Acts 1:1-11 Ascension/7th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert 17 May 2015
In recent months, with all the questions of police brutality in Ferguson, North Charleston, and Baltimore, one of the pivotals factors has been the video recording of the incident. People see it for themselves. Pundits analyze it. All of us are challenged to think harder about implicit racism, and how fear and force are a deadly combination. So it is not just the police report versus the citizen report. It’s the power of having a witness.
Can I Get a Witness? is a phrase that was often used by African American preachers in the 20th century to rally support for a particular point in the sermon. In other words, if you agree with me, or if you have had the same experience say “Amen!” Show your support with an “uhm-huh! Yes, Lord.”
The last request of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts before he ascends to heaven is for a witness. He gives the great commission in Matthew – Go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them. In the longer ending of Mark, he says, “Go into the world and proclaim the good news.” In Luke he says, “You are witnesses.” and in Acts he says, “You will be my witnesses.” In John Jesus ends with telling Peter “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” But what does it mean to be a witness? To see something or serve as evidence of something. The Greek word is martus, from which we get the word martyr. I want to talk more about Ascension Day and what it means, but first, let’s read the story.
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."
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 witness to this new reality.
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. Are we one? Can I get a witness? Yes, despite all the division we see in the worldwide church, we are One. Why is Fortieth Day of Easter (last Thursday so important? Because it is the final act of the Resurrection – to take our humanity into the realm of God. And in so doing, our humanity is forever transformed.
And so we can rise above the fray. No matter the conflict, the trouble, the worry you are facing, you can rise above, because Christ rose above. You can take the high road, instead of the low road, where people want to drag you down.
Every time life is dragging you down, just think of Christ rising above, sending you the Spirit, and sing as little in your head. “I’ll fly away oh glory. I’ll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.” When I die can have double-meaning, my friends. Die to self and fly away. Rise above the fray at home, at work, with your family, with your illness, with your personal struggle, with that global problem that seems impossible. Rise above it and believe it can be different by the power of the Spirit. You know what I mean. Can I get a witness?
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.” (Rev. Catherine Taylor, seminary friend) It is our job to ask why, not how, regarding the ascension. What is going on, not can we prove it to be fact? Can I get a witness?
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)
This day is to remind us of our call to be witnesses to the power, honor, and glory of God. If we spent far more time dwelling in and soaking up the power, honor, and glory of God than we spent dwelling on the problems of this world, its evils would begin to diminish by the transformation of those of us who are witnessing/noticing God’s goodness. Evidence of God’s goodness is everywhere to be seen by those who are noticing! Can I get a witness?
I’m not suggesting that we ignore the problems of the world, but that we find in the power of the Spirit a way to address them, because with our own power, we will fail. It is clear in this story that even those eye-witnesses of Christ’s teaching, miracles, and resurrection, were instructed to wait for the power of the Spirit, to trust in the power of the Spirit. And then to go be witnesses.
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, again)
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, and trust in the timing of the Spirit.
God is trying to get us to find our fulfillment 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, we are dwelling in the heart of God. In that secure dwelling place is our true home, where we rise above the pain and despair of this life to the hope and glory of the Ascended Christ. 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. Can I get a witness?
And it is through an awareness of that secure place, that we can speak faithfully as a “witness” to the world. The early Christians faced martyrdom and in our day being a faithful Christian is certainly a task of courage, going against the grain of culture. 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 other that God will provide. The little girl said while dying, “Mommy and Daddy, do you see the angels?” Called to be a witness. Especially when we suffer, we have opportunity to be a powerful witness, when we wait for the Spirit’s work in our lives. Can Christ get a witness from you? Will you cultivate the ability to tell the old, old story that still has new meaning in your life?