talk about that a little more next week on Pentecost. For now though, let’s simply remember that the calling is still there – a calling which has never, and will never change. Jesus instructs us to follow the path that he has laid out; to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We can’t just stand around, staring at the sky and wondering what will happen next. In prayer, we must seek the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us. Things are certainly unfamiliar and uncertain right now. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but our purpose has not changed. In the meantime, we are to be witnesses in East Brainerd, and in Chattanooga, and all the way to the ends of the earth.