You Are Witnesses | Ascension Sunday

Luke 24:44-53

44 Jesus 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 from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God. (CEB)

You Are Witnesses

There are moment in everyone’s life when some realization comes upon us that destroys our former perceptions. Like, that moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. Mind blown. No wonder Obiwan and Yoda didn’t want Luke to know the truth. How could Luke be expected to kill his own father if he knew Vader was his dad?

Then, there was the young daughter of one of my friends in North Carolina. She was talking to her dad about her sweethearts sometime around Saint Valentine’s Day. She told her dad which boys were her sweethearts in her preschool class. Then, she asked him who his sweetheart was. When he said, “Mommy,” she looked horrified. It was that moment when she realized Mommy and Daddy weren’t just her parents, they were a couple. They were sweethearts. It changed how she thought about them. Before that moment, she thought they only existed for her. Suddenly, there was this whole past that she had never seen, that she never knew existed.

The Ascension is that kind of mind-blowing, AHA! moment for the early followers of Jesus. Jesus was not merely some really cool teacher who said challenging things and behaved in odd-yet-endearing ways. This is the moment when the early church realized Jesus was more than what they had known. There was an entire history to him that they hadn’t noticed before. His life, teaching, suffering, and death were all a part of God’s activity that stretched back to the beginning of human existence and would continue to reach into the future.

Before the ascension, they didn’t know! If you look just a little further back to verse 36, you realize that, when Jesus appeared to the Disciples, they were terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. They thought it was just an ordinary dead person’s disembodied spirit floating around to haunt people the dude had known in life. I mean, what would you think if you were gathered together a few days after a funeral and the person whose life you just celebrated suddenly appeared and stood among you. It would be a clinic in screaming and pants-wetting.

Even as Jesus spoke to them, they doubted. So he showed them his wounds and invited them to touch them. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like they saw in the person standing before them. He asked for something to eat and ate some fish as a way of proving he was raised from the dead in a physical body. Ghosts don’t eat fish and, as far as I know, you can’t touch them physically. I hope I never find out for certain either way. This is when our text begins.

Jesus reminded them of what he said before about how everything written about him had to be fulfilled. He opened their minds to understand the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms. There have been movements within the Christian church that have sought to downplay the Old Testament books or disavow them altogether. There are people who don’t want to hear sermons on the Old Testament because they don’t think there’s anything of value there. After all, we’re Christians. They think our story is in the New Testament. But that’s not entirely correct.

I’ll never forget when a person came up to me after a sermon that I preached on one of the prophets – this wasn’t all that long ago – and he said, “You young preachers always want to preach on the Old Testament, but you need to preach on the Gospels. The Gospels!”

For one thing, I preached my first sermon in 1999 at College First Church of God at The University of Findlay. It was a disaster, but I’ve been preaching for 18 years, so to call me a “young preacher” was a little condescending. But my biggest disagreement with him was his implication that the Old Testament wasn’t worth a sermon and I should only preach on the Gospels. The Old Testament is Holy Scripture, too. It’s every bit as relevant as the New Testament. In fact, if we aren’t hearing the Old Testament story, then we aren’t hearing the story as it needs to be told. I do preach on the Gospels, and I make it a point to preach on the whole of Scripture and give as much time to the Old Testament as I do to the New Testament. Without the Old, the New makes no sense. A large portion of the New Testament is quotations or allusions to the Old Testament. If the New Testament writers thought it was worth quoting, then we probably need to pay attention to the Old Testament.

Look at the example we have from the New Testament. When Jesus taught the Disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures, he was not opening their minds to the New Testament. It hadn’t been written yet. Jesus pointed backward to the Old Testament writings that pointed forward to him, and point forward, still. If the Disciples and the early church needed to learn what the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms said about Jesus in order to understand who he was and why he came, then we do too.

The life and ministry of Jesus is something that was and is continuous with God’s action and work on behalf of the human race from the beginning. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s deep longing for us and all of creation to be healed from the corruption of sin and death. Jesus’ ministry is a fulfillment of the covenants God made with our ancestors long ago, and we are now participants in that ministry. The ascension changed everything for the early church. It shined a light on the massive scope of God’s saving love.

That’s one thing that we human beings are constantly trying to mess with, and not in a good way. Jesus tells us that the scope of God’s saving love is this: “the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:46b-49 CEB). Through Jesus Christ, God is actively redeeming all of creation, every nation and people. Our problem is that we keep trying to narrow the scope of God’s work. I guess, in part, it’s because we don’t always like other people.

I saw some demographic material earlier this week provided by the United Methodist General Board of Communications, and one of the things that caught my eye was a Quadrennium Report about beliefs of people in our community and country. While the number is quite low at 10.4%, slightly more than 1 in 10 people disagree with the idea that tolerance is necessary for social peace and well-being. Now, we don’t know what portion of that 10.4% claims to be Christians, but I bet some of them do. The idea that God’s message of salvation is for all the world – even those we don’t like – might be a tough pill for some people to swallow. Certain members of the Christian Church have, throughout history, tried to narrow the scope of God’s work. But God has already thrown the doors open so wide that not even the most stubborn among us can wrench them shut.

The early church wrestled with this idea, too. The back and forth argument about inclusion of the Gentiles in the church is splattered all over the pages of the New Testament. Some contended that Christianity was a Jewish thing, and Gentiles had to be converted to Judaism before they could be baptized as Christians. Paul really chewed out that group. There were Greek and Hebrew congregations worshipping separately in some cities. Apparently, they didn’t want to associate with each other too much. Even Peter thought along those lines until he had the vision about eating things that are unclean before going to visit Cornelius. Do not call unclean what God has made clean. The church finally realized that Gentiles were included in the promise of salvation, which really surprised a lot of people.

Another part of this that can seem unfathomable at times is the idea that the Messiah had to suffer and die. That’s the sort of thing that makes us wonder. In fact, there are all kinds of theories in Christian theology that attempt to offer solutions to the atonement accomplished in the death of Christ. No single theory has ever been deemed official by the major Christian bodies in the world.

At its heart, however, is the idea of power. The world sees power as something that is hierarchical. The few who have power stand on the heads of the masses and do whatever they can to hold on to that power. But the power of God’s love is different. God’s love is so broad that it took the worst that the worldly powers could throw at it in the torture and death of Jesus Christ, and defeated it in resurrection to a kind of life – an eternal life – that death cannot touch. The power of God’s love reaches out across the world to invite and welcome people of every nation.

Once again, there’s more to the story and, as usual, it includes us. The followers of Jesus were furnished with power so that we could be the very witnesses that carry God’s saving love to the world. Jesus blessed his followers and was taken into heaven. The response of the Disciples was joy so overwhelming that, for a while, they were continuously in the temple praising God. Then, when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they carried the story of God’s saving love to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem. Our job is to tell the story, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us in that endeavor. We are God’s witnesses to the world, but even the disciples had a starting place, which was Jerusalem. We are God’s witnesses to the world. As overwhelming as that sounds, we can start in our little corner of creation.

We can share what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how God has loved us, and continues to care for us. Who will we tell next?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


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