OBSERVANCE OF THE ASCENSION
June 20, 2012
“No One But Us”
The most important part of this text from Acts is not Jesus’ physical ascension. That may sound like blasphemy to you, standing, as I am, in front of this great stained glass window above the altar depicting the ascension of Jesus, with Isaiah and St. Paul. The theological implications of this event are shown in the figures present. The fulfillment of promises, and the promises to come are shown. Still, it is not the most important part of the story. It is the force, the impetus if you will, behind what is important: Jesus tells the disciples to go and be his witnesses.
“You will receive a power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And Luke follows that general geographical outline as he tells his series of dramatic tales, beginning with the Spirit’s fall in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and ending with Paul’s open preaching in Rome (Acts 28), the “end of the earth” of the Roman world in which Luke lives.
I do not believe that I am making too much of a stretch to say that the world we live in is very similar to Luke’s. I make note of this to say that I think I know what the disciples were up against. In my mind’s eye I see them trudging down off the mountain, murmuring to one another something to the effect, “Really? I don’t even know any of those people.” Or, “they don’t even know us!” Maybe, like the disciples, we just feel inadequate. After all, I am a civil engineer, or plumber, or nurse, or warehouse worker, not an evangelist! If I was Peter, I’d be murmuring about being a professional fisherman, ‘what do I know about witnessing?’
Last week you may have heard me say something to the effect, “let us look to the Holy Spirit to direct the movement of the Church.” This is, of course, part of Jesus’ message to the gawking disciples. They are to wait for the Spirit. Today I want to emphasize that time after the waiting. I realize that a long time has passed between then and now, and I do not believe that the Holy Spirit has been absent, or without anything to say to the church. What I do think is that we have gotten ourselves stuck on experiencing the benefits of this ‘life, death, resurrection, and ascension,’ rather than living it.
What I am talking about is being a disciple. I believe that is the goal of the Christian faith. If you listened carefully to the baptismal questions from last week, you know that what we are essentially asking at baptism is for the individual to live in the Kingdom of God in the present time.
What that means is that we go about our own lives and do our best to live them in a way that glorifies God. As a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not called to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did. This idea is not so much about what we say, as if witnessing was isolated to speech. Instead, it raises questions about how we do our work, how we live in our families, and how we participate in our community.
What the Ascension does is put the Christian life squarely in the world. It does not mean we will cease to be who we are, or suddenly stop our work and move up to the mountain top to wait in prayer for the Lord to return. Knowing this can help deliver us from the genuine craziness that the current distinction between “full-time Christian service” and “part-time Christian service” imposes on us. For a disciple of Jesus is not necessarily one devoted to doing specifically religious things as that is usually understood.
Brother Lawrence, who was a kitchen worker and cook, remarks, Our sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own. . . It is a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer.
Sometimes there is a disconnect between Sunday mornings and the rest of the week. Why is that?
I suppose I do know the answer. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a spectator than a witness. Spectators observe, they do not participate in the event. Spectators can learn a great deal about what is going on; they can memorize statistics, relish the history, wave the home team flag, and have a truly emotional experience. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses.
At the end of this passage, Jesus is gone and, as Luke tells us, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” And then, it was up to us.