(Preached at Alger First UMC on 5/17/2015)
Ascension Sunday, Year B: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
The Scripture for today comes from the book of Acts. Acts, just like Luke’s Gospel, is a letter Luke is writing to someone named Theophilus. Now that could be someone’s name, like we normally think about it, or it could be more general. In Greek, the name means “God-lover”-Theo- means God and –philus means lover. So it could just be written to anyone who calls themselves a lover of God. So if you call yourselves that, this was written for you. Let’s hear this story.
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 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. 3 After 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. 4 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: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.8 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.”
9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 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.” (Acts 1:1-11, CEB)
Let’s pray. O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us without comfort, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and raise us up to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. And mat the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Speak through or in spite of me to your people here. To him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Now the books of Luke and Acts are really two parts to the same story. They’re completely intertwined together, so closely that some people think their names should be changed. Luke should be called “The Acts of Jesus” and the book of Acts should really be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Acts of Jesus, and the Acts of the Holy Spirit-that would really capture what’s going on in these books. Now we need to understand that because the story for today marks a big turning point in the big story going from the beginning of The Acts of Jesus through the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
In the chapter leading up to our passage for today, Jesus has risen from the dead, we have the full resurrection story, Jesus appeared to his disciples, proved that it was really him, alive in a very physical body, and for forty days, he taught them about the Kingdom of God. During that, he told them all that after he left, they needed to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.
After he said that, he ascended into heaven. The Bible doesn’t have much detail for how it happened, it just says he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of sight. It must have been astounding because the disciples are just left staring up into the sky. They’re just staring up there, but two men in white robes, we could probably assume they’re angels, appear and ask them one of my favorite questions in the whole Bible: “Why are you looking up there?” Seems like a no-duh answer-“Uh, our rabbi flew into the sky. What else are we supposed to do?”
Now, I think that that question is what makes this story important. It’s a pretty great picture, right? Here’s all of the disciples, staring at the sky, dumbfounded. They have no idea what to do next, their rabbi just flew away. And then the men in white ask the disciples that stupid question “Why are you looking up there?” It seems like an easy answer, why do they have to ask? But we can find a really great truth in this question and the angel’s response here. This story isn’t really about Jesus leaving us here on this earth. It’s about what we do apart from Jesus’ physical presence. Do we just stop everything and stare dumbfounded into heaven, wishing that He had taken us with Him, wishing that we could leave this earth and not have to worry about the sin and brokenness and despair anymore? Or do you take up the mantle that Jesus passed on to you, remember everything he taught you, and continue the work?
It’s the same kind of thing that happens in education. Most of you know I just graduated from ONU last Sunday with a degree in Music. ONU told me that I had learned what I needed to know for my degree, they had taught me all they could, so it was time for me to leave and put the degree to use. That’s basically what happens when you graduate from any university with any degree. There’s a list of required classes and a bunch of things that you need to know. Once you know all of that stuff and take all of those classes, you get the degree, graduate, and leave the university. You don’t stick around, unless you want another degree. When classes start in August, if I were to show up to a class in the Music Department and sit down like I was in the class, the professor would say “Andy, what are you doing? You graduated. You don’t need this anymore.” Teachers teach so that the student can leave with the knowledge and skills that they need. They don’t want students to stick around for longer than they need to.
See, this is what the angels were saying. They were asking the disciples “Why are you still coming to classes? You’ve graduated!” Eventually, the student has to leave the teacher. Eventually, Jesus had to leave his disciples so that they could go out and do the work they had to do.
So what does all of this mean for us? With big stories like this, we have to question them, not just accept them. Why did Jesus ascend into heaven? Why did he have to leave his disciples? See, what we really remember today is not just the day Christ ascended into heaven. We also remember the day the church truly became the physical body of Christ. When Christ was on earth, he was limited by His human body. He could only be at one place at one time, his ministry was restricted to what one human being could do. But when he ascended to heaven and left Earth, His ministry transferred to his disciples and to us.
Next week is Pentecost and churches normally get pretty excited about Pentecost. If you don’t know what that is, come back next week and you’ll find out. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, there was fire, there was wind, they spoke in tongues. That’s easy to get excited about. But that would not have happened if it were not for Jesus’ ascension. When Jesus was with them, the disciples were literally in the presence of God all the time. They didn’t need any help that they didn’t already have. But when Jesus left, he made room for the Holy Spirit to swoop in and empower the disciples and continue to move through the church until today.
Now, this idea is a little hard to understand. The disciples didn’t really get it at first. They asked about it: Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Are you going to kick the Romans out and take away all the oppression and hurt in the world? Is life going to be easy now? Are we going to finally transcend and escape this world? And Jesus basically says “No. I am not going to restore any kind of old historic power to Israel that you reminisce and get all nostalgic about. Through the Holy Spirit, YOU are going to bring about a new kingdom of God here on Earth.” That’s what’s really happening here. The responsibility for the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being transferred from Jesus to his disciples, the church, and to us. In this story, we become the body of Christ. For Christ to physically affect this world, He works through his body-us. Jesus is saying “See all of the places and people that are hurting? See everything wrong with the world? See all of the ways that the world and the people on it are broken? That’s your responsibility now.”
Now that’s kind of a scary truth. Because that’s a big responsibility. I think that’s why the disciples were left just staring up into heaven. And I think it’s why a lot of us are left staring up into heaven. “Are you sure Jesus? You know what I’ve done. You know all the ways I’ve messed up. You know how I have misrepresented you. Why can’t you come back down here or bring me up there with you? Why can’t I just escape this world of sin and brokenness and be up there with you? And to that, the angels say “Why are you doing that? Why are you looking for Christ there? Why are you looking for heaven up there?” Because that’s not where the Kingdom of God is to be found. That is not where heaven is to be found. Jesus is not going to be found up there in heaven, away from this world. Jesus is to be found down here, in our mess and brokenness. We are not called to keep our eyes up to heaven and search for heaven or the Kingdom of God or Jesus up there. We are called to keep our eyes down here, always searching for the ways Christ is calling us to create the Kingdom of God here on this world.
In our Sunday night Bible study, we were talking about this idea a few weeks ago. One of the people there said that it was hard to be a believer where they worked because they felt like they were surrounded by a lot of people who believed very differently than they did and behaved in ways they believed were wrong. And I said that I can understand that. A lot of times, that’s how I felt as a music major at ONU. But the way that I got through and kept with it was by looking for Jesus in the midst of the darkness and the brokenness that was around me and IN me. Because that’s where Jesus is to be found. Not up there in heaven, separate from this world. That’s the great paradox of today. Christ ascended into heaven so that the Holy Spirit could come and be closer to us than Christ ever could. And this Holy Spirit gives us the power to look into the darkness and bring light into it. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to look at the brokenness of the world and see how we can start to repair it. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to see the ways that we can create the Kingdom of God here and now.
You heard earlier in the service from Tom Crowe about the Community Outreach Center that we’ve been working on. If this is the first time you’ve heard about that in a while, I’ll be the first to agree with you. We haven’t talked about the Community Outreach Center in a while because it’s been a very slow process, and for a while there just wasn’t anything to report. But you’ve been reminded about it today. Work is being done on it. We are moving forward. Before I came here, I was talking with your previous pastor, Pastor Casey, and she told me about this building project. This is what got me excited about this church. Because so many people might look at you and say that you are a small church in a small, declining community-you’re not going to be doing much good beyond keeping your doors open. But you chose to move forward and start this building project so that you could reach out to your community. You chose to stop looking UP for Christ and decided to look for Christ here on Earth. You chose to stop wishing that Christ would take you away from here into the Kingdom of God and decided to start the work of building the kingdom of God on this earth.
This is how we as a church are fulfilling the mission that Christ gave us when he ascended to heaven. Christ ascended to heaven and left earth so that the church, the body of Christ, could continue the work of Christ and bring about the kingdom of God on earth. That is what we are doing with this Community Outreach Center. We are bringing about the Kingdom of God in this community. Once it is built, we will be feeding the hungry, reaching out to those we aren’t reaching now, and bringing the love and hope of the Gospel to those in this Village who desperately need it. Don’t you want that?
But it’s not done yet. And that’s really the feeling of this story. Jesus ascended to heaven, but the disciples hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. So Jesus told them to wait. What did they do while they were waiting? Luke tells us that they praised and worshiped God. That’s how they waited. They worshiped and kept the line open between them and the Holy Spirit. They were on hold and they just kept the phone up to their ear until they finally heard from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So that’s what your job is this week. Sooner or later, there will be actual, physical work for us to do in the Community Outreach Center to finish it up. But right now, we all need to cover this project in prayer. Pray that the Holy Spirit will break down all the barriers standing in the way of finishing that building. Pray that the Holy Spirit will work in those who are doing the work on the building and the inspectors from the state who have to approve of the building before we use it. Pray that the Holy Spirit would wake us up and point out the work to which we are called through the Community Outreach Center. Pray that this church would be a blessing to this village through the Community Outreach Center. Pray that the Holy Spirit would move through us and find those who need healing, who need help, who need companionship, who need Jesus. And pray that we would be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit and would go where we need to go and do what we need to do to create God’s Kingdom here on earth.