Power to be Witnesses

Acts 1:1-11
Ascension/7th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock, our secure dwelling place.

My earliest childhood memory is of mastering bicycle riding at age 4. I could not even sit on the seat, and there had never been any training wheels. I just took my neighbor’s bicycle into the grass and kept trying and falling, and trying again until I got it. Then I moved to the dirt driveway, and finally to the road. Remember the movie ET, when the bike begins to lift off and fly. That’s how I felt. I was flying! I was empowered. Today is a day of empowerment as we celebrate the Ascension of Christ. He flew away, so we can fly away – to a better place now and at the time of our death. Not an escape as much as an empowerment, a transport to another perspective.

There have been a few moments in my life when I recognized in a unique way that there was a power of the Spirit present beyond that which I could describe. I remember feeling transported to another place as we sang Holy, Holy at the table on the day Peace was chartered as a church. I remember being lifted up by God’s Spirit upon hearing glorious music sung by choirs and congregation at the Worship and Music Conference in Montreat. I remember hearing Rutter’s Requiem directed by him in the Clare College Chapel in Cambridge, England, a year after his choral scholar son had died. I remember feeling strangely empowered, almost an out of body experience, the day I read Romans 8 at my father’s memorial service. And I remember, despite considerable exhaustion and pain from an anesthesia-free delivery , feeling powerful and jubilant at the birth of all four of our children.

Jesus promises power to his disciples, even as they are witnesses to this amazing event – his ascension into heaven, not to the great upstairs room of a two-tiered universe, but to the place beyond what we can see, the realm of God and the angels.

Just as Christ, in the incarnation, takes on our humanity to live our life and die our death, in his resurrection and ascension, Christ takes his body, our humanity into the realm of God and this life of ours will never be the same again. We are empowered to tell this story of our new dwelling with God, to operate out of this majestic truth. To abide in God. The ascension is giving me a new understanding of what it means to dwell with God.

Christ prays in John 17 that we would be one, one with him, as he is one with his Father. By ascending with his human body, he makes us one. Why is Thursday’s Day of Ascension so important? Because it is the final act of the Resurrection.

Hear now the reading of the Ascension story: Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2

until the day when he was taken up to heaven,

after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs,

appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem,

but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said,

is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water,

but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time

when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied,

"It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

8 But 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 ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching,

he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,

suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,

will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

NRSV

And see and reflect with me now some of the icons and paintings of this story through the generations.

Both icons, which depict Christ beyond us but still with us, pay as much attention to the followers of Christ who remain waiting for Pentecost. There is a profound sense of the sovereignty of our Lord over all the earth. Rembrandt image uses light to communicate the power and majesty of Christ. Dali gives us a more modern sense of the thin membrane between heaven and earth. It is as if Christ is suspended over earth, but not sitting above looking down. Finally we have the early Renaissance Italian Giotti, who captures the communion of the saints, who are all entirely focused on their union with Christ.

The problem with our understanding of Ascension is that we want answers to the wrong questions. We want to know how the Ascension could happen. There are Biblical scholars and theologians today leading us to the wrong questions, encouraging us to find factual evidence for stories that do not call for such historical, critical scrutiny. It “is not our job to take the Bible's mysterious stories and make sense of them, to get rid of the strangeness or the wildness or the unpredictability. If a story is mysterious, then the church needs to practice being mystified, not jump as quickly as possible to some explanation that removes all the shadows as well as the light.” (Catherine Taylor, http://day1.org/513-power_source) It is our job to ask why, not how, regarding the ascension. What is going on, not can we prove it to be fact?

And so, while the disciples are amazed, staring off into the heavens, like those who have just witnessed a miracle, they are not disturbed that their teacher, master, Lord has left them.

The departing Jesus does not make his way to some distant star. He enters in to God’s dominion over space. He has not gone away, but now and forever by God’s own power, he is present with us and for us. His going away is in this sense a coming, a new form of closeness, of continuing presence. Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one place in the world, as he had been, before the Ascension. Now through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all, throughout history and in every place. (Pope Benedict 16th)

In the Ascension Jesus’ earthly mission is crowned. In this coming back from death and going again , the membrane between heaven and earth is eternally altered. There is now the promise of coming and going in new and exciting movement along the Way. The beginnings of a thoroughfare have been outlined, and Jesus has been the first to travel it. The promise is that many more will travel it in the days ahead, because these same awkward, gaping disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit, will show the Way. (Randle R. “Rick” Mixon)

We celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have. We have power, given to us for the purpose of our witnessing to the power, the honor, the majesty of God.

There the disciples were, a fragile little community, amazingly enough still confused about Jesus’ mission. They are watching their Lord leave them, but they are not upset, just caught up in wonderment. When it's all over, they're worshipping with joy, we learn in chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel. They witness to us of the power of God. They demonstrate to us that they had no power of their own.

Any power they would ever know would be given to them by the Spirit, and they aren't even told when or how. Someone in the group does ask the practical question--someone in a group always does. He or she asks Jesus, "Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?" It's not a faith question; it's a political question. It's the wrong question to be asking, but Jesus is generous in responding. "God knows. We do not know." Jesus says. "Stop worrying about having things the way you want them and wait for something else, a power that is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it." (Catherine Taylor)

How much of our lives do we spend asking the wrong questions, worrying about what we think we need? God is trying to tell us to wait for the power of the Spirit, trust in the timing of the Spirit, and be fulfilled in the unity we now have with Christ taking our humanity into the heart of the God, who is beyond us and with us and in us. In Christ, we are united –body, soul, and spirit, in life and in death – with the God to whom we belong.

Jesus says, in a passage from John 14 so often read at funerals, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” This is now, not just when you die. There are dwelling places for you in God’s house now because of Christ taking your body, soul, and spirit there. “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This now, not just in the afterlife. By the power of the Spirit of Christ, our way, our truth, our life we are dwelling in the heart of God. Though unseen, it is our true home. When we have those moments of keen awareness of the beauty of God, when we feel transported to another realm, when we experience the thin membrane between heaven and earth, then we are noticing where we really are, and where we will always be, more and more as we grow in union with Christ, at home with God, who loves us.

And it is through an awareness of that secure place, that we can speak faithfully “witness” to the world. The word for witness is martus, from which we get the word, martyr. The early Christians were not afraid to die nor were they afraid to speak the truth they knew of God’s goodness and power, because they knew their dwelling place, their home. The ascension assured them of that because Christ was and is now ever-present drawing all humanity to himself, making us one in the Triune God. When we try to dwell, anywhere else, when we cling to any other power, then we ultimately will be stripped down to weakness. Christ’s power is made perfect in the place of our weakness. That’s why some of the most profound words come from those most weak. Jesus said while dying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The homeless person reminds us that God will provide. The little girl said while dying, “Mommy and Daddy, do you see the angels?” The weak and dying child had the power to be a witness, and we have the power to be witnesses, because of the Ascension.

Let us pray:

Holy God, as we rejoice in your secure dwelling, may we know
what is the hope to which Christ has called us,
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,
19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.