Spectator or Witness

Ascension of Jesus, Andrei Rublev (1408)

My sermon from yesterday. Text was Acts 1:1-11

Ascension is a difficult day to understand. It is the most overlooked feast day. After all, who wants to spend time in church remembering and celebrating when Jesus left his disciples?  It is difficult to understand because we wonder, why would Jesus leave his disciples? After all, they left their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods, and their families to follow him. They had been through an emotional roller coaster beginning with a unique and confusing Passover feast, a prayer session in Gethsemane so intense that Jesus sweat in thick drops, and a death, only to be followed by a resurrection, only to, forty days later, leave again.

The gospel writers record some of the appearances of Jesus with the disciples after his resurrection, but what did he do with them for those forty days?  We don’t exactly know. Perhaps he was teaching them how to carry on after he leaves. Of course, the disciples probably thought that he would never leave.

But sure enough, Jesus leads the eleven disciples (remember Judas was out of the fold) out of the city and into the suburbs, and onto a mountain called Olivet so that they could spend some time together. So they are on this mount together, and the disciples are all looking at one another, wondering together who will be the first one to ask the question that they are all thinking. Finally, one of the disciples musters up the courage to ask Jesus, “Teacher, is now the time when you are going to throw off the Roman Empire and gain freedom and liberation for Israel as God’s people?”

I can only imagine that Jesus would have done a facepalm, followed by a closed-eye head-shaking, followed by a “you still don’t get it.” You see, during his entire life and ministry, Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s work is far broader and far more significant than simply one nation. The kingdom that Jesus was trying to point them to was and is not a kingdom with physical and visible sociopolitical boundaries, it is a kingdom which is a spiritual reality, a kingdom which transcends differences and divisions that we experience and continue. Calling this kingdom a spiritual reality does not make is something which is made up, it is very real, and it includes people from every race, language, and nation.

Jesus had been trying to teach them that military and political victories were not the things to look for, Jesus was trying to teach them that the way to victory was through humility, through service, and even through sacrifice, Jesus had been trying to teach them that not even death has the final word.

And here they are, asking Jesus if this was the time for him to stage his coup.

Perhaps Jesus sounded like a broken record, because the told them again, “The timing for all this — when everything will be made right — is not for you to know! But,” he said, “You’re not going to be left alone, the Holy Spirit will be with you, and I’m going to put you to work.”

“Work?” they may have asked, “What are we supposed to do?”

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…” and the disciples nodded their heads. “…and in all Judea and Samaria…” And at this point their eyes widened as he just made their task that much bigger. It was like if Jesus said to us, “Tell people about me in Milwaukee.” Okay, big task, but manageable. Then Jesus says, “Not only in Milwaukee but in all of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota.” That is a much bigger task. But Jesus still isn’t done. He finishes, “…and to the ends of the earth.”

There is this word, “witness.” We use the word witness most of the time in legal contexts.  Witnesses are called to testify in a trial. A witness is someone who has a personal knowledge or experience of something. So when Jesus tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses, he is not just telling them to tell others about him, he is telling them to share with others the experiences that they have had, the first hand knowledge that they had.

Now Jesus knows when to make an exit. After Jesus finishes giving them this seemingly impossible task and placing it in their laps, he goes up into the clouds. Then, it was thought that heaven was above us. It may or may not be up, it’s probably more just beyond. As Jesus ascends, the disciples view of him is obscured because a cloud moves in, and for a moment they can’t see him. However, as the cloud moves out of their way, they still don’t see him. Jesus is gone.

I can’t imagine what they were thinking or feeling. They were probably feeling a mixture of excitement and loss.  I’m sure you are probably familiar with the feeling. The kids grow up and the move out. You are excited for them to start their own lives, but you walk past the room where they used to stay, which used to be filled with life, and it now sits quiet, still, and fills with dust. It is the feeling when you move to a new home, either a house or apartment, and you may be excited about it because it is a good thing to move, but you walk past your old home and you see other people on your porch, other children in the yard. A home, regardless of whether you own or rent, a home which was filled with hopes and dreams, some of which had come true, others of which still remain as a goal.  I can imagine this was the mixture of feelings they would have experienced here.

Excitement while Jesus was being lifted up, as Luke tells us, and then he is swallowed up by a cloud. They can’t see him anymore, and they wouldn’t see him again. Absence. Loss.

So they stand there, looking up. What else was there to do? Scanning the sky. Looking for a sign, looking for a direction, trying to figure out what has happened and what to do next. So as they stood there, with their necks craned upwards, they did receive a message, not from the sky, but from right behind their backs.

Now Luke tells us that these men were in dazzling clothes, but I will bet anything that they were angels. “Guys, what are you doing?” the angels asked. “Why do you stand there and look up to the sky?  This Jesus who you saw taken up is not gone, he will be back in the same way that you saw him go!”

You see, Jesus wasn’t gone from the disciples, he is simply gone for now — and — the work of Jesus was not ending, it was just beginning. Luke breaks his narrative up into two books, the Gospel according to Luke, which tells the story of Jesus from his birth to the ascension, and the Acts of the Apostles where Luke tells the story of Jesus (and the community of Jesus) from the ascension and much of the early church.

We have the ability to see that the story of Jesus was not finished with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and the story is not even over now. It is a story that we are a part of as well, a story that we can find ourselves in. This is a story that continues to grow when people tell others about the encounters that they have had with God, even if it was not some big deal with fireworks and all the special effects. When we gather together to worship God, when we come together to read from scriptures and the presence and action of the Triune God all through it, when we seek to follow the teachings and commands of Jesus, when we show people in loving ways that redemption and sanctification is offered through Christ, we continue in this story, and we help to continue this story. When we are active in being Christ’s witnesses we are involved in the work of the living Christ who is not gone, but will return in the same way that he left from us.

I’m sure the disciples thought that this was an impossible task, and we may think that it may be an impossible task. Indeed, if it was all up to us, it would be impossible. But it is not all up to us. We have the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity who was active in creation with God the Father and God the Son, and continues to comfort us and empower us. If this task that Jesus dropped into the laps of his disciples was completely up to them, it would be impossible. If this task that Jesus gives to us is completely up to us, it will be impossible. But we aren’t given an impossible task, and we aren’t expected to do it all on our own either.

So as we read about and consider the ascension, we have a choice here. We can be a spectator or a witness. We can be disobedient to Christ’s call, or we can be obedient. We can be passive and watch the story go by, or we can be participants in this story. We can stand there and just gaze up into an empty sky, or we can realize that our work is on earth.

It is a step of faith, no doubt. Gazing up at the sky is easy, it is pretty safe. We can spend our entire lives and do nothing just desiring to go to heaven and desiring nothing more. But we don’t take this step of faith alone. We always have God with us, granting us grace and strength to take that that step.

So just as so long ago, we have these angels asking the disciples, “Why do you stand there and look up to the sky?” We hear the same thing. After all, there’s work to do.

2 responses to “Spectator or Witness”

  1. I really like reading the sermons you preach: thanks for sharing them! I no longer attend a church in the Reformed tradition, so now Ascension Day just slips by with no recognition (whereas we used to go to church mid-week to celebrate it!). These are the words of your message that spoke most deeply to me: “So as we read about and consider the ascension, we have a choice here. We can be a spectator or a witness. We can be disobedient to Christ’s call, or we can be obedient. We can be passive and watch the story go by, or we can be participants in this story.” I mentioned in a comment awhile back that one of your posts had helped me when I was helping 2 friends in conflict. Well, now I’m IN the conflict. But your words are helpful because they confirm for me that (in this case at least) participation, not spectatorship, is necessary. Praying for God’s wisdom, though. Thanks again for sharing this.

    1. So glad that you find them helpful. I was initially a bit apprehensive to put my sermons up here, but I’m glad that they seem to be well received! So sorry to hear that you are now in the midst of the conflict. Conflict is never easy, and I hope for a beneficial resolution.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I always am so appreciative of your encouraging words!

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