(Acts 1: 1-14)
The ascension. Can we just say what we’re thinking? The ascension is weird. It is awkward. It is strange. We don’t quite get what the ascension is about, what its purpose is. We get resurrection – dying and then living again. Ascension actually makes resurrection look more commonplace – because it is. Did you know there are more instances in the Bible of resurrection than ascension? It’s true. Jesus, Lazarus, Tabitha, Eutychus, any number of sons and daughters of widows and soldiers, and a whole slew of the faithful in Matthew 27 – all brought back from the dead. Only three people in the entire Bible were ascended – Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New.
Ascension is awkward. In resurrection there is a sense of closure, right? You’re dead, and then you’re alive again. But with ascension, there is no closure. You’re alive, and then you’re lifted up into the sky, you “ascend” up and up and up until…..until what? No one knows. You don’t come back. So what happens? Are you dead? Alive? Who knows? You’re ascended. Like I said, weird. Awkward. Strange.
Strange it is when Jesus gathers there with his disciples, some forty days after his resurrection. For those forty days he had been teaching and preaching to them just as he had before; teaching and preaching about the kingdom of God, we are told. The kingdom of God. Now they are gathered together, and it’s almost as if they sense something is up. They ask Jesus, Is this the time? Will you bring the kingdom now?” Imagine their shock when Jesus replies, in essence, “No, but you will.”
That must have sounded weird to them, don’t you think? Not at all what they were expecting. Why would they be the ones to bring about the kingdom – that’s what Jesus came to do, right, to build the kingdom?
Will you bring the kingdom, Jesus?
No. You will.
And then he is gone. They watch him go. Up, on a cloud. Up and up and up. The ascension.
I mean, what exactly is that like, to watch someone ascend? There one minute, gone the next. No heads-up, no warning. In the middle of the conversation, nonetheless. What is that like? Is it like releasing a helium balloon – which, for the record, you should never do, it’s bad for the environment and the birds – but imagine doing it, that doesn’t hurt anything, imagine letting go of the string and watching that balloon rise up and up and up into a crystal blue sky, watching it get smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s just a tiny little dot, barely visible. Watching it until that moment when you cannot see it anymore, even though you know it’s still there, somewhere. Looking up there still, thinking maybe there will be a moment when the wind blows just right and you’ll catch a glimpse of it again…..
How long do you stand there looking? What is the acceptable period of time to look for someone ascended whom you can’t see anymore? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? It’s Jesus we’re talking about! How long do you think they stood there until they finally realized that he wasn’t coming back down?
Long enough for two guys in white robes to show up and say, Why are you standing here looking up at an empty sky? Why indeed.
So weird. So awkward. So strange, the ascension.
What do you do after something like that? Where do you go from the ascension? What would you do, if the one you gave your life to was with you, and then suddenly was not?
I find it incredibly telling that the disciples, women and men who had given their lives to Jesus, women and men the writer of Acts lists here by name, I find it incredibly telling that they did what they did next. In essence it can be summed up like this:
They stuck together. They prayed together.
They stuck together. It’s almost as if they learned from a previous time together what not to do, all of them in the Garden of Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers showed up and all heck broke loose and they scattered in every direction, every man and woman for themselves. No, now they know – when the unexpected occurs, when change happens, when your Lord and Savior is taken up into the clouds never to be seen again, that is not the time to be alone. That is the perfect time to be together, to stick together, be with one another, because that is how the community of faith thrives in times of transition and change.
So they stuck together. And they prayed. That’s the very first thing they did – they prayed. “Constantly,” we are told. What does “constant prayer” look like, anyway? We’re not told what they were praying about or who they were praying for, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point was they were doing the very thing he taught them long before, to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. That is what you do when you are together with your sisters and brothers in the faith, what you do as the very first thing, what you do plenty of: you pray.
So they stuck together. And they prayed together.
It’s easy here, I know, to want to jump ahead to Acts 2, because we know what happens there. Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit, all the excitement and hubbub surrounding that, speaking different languages and Peter’s inspiring sermon, and the beginning of what Jesus commanded them to do in his final moments before being taken in up in the clouds: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Witnesses, he calls them. Witnesses. We think of a witness as someone who’s seen something happen, and seen it in such a way that they can share it with others. The Greek word here, martys, literally means, “a witness to a circumstance.” Interestingly enough, the same word reappears twenty chapters later in reference to Stephen the martyr.
So a witness in the Biblical sense, then, is someone who believes in something so completely, so passionately, that they are willing to lay down their life for it, if necessary. That is what it means to be a witness. To share what you have seen and heard.
Which begs the question – why didn’t they immediately do that? Why did they go home and shut themselves behind closed doors and stick together and pray together for a whole chapter?
I mean, not to get ahead of ourselves, but church is all about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? To bear witness to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and all the ends of the earth – this natural progression Jesus speaks of: Jerusalem, their familiar territory. Judea and Samaria, those outside areas. And the ends of the earth – parts of the world they didn’t even know existed. That is what church does. It is why were are here today, on the other side of the world from where all this took place, separated by thousands of years in time. We are here because those first followers chose to live out Jesus’ command to bear witness.
So why did those disciples in Acts 1 instead go back home, stick together, and pray together?
Earlier this year on a flight to Kansas City for the NEXT Church conference, pulling out of the gate, I was reminded once again of the portion of the flight departure video that always catches my attention, because it strikes me as being the last thing my instinct would tell me to do: and that is to put on my own oxygen mask before putting one on one of my kids. Obviously the airline industry knows this sort of thing goes against the grain of any loving parent, which is why they made a video about it. The simple principle, of course: before you can tend to others, you first need to tend to yourself.
Could it be that ascension was God’s way of helping the people realize much the same, something they could not have fully realized if Jesus had just stayed with them? That before they could bear witness to the world, they first had to bear witness to each other. They had to stick together. They had to pray together. They had to be church together.
Just think about that. Soon enough, they’ll have the Holy Spirit guiding their way, instilling them with the tools and courage to share all they had seen and heard.
But for now, for right now, they have each other.
Soon enough, they’re going to bear witness to the ends of the earth. Literally, the Good News of Jesus Christ spreading to all four corners of the globe, beginning in Jerusalem and then Judea and Samaria, eventually to far-off places like Greece and modern-day Turkey and Rome – and one day the New World, right here, whole other continents they didn’t even know about.
But for now, they’re going to bear witness to each other.
Soon enough, they’re going to help build God’s kingdom throughout the world. That same kingdom Jesus spoke about for forty days straight; that kingdom they asked him about moments before he ascended. Soon enough, they’re going to help build that kingdom throughout the world.
But for now, they’re going to build God’s kingdom for and with each other.
My friends, we are often too quick to jump to Pentecost – too quick to get going and get moving and move out. There is no doubt, that is what we need to do. That is a huge part of being church. It is the very reason, two years ago this July, that you called an associate pastor of Missions and Church Growth, because you recognized the need, the calling, the mandate, to bear witness to the world, sharing what you – what you – have seen and heard.
But there is a reason, I believe, that Jesus did this strange, weird, awkward ascension thing. There is a reason Jesus and the Holy Spirit didn’t do an immediate holy tag-team in the heavens, Jesus going up, Holy Spirit coming down, high-five!. There is a reason there was space between the two; that one didn’t lead right to the other.
Because before we can be Jesus to the world, before we can help fill the world with God’s Holy Spirit, we first have to be Jesus to each other. To each other.
Before we can love the world, before we can be that compassionate bright light in a world of darkness, where hearts are broken and suicide bombers detonate their evil outside concert halls, before we can love the world, we first have to love each other.
Before we can bear witness to the world, be “martys” who share all we have seen and heard, before we can bear witness to masses of people out there who have yet to even hear his name, we first have to bear witness to each other.
Before we can pray for the world, pray for healing and wholeness, pray for nations and their leaders, we first got to pray for each other.
And before we can help build God’s kingdom in the world, before we can ever hope to see the lion lie down with the lamb, and swords beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks, and war be no more, before we can build God’s kingdom in the world, we first have to build it for each other.
That is church, my friends. And granted, it cannot be just that. The Spirit is coming. The world is waiting. Our calling is clear.
But we are no good to the world if we are not good to each other first.
So strange and weird and awkward, the ascension. You know what else is strange? Today is the final sermon of our Easter sermon series, Closer and Closer, where we have looked at our post-Easter scriptures and how they draw us closer to knowing God, draw us nearer to our relationship with God.
So strange, it is, that this passage has Jesus going away from us, ascending into the heavens, up and up and up until we can’t see him anymore. And yet, somehow through all of that, he is closer to us than ever, precisely because we are closer to each other, this community of faith we call Trinity Presbyterian Church. Closer to each other, and therefore closer to him.
Because Jesus did not leave his disciples high and dry that day, and he certainly does not leave us. He lives in and through us, because of us. He is in the air we breathe, he is in our prayers, he is made manifest in the way we care for each other and lift each other up; he is here through bread broken and cup poured, he is here when we craft visions and make plans and engage in challenging and exciting conversations about the present and future of God’s church. He lives in us still. Jesus is closer to us than he’s ever been before, because we are closer to each other.
That, my friends, is the essence of what it means to bear witness. That is what it means to be church, to build God’s kingdom from the inside out. More than ever, that is the kind of witness our world desperately needs.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, in the name of the One who walks with us and calls us to walk with each other, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.