1 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.” (CEB)
What in the world to we mean when we say that Jesus ascended? Surely, we don’t mean that Jesus is walking among the clouds, looking down on us from above. After Yuri Gagarin flew into space, Nikita Khrushchev addressed a plenary session of the Central Committee and declared, “Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” The statement probably says more about Khrushchev’s lack of theological vision than anything else, but it is a point to consider. Where did Jesus go? What does it mean that Jesus was “lifted up”?
If the idea of heaven is that it is physically rooted up above us, our current understanding of cosmology can challenge any religion’s claim that someone was lifted up into heaven. So far, not even Voyager 1—which is currently traveling in the Interstellar Medium of the Heliopause—has broken into anything like the heavenly realm. Our telescopes can peer billions of light-years away, and we still can’t see heaven. We can’t locate it as a place in space-time, and that can confuse us. If Jesus is so removed from our existence, how can he do anything for us?
Jesus ascended into the sky like a comic book hero until the disciples lost sight of him in the clouds. So I suppose it’s natural for us to look up, wondering where Jesus is. Where is his physical incarnation now? Looking up, searching for that location, desiring to find heaven, is all well and good. It reveals in us the same longing the disciples had when they stood gazing heavenward after losing sight of their Lord. You can almost feel their forlornness in the way Luke crafted this scene.
You see, the disciples had different ideas, and they were left feeling like this wasn’t at all what they expected. All the time they spent with Jesus before his crucifixion, they heard him talk about the Kingdom of God. In fact, that topic is the one Jesus touched on the most. But, by and large, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the Kingdom of Israel. That’s the question they asked Jesus after he taught them about the not-too-distant arrival of the Holy Spirit. They said, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (CEB).
The early church had an expectation of apocalypse now – the end was coming soon. Jesus had been killed, he had defied death itself by being raised and showing himself to the disciples by “many convincing proofs,” (CEB), and he would bring about God’s kingdom (also known as the kingdom of Israel) any moment now. That’s what they believed would happen.
There’s a good reason why it took the early followers of Jesus a few decades to start writing down the events that shaped their lives when Jesus walked among them. You don’t write church history when you expect the end to come at any second. It took the church a while to realize the new age they had entered was a time between times. The end would come, but not yet. The work of Jesus Christ spelled victory over sin and death, and the fulfillment of every promise God made to the human race, but not yet. God’s kingdom had come, but not yet in its full form.
Acts of the Apostles was Luke’s second book. The Gospel of Luke recorded the activity of Jesus in his earthly ministry. It ends with his triumphal resurrection and ascension to glory. The book of Acts picks up at the ascension, and begins with a recap. It’s like watching a TV show where they give a little recap at the beginning of sequential shows, Last time on Supergirl…
In the first book, Luke talked about the stuff Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the ascension. In acts, Luke sends the early church on a new trajectory. He recaps the instructions Jesus gave the disciples, tells of their impending baptism of the Holy Spirit, and answers their question about the Kingdom of Israel. Then, he’s ready to go.
When Jesus leaves, the initial response of the disciples to the ascension was sky-gazing. They probably wondered what in the world they were supposed to do. How could they go on without Jesus? How could they function without his leadership and guidance? But two men in white robes asked the Disciples what they were doing. He’ll come back, they said.
In the meantime, the church realized they had work to do. The last words Jesus spoke to them is the plot summary of the entire book of Acts: “Rather you will receive power with the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the end of the earth.” (CEB).
What is the rest of the book of Acts about? The followers of Jesus start with prayer. They receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, then they go out and live as witnesses in Jerusalem, then they move as witnesses throughout Judea, then they sweep across the known world telling everyone of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
That’s the very activity we’re called to as the church. We are witnesses of the one who loved us, who served us, who taught us, who interceded for us, who came down from heaven to become one of us, who died for us, who rose for our sake, and, after the ascension, who continues to care for us and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. That kind of knowledge demands a witness! But are we doing it? Are we witnessing?
I remember one Annual Conference session with Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Area as a guest speaker. I’m recalling this story from memory, so some of the specifics might be a little fuzzy, but it’s as accurate as I can recall. As a bishop, he travels a lot. And he learned that, when he gets talking to people, they kind of clam up when they ask what he does for a living and he would answer, “I’m a Bishop.” It’s understandable. Finding yourself next to a bishop might feel a little intimidating. So, instead, he started answering that question by saying, “I work for the United Methodist Church.” He found people responded better to that, and even started asking more questions about the church and his work.
One time he found himself in a car rental place, and was talking to one of the young men working there. When the inevitable question came up about what Bishop Schnase did, he answered that he works for the United Methodist Church. The guy at the rental counter wasn’t a Christian, and didn’t know about Jesus. But he kept asking questions. He was curious.
The kicker is that the manager came up and recognized Bishop Schnase. He started listing the stuff he does in his local church, and committees he serves on at the district and conference level. He said, stuff like, Oh, I’m a member of such and such committee in my church, I have this leadership role in my district, and I’ve done this at our Annual Conferences.
And Bishop Schnase looked at him, then looked at the employee who hadn’t known anything about Jesus before Bishop Schnase spoke with him, and he wondered where the disconnect was. How could this manager do all these things and serve in all these ways and fail so miserably at the one thing Jesus calls us to be? How could he not have ever told this spiritually famished employee anything about Jesus in all the time they had worked together? The manager had been standing in the middle of a ripe field, ready for the harvest, and hadn’t bothered to reach his hand out to pull in a single grain.
What is the point of a Christianity that doesn’t witness? What is the point of a faith that we keep to ourselves? It doesn’t mean that we have to go preach on street corners. It does not mean we beat people over the head and tread on them with self-righteous intrusions into their lives. We don’t wield Jesus Christ as a weapon to beat people into submission.
But being a witness does mean that we act like witnesses, that we share our stories, that we build relationships with others even if it’s just getting to know the guy at the rental car counter. We can be an un-intrusive witness like Bishop Schnase simply by talking to people and showing some interest in their lives.
The thing about the Ascension is it’s tied to the resurrection. What happened to Jesus: death, resurrection, and exaltation, will happen to us. The Ascension is this crucial piece of God’s revelation to us that we are a part of something greater and grander than we can possibly imagine. It’s one more piece of the story that tells us of God’s profound love for the human race, for each one of us, and God’s intention to bring us into full communion with God’s own self.
Until those promises are fulfilled in all their fullness, we have access to the Holy Spirit during this between-time. The Holy Spirit empowers us to move from passive waiting for Jesus to come fix all the world’s problems to working actively as witnesses to God’s healing power.
It’s almost like the relationship between a pastor and a congregation. Some people think pastors exist to do ministry instead of the church members. Like, you hire me to do your work for you. Let me tell you, I’m not here to do ministry for you. I’m here to do ministry alongside you as a partner, guide, and fellow servant of God. Part of my job description actually states that my role is to prepare and equip the people of the church to do ministry. God needs us to do ministry. God needs us to be witnesses. That’s our calling. That’s our job description. So, how are we doing with that?
Later on in Acts, the members of the early church were accused of upsetting the whole world (Acts 17:6). Another way to translate it is turning the world upside down. And honestly, when the church is busy turning the world on its head by witnessing to the values of God’s kingdom, we can be confident that we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets before him who did the very same thing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!