Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
June 1, 2014 – Ascension Sunday
Many of you who have lived in West Texas, and even Odessa and First Christian Church, for many years, even generations feel a comfortable stability here. But the new people who have flooded in with the economic boom may not see this as home or a place to settle down but as a temporary stop on a much larger journey of career and family ambitions. Things that you think of as commonplace that everyone knows are completely unfamiliar and foreign to newer arrivals. You do not need me to tell you that Odessa is becoming a different city than you have been living in. Even more, with a new pastor coming soon to lead you into new arenas of mission, First Christian Church is becoming a different church than you have known. Not only is the destination of these transformations unclear, they will never arrive at a stable, fixed state. You may complain about what is becoming of your city and your church, but you cannot stop the process. We just read the account of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1:1-11. I believe Jesus’ ascension can teach us how to become comfortable in the uncertainties of these in-between spaces of life.
Jesus’ ascension was only described by Luke in Acts 1:1‑11, as we just read, and in Luke 24:44-53. Luke was the most like a modern historian of the Gospel writers, ordinarily giving indicators of time when that was important, but his accounts of Jesus’ ascension are uncharacteristically non-chronological but theological. He wants us to think of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as intrinsically linked. In Acts 1:9 he wrote Jesus “was lifted up,” and in Luke 24:51 he wrote that Jesus “was carried up.” This is the same language used for Jesus’ resurrection to indicate Jesus did not do these things with his own power or will, but that God’s power raised him from death and carried him to the Father’s side.
None of the other Gospels record Jesus’ ascension. However in John’s Gospel, Jesus pointed ahead to his ascension three times. In John 3:13 Jesus told Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven.” In John 6:62, when even his disciples were puzzled when Jesus spoke of eating his body and drinking his blood, he asked “What if you were to see them Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” And in John 20:17 when the risen Jesus met Mary Magdalene, he told her not to hold on to him because he had “not ascended to the Father.”
In Ephesians 4:8, the Apostle Paul quoted Psalm 68:18 as pointing to the ascension of the Messiah, leading captives in his train and receiving gifts from people.
In his Gospel, Luke reported that when Jesus ascended, the disciples worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. (v. 52) But in Acts 1:10 he reported they stood gazing up into heaven until two men dressed in white robes (code for angels) told them he would be coming back the same way they had seen him go. They were not to be staring into space in the time in-between his ascension and his return. Before considering what we are to be doing in this in-between time, getting some insight into what Jesus is up to is powerful.
The way Paul quoted Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 indicates Jesus has taken captivity captive. We talked about this on Easter Sunday. Jesus has released us from the bondages of sin, guilt, shame and punishment to liberate us for joyful righteousness and praise.
Paul also took an interesting angle on Psalm 68:18 to say that in his ascension, Jesus gave gifts to the church. These are not the personal spiritual gifts of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. These are the gifts to the Church of people called to essential ministries: apostles (we would say missionaries), evangelists, prophets (we would say preachers), and pastor-teachers.
Romans 8:34 does not specifically mention Jesus’ ascension, but it does say that in this in-between time, Jesus is interceding for us. This is the role of the Advocate we talked about last week from John 14:16. Luke 24:50 suggests that Jesus started this just as he was to ascend; he lifted up his hands and blessed them. He gave them (and us) the blessing of the great high priest.
The account of Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:44-53 tells us what we are to be up to in this in-between time until Jesus returns.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The emphasis in the Gospel is on being Jesus’ witnesses. Nothing is said about Jesus’ return. In Acts 1:7 when the disciples asked about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, Jesus almost seemed to brush them off with “It’s not for you to know the times set by the Father.” This matches what Jesus said in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We, too, should avoid speculating about Jesus’ return.
Luke 24:52-53 reports that as Jesus ascended, the disciples worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They went on continually in the temple blessing God. No dour grief now, as they had on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Though Jesus was no longer physically with them, they were filled with joy. The meaning of life was not just restored but enhanced! Their instinctive response was continual worship. Our attitude in this in-between time ought not to be wallowing in “ain’t it awful,” but bursting with joyful worship. The whole week takes its shape and revolves around gathering as the community of Jesus’ disciples to worship him with joy.
In Luke 24:47, Jesus concluded his exposition of the Hebrew Scriptures by saying “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” The more familiar words of Acts 1:8 put it this way, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” Commenting on this Fred Craddock wrote, “The Church is not merely a group of good people trying to make the world a better place. The church functions by the presence and power of God.” And Oscar Cullmann put it in the context of this in-between time when he wrote, “Missions are an essential element in the eschatological divine plan of salvation. The missionary work of the Church is the eschatological foretaste of the Kingdom of God, and the Biblical hope of the end constitutes the keenest incentive to action.”
I know your Search and Call Committee has been hard at work. I also know the necessary confidentiality can prompt impatience as the process gets closer to its conclusion. While pastoral ethics preclude my involvement in knowing or selecting candidates, I can tell you the Search and Call Committee is making progress and you will soon have a new pastor. Jesus’ ascension can teach us how to become comfortable in the uncertainties of this in-between time.
Taking a cue from Jesus’ ascension, let me encourage you right now to determine not to impose an unofficial, informal probation on your new pastor. Do not hang back waiting to see how the new pastor is doing. Jump in immediately with enthusiasm, energy and imagination. Evaluating whether you think your new pastor will be successful is not your job. Your job is to positively do everything you can to help your new pastor be effective. That will ultimately do the church the most good.
My parents lived and taught me this same lesson on a personal level. Life is always moving forward. There is no steady state to settle down in. There is no “normal” to go back to. Trying to hang onto the past, no matter how good it was, breeds resentment and regret. Yes, give thanks and learn lessons, but keep moving forward. Always embrace what God is bringing you next with joyful anticipation. You know that at 94 on hospice, life is not easy for my Mom. But several times she has said to me, “I’ve done everything I could want to do in life. I’m at peace with God and all of the people in my life. The only thing I haven’t experienced is death, and I’m waiting to see what that is like.” Candy and I have not hidden from you that we have our struggles, but this attitude learned from my parents, and I believe from Jesus, has enabled us to enjoy our journey in interim ministry as God’s adventure for us at this time of life.
Great journeys are a common theme in literature. From John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and one of my favorites J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. All of them emphasize the centrality of the journey. Yes, an ultimate destination gives the journey meaning, but that meaning is uncovered along the way. Pleasant places along the way are suitable for rest, restoration, refreshment, renewal, but to stay too long as though they were a destination distorts and diminishes the journey. As much as we’d like to settle down in one place, whether as individuals or as a congregation, Jesus is always calling us ahead to the next leg of our journey with him. Jesus’ ascension can teach us how to become comfortable in the uncertainties of these in-between spaces of life.