The following is the majority of my sermon for this past weekend at Messiah Lutheran Church. We celebrated and observed the Ascension of Our Lord, hence my sermon is based on the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts.
“You are witnesses to these things…”
You are witnesses. The apostles were witnesses, and so are you.
On that day, the apostles stood looking up to heaven. They were amazed as Jesus, a man who had already beaten death and in the past 40 days had seemingly appeared and disappeared and appeared again, was going higher and higher in the sky, and out of their sight… Maybe you heard about this story as a child if you went to Sunday School, or maybe you have seen funny little pictures of feet dangling in the clouds? That’s kind of what comes to mind for me at first when thinking about this image.
I would think the disciples and now apostles would be surprised by this. But at this point, I doubt much could surprise them seeing as what all they had witnessed and experienced. Even so, they looked and watched toward heaven as Christ ascended. Just like you and I would have, in awe, majesty, and perhaps a little disbelief.
This ascension is one of those mysteries of faith, we profess, but perhaps can’t understand and only imagine thanks to the descriptive narrative in the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts.
We speak of the ascension just about every week, but often don’t think much about it. We profess, “He ascended into heaven…” every time we join in professing the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. It is a core part of our faith and history. “The ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God…is no less than the culmination of the gospel story and the beginning of the fulfillment of what humans were created for.”
Think of the whole Jesus story that we have traveled through just since Advent and Christmas. It begins with Emmanuel, God with us, who comes in the incarnation which is “the fulfillment of God’s plan to be united with” us.
Then Jesus lives, grows, teaches, heals, turns perception on its head, and in some ways turns the world upside down. But the ultimate turning of things upside down comes with the resurrection and the ascension. When Jesus ascends into heaven, the union of God and humanity that starts with the incarnation is made full. Now there is “one of us” so to speak, “where we shall be- where from the very point of creation we were intended to be,” in relationship with, praising and worshiping God.
What does this mean?
I just summarized theologies that people have spent writing whole libraries about in just a few sentences. So, I’m painting with a wide brush. But what I’m trying to say is, this is a big deal. This ascension is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that Luke closes his gospel with it, and then begins his second book, Acts, with it in a little more detail. It’s the theological culmination of the gospel, and the beginning of the mission that is described in the book of Acts.
But what does this mean for us as God’s beloved children? For us today?
Because of the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, we are witnesses!
In the majesty and mystery of the Ascension, the writer of Luke and Acts makes clear what Jesus believed was next. Jesus’ last words on earth are these declarations to his friends, the apostles whom he has called and chosen, “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.”
Shortly after Jesus ascends, comes Pentecost which we’ll celebrate next week with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Until that time, the apostles wait. But after the Holy Spirit is let loose, there’s no more waiting. It’s time for action. It’s time for mission. It’s time to get to work.
There is no more time to be silent witnesses, but active witnesses and participants, sharing the Jesus story. Today’s passage from Acts is perhaps the central theme for the whole book, where Jesus declares that you will be witnesses going to the “ends of the earth” to proclaim the good news of God who has come near for God’s people and the sake of God’s world. And as the end of Luke proclaims, “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed to all nations.” Not to just some, but for all.
When you get to the heart of ascension, it’s really the point at which Jesus fulfills his work as being God with us, and hands over the work of sharing that story to the Apostles, to us, with the gift and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Later in Acts, two of the apostles, Paul and Silas, are literally accused of “turning the world upside down.” That’s one of the big points of Luke’s gospel, that the last will be first and the first will be last, the lowly will be lifted up, and the powerful brought down. The world as they knew it, the world as we know it, was changed forever, and would continue to change forever because of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
How might the world be turned upside down through you?
What does this mean for us?
Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom God sends as promised, through whom we are baptized, called and commissioned to share the Good News; we live life abundantly and are all sent out as witnesses- all of us. This isn’t just something that is reserved for ordination for a few people to be pastors, or commissioned or consecrated as associates in ministry. This is a calling and vocation for each of us as Children of God, grounded in the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out upon us in baptism.
The Jesus story- the story of incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is a gift, for us. There is nothing we can do to earn that. God in Christ did that for us. Baptism, and communion, sacraments are gifts given for each of us. All of this, all of these, are pure gifts.
This is the beauty of Lutheran theology. Grace is a gift, not dependent upon us doing anything at all. But because it such a magnificent gift, it’s something that we can’t help but want to share. We can’t help but live our lives as a joyful response to these gifts.
And that’s the mission piece. We are called, gathered, and sent…
With the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are sent out into the world. Not to bring God, but to point to where God is already there, present, calling, and leading. We are sent to meet the needs of the world- To heal the sick, and welcome the stranger; to share a cup of cool water with the thirsty, and a loaf of bread with the hungry; to share the Good News of God with a hungry and thirsty world. We do this through sharing the Jesus story, and our story which is a part of it. We do this through serving. And we do this by the way we live.
How do you tell this story? How do you live this story in your lives?
I know a man named Tim. Him and his wife Joanne, for as long as I can remember coordinated the food and treats each Sunday morning in their church. Over the years, he started serving free community meals one evening a week to feed the hungry, as well as for those just seeking community and relationships with other people to eat a meal with. He also helped start a community Thanksgiving dinner which continues annually. For the longest time, this food and fellowship it created were Tim and Joanne’s service, and this was their story.
Joanne sadly passed away after a valiant battle with cancer a few years ago. Though Tim grieved, the community rallied around him. Others stepped up to serve, and the community meals continued. Tim was supported by that community which he had helped create through a call he felt to serve. Tim has continued to serve. He does this with often little financial support, but he does this because it’s his calling. The way he lives, tells his story and shares his faith, a faith grounded in love of others.
You all know people like Tim. Maybe there’s even someone here worshiping now in this space today that reminds you of Tim?
Ascension is a good time to remember the larger mission we’re all part of. Martin Luther’s sermons on Ascension almost all dealt with the “what’s next,” piece, the importance of mission and telling the story. And it makes sense when you consider how this story is the beginning of life after the historical events of the gospel.
Two men in white robes, in the beginning of the book of Acts ask the apostles, these “Men of Galilee,” why do they “stand looking up towards heaven?” That question wakes them up. It’s time to stop watching, and to start acting. It’s time to do the hard work of ministry, like Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to heal on the Sabbath, to eat with sinners, and to make friends with the outcast.
We serve, share, and live, because we can’t help but be filled with joy from the good news of the Gospel. We serve, because we believe that God has called and sent us to meet the needs of the world, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. No strings attached. Sometimes the needs are obvious. Other times, it takes the Holy Spirit to blow and lead us, and to open our eyes to needs just below the surface or not in plain view.
It’s time to tell this beautiful story we have to tell. It’s no longer time to be quiet.
We are all witnesses to these things. And we are sent to the ends of the earth proclaiming the good news through our stories, service, and lives, bringing healing and forgiveness, by the leading and through the power of the Holy Spirit. May it be so. Amen.
 Justo Gonzalez, Luke, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 281.
Image Credit: “Ascension”