Ascension 2017 Year A
Acts 1, Mt 28
My church youth group changed dramatically when K & V, its formative leaders left for a new future. Different people in the group assumed leadership positions. Each had their own gifts. There was Rob the charismatic apprentice carpenter; Richard the brilliant ethics and dogmatics person; Jill the one who led by smiles of joy, warm friendship and a conversational prayer style; Kim, the oldest member and so heir apparent, who was gentle and kind, and tried his hardest to replicate what K & V used to do; Pam and Phil were the great prayers; there were some musicians who tried to keep the old energy going; there was even a visitor from Sydney who sought to take us in hand for a few weeks with some solid teaching about doctrine and its implications.
I can’t remember if K & V prayed for the Spirit to come upon us when they left. I just remember a farewell where we focussed on our thanks and sadness. But nothing was quite the same afterwards. The group continued for some years, but our vision gradually turned inwards. There was lots of talk and strategizing about outreach, but no action. And we hadn’t just lost K & V; we’d lost all their connections with a vibrant and exciting Melbourne Christian scene. So the fuel just gradually ran out; we teenagers hadn’t learnt how to open up to the Spirit’s guiding, and we hadn’t been shaped as a team.
You’ll all remember times like this, I’m sure. I imagine in this parish, the end of one or other person’s time here has felt like that. Where to now? How will we keep it going? What for?
Did the time after Jesus’ Ascension feel like this to his friends? I’m sure it did.
But today Luke directs our focus at the time before his Ascension. Today we hear that Jesus has spent the forty days since his resurrection speaking about the Kingdom of God. Please hold that thought.
The other important thing we’re told today is that he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you’ve heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you’ll be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”’
Where were they thinking of going – that he had to order them to stay in Jerusalem?
He knew them pretty well. And we might be just like them. If I were in their shoes – if he left me again, even after coming back from the grave – I’d want to run away to something familiar; something solidly predictable and real. And Luke has let us know they’re like this; seeking refuge in the familiar.
Remember the thought I asked you to hold on to? Jesus spent the forty days after Easter speaking about the Kingdom of God, but “… when they’d come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
This was what learned from childhood. The Messiah was meant to restore their national sovereignty. Forty days of speaking about the Kingdom of God, and they were deaf to it; stuck in what they’d always thought. He was right to tell them to stay in Jerusalem. Otherwise they’d have gone physically where they were emotionally; home – back to the security of what they’d always known.
That’s a pretty common outlook on reality – on life. But it’s not really an outlook at all. It’s an inward-looking, cautious world view. Luke’s making a point of telling us this – and telling us that Jesus pushes against this sort of a world-view in us. We’re meant to notice how out of place their question is.
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus gently rebukes them. Then he tells them again about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then the actual scope of God’s plan; “…you’ll receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Stay together here in the place I’ve brought you to; wait for God to make the next move, and think about the vision I’m entrusting to you. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then he is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight.
Our church calendar suggests they had ten days to think about this before Pentecost. They’d experienced Jesus’ violent death, his resurrection, his time back with them, and in a moment, his departure again in this extraordinary way. Stay in Jerusalem – you will receive the Holy Spirit – the ends of the earth. Then he’s gone. Think about facing all this without our hindsight.
When we read on, we find that they did do as he’d told them. They returned from Olivet to their digs in Jerusalem and they prayerfully chose someone from the community of believers to replace Judas. Jesus had chosen twelve, so twelve there would be. And next week, we’ll know they’d all stayed there as he’d told them; ready at Pentecost. The fire taken away today would return to set his followers alight in the Spirit; together, still his body on Earth.
The key lessons of the Ascension for us are clear. Jesus’ ministry was focussed on preparing his friends for a mission. Missio means I send [out]. In his ministry among us, Jesus showed us and taught us the content of that mission. He is the Word that we must speak. So he named us as his witnesses / martyres.
That’s a loaded word. But it simply means we must faithfully convey in our own actions and words who Jesus is; we must tell what he said and did. Bjut it’s a loaded word – martyres. History tells us that this mission of being faithful witnesses can mean that what happened to Jesus can also happen to us.
Jesus’ Ascension marked the end of the training programme. Our mission began. The ten days until Pentecost were the time to get organised for it, and then Pentecost showed us that we would not be left to do it without his guidance. His presence is here among us and in us wherever we are led.
Luke records Jesus proclaiming his mission statement in Nazareth. Now that he is Ascended, it is ours to live out in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Lk 4.18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Let us commit as a parish to continue living this out effectively in the world we live in.
So what are our next steps – preparation, readiness and willingness – then what?