Sunday, May 12, 2013
Cleared for Takeoff (Acts 1:1-11)
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerning everything Jesus and taught from the beginning, right 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. After his suffering, he showed them he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While 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: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to now the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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.
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They 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.”
It is estimated that by the time today is over, American consumers will have spent $18 billion on Mother’s Day. Those flowers, cards, lunches, and spa passes can really add up! The greeting card industry certainly knows the meaning of the phrase “golden opportunity.”
Today, I would like to suggest that the greeting card industry has missed one. Today is Ascension Sunday, it is the day we in the church commemorate that Jesus was taken bodily into heaven 40 days after Easter. In local drugstores, you will not find one single Ascension Day greeting card. Not one! Since the greeting card companies seem to have missed this opportunity, I am inviting all of you to get in on the ground floor of an untapped market. If people will spend $18 billion for Mother’s Day, just imagine what they’ll spend for Ascension Day!
The marketing campaign practically writes itself - Ascension Day balloons (filled with helium, so they rise on their own, of course), Ascension Day climbing gear so you can ascend into the heights, I’m telling you, the sky is the limit! When it comes to potential, this idea has nowhere to go but up!
I’ll stop here with the puns. All joking aside, why should any of us care about the Ascension? Why does it matter, as we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty?”
When John Wesley edited the Prayer Book from the Church of England for use by the early Methodists, he left out all the holy days that didn’t occur on a Sunday, except for three, because they were too important to skip. Those three days were Christmas, Good Friday, and Ascension. So, it’s obviously important, but why?
That’s a question I wrestled with all week. The Scripture we’ve read today is complex and mysterious, and so today, rather than looking for neat and tidy answers, I simply invite you to lean into and embrace the mystery.
We know that Acts is written by Luke, the author of the Gospel by the same name. His first book, the Gospel, was an account of the life and work of Jesus, and this book will be an account of what his first followers - the apostles - did. The Gospel began with a detailed description of the birth of Jesus, and now Acts begins with the birth of the Christian Church.
Luke, the physician, always shows a concern for the body. To Luke it is important that Jesus spent his existence in a physical body, made of the same flesh and blood as ours, prone to frailty and vulnerability just like us. It’s important that Jesus, in his body, was born and grew from infancy to adulthood. His body experienced hunger and thirst and exhaustion.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was touching and being touched by people. He touched children and blessed them, he touched lepers and blind people and disabled people, he touched people who were considered unclean and sinners, he touched women and foreigners, he touched outcasts and those on the margins of his society.
Jesus did all the things in his body that we do in ours - he ate with friends, he slept when he was tired. When one of his closest friends betrayed him, his body suffered and eventually died, just like ours. Luke places such strong emphasis on the physical body of Jesus lest we should miss the point that there is nothing in this life that we go through - whether joy or pain - that is unknown territory to Jesus.
Jesus is no stranger to our situation - a reminder that whatever you’re going through in your life right now, whether that is good or bad - Jesus has been there, too, and indeed, Jesus is going through it with you.
But, we also know that the body of Jesus has gone where our bodies have not. Even when he tasted death, the taste didn’t stay in his mouth for long. Death itself was not strong enough to keep Jesus bound, and so central to our faith is a grave with a vacancy sign hung outside. Everything his body experienced from cradle to grave helped him get to know us; but everything in his life from the empty grave forward helps us to know and experience the new life in him.
The resurrection wasn’t the end of the story; rather, it was like a new beginning. After he was raised from the dead, the physical body of Jesus was still with the disciples - still eating and laughing with them, still teaching them about the kingdom of God.
This is where Luke picks up to begin writing his second volume, the book of Acts. And the first thing that happens in the book of Acts is that the physical body of Jesus - that body that was so important to Luke throughout his Gospel - is taken into heaven.
But here’s the important thing: Jesus isn’t gone. Jesus hasn’t disappeared. Jesus hasn’t left the building. Quite the opposite, in fact. During his earthly life, Jesus lived a bodily existence full of God’s Spirit. Now, his ministry will be carried forward by a body of people who are filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus indicated as much immediately before he ascended. He said, “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.”
But, before that happens, the disciples are going to have to get it together. Only moments after Jesus departs, they are still standing on the hilltop, staring into the sky like first-time tourists in midtown Manhattan, when two men in white robes show up and say, “So, uh, what are you looking at? Why are you staring off into space - that’s not what Jesus told you to do!”
For a moment, the disciples are like the crowd who followed Forrest Gump while he was running, running, running, back and forth across the country, until one day in the painted desert, he decides he’s kinda tired, and thinks he’ll go home now. As Forrest turns his back and walks away, the crowd looks longingly after their departed leader, and someone voices the exasperation they’re all feeling - “Now what are we supposed to do?”
The disciples, fortunately, do remember what Jesus told them to do, and so they go back to Jerusalem where they will watch and wait and pray for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Only that gift will empower them to do what Jesus is counting on them to do - namely, to be his witnesses and carry on his mission.
Sure enough, the rest of the book of Acts will fill in the details on the outline from this one verse, as the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, and are empowered to carry the message of Jesus outward, outward, outward - like ripples in a still pond, spreading until the whole world receives the touch of Jesus.
Friends, the call on our lives, as those who follow Jesus, is exactly the same. During his life, Jesus was the embodiment of God’s Holy Spirit on earth. Now, we embody what Jesus did. Our hands and feet are his hands and feet upon the earth, and every fiber of our being is meant to witness about who Jesus is and what Jesus does to the world around us. Our lives are a show-and-tell about who God is and what God is up to in the world - not in our own strength or power or cleverness, but only through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the only influence that can move us from doing good things to God things.
Being a disciple of Jesus means being a witness for Jesus. It’s not enough to simply stare into the sky and think good thoughts about days gone by with Jesus. Living our lives for Jesus isn’t a spectator sport, rather, it’s full-contact with the Holy Spirit and touching the ends of the very same world Jesus touched.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, with worship on the lawn - a tangible reminder that when the first disciples received the Holy Spirit, they were literally blown out into the streets - out of the safe confines of their comfort zone. We will remember and we will pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us in the same way, that God’s anointing might be received fresh and new in each generation.
But, there is a lag time, a waiting period, if you will, between the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of that promise. 10 days between Ascension and Pentecost, during which time the disciples watched, and waited, and prayed to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, knowing that without that gift, their work would be in vain.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to do as Jesus did - to embody God’s Spirit upon the earth, to be the love of God with a human face.
For today, it is the essential thing, to watch, and wait, and pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth, and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.