St. Timothy, Bemus Point and St. Mark, Mayville. The gospel text is Luke 24:44-53.
What is Ascension and why are we celebrating it?
Jesus' ascension to the Father is basically the conclusion of Easter. The ascension both closes the period of Jesus' ministry on earth and opens the period of the church's mission. It is like God is saying, "Tag--you're it! Now you're me in the world."
This important feast is often overlooked in the American Protestant church. The irony is, this is the third pillar of the Christian faith. Christ became incarnate, Christ died and rose from the dead and Christ ascended into heaven. We confess these every week in the Creed.
The Feast of the Ascension is always on a Thursday, right before the last Sunday of Easter. If it is not observed on Thursday, we can observe it on the following Sunday, as we are doing today. Many times it is skipped altogether, but there are important things that happened on the day of Jesus' ascension that are for us as well.
I have a particular fondness for the Ascension because of my time in the Holy Land. On Ascension Day, all the Lutheran churches would take picnic lunches to the Mount of Olives on the land behind Augusta Victoria Hospital. This included the Arabic speaking Lutherans, the Danes, the Germans and the English speaking congregation.
We ate and then had a simple service. The music was amazing. All the tunes were familiar to all the worshippers. The words were sung in the various languages of those attending. I could imagine that this was the way worship sounded on Pentecost. These are the memories I carry with me into our celebration today.
Jesus leaves his disciples with teaching. Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures (v. 45)
This had to happen prior to Jesus' departure. The ball was going to be in the disciples' court. Practice and training is nearly over and a long season of ministry is about to begin.
The plan of God in scripture contains a message and an offer that constitutes the charter of the Christian mission. The message is that Christ should die and on the third day rise from the dead (v. 46). What is offered is the gift of repentance and forgiveness of sins (v. 47). This is what should be preached to all nations.
It took a while for the disciples to get the part about the gospel being preached to all nations, even though Jesus had opened their minds and taught them and after they'd received the Holy Spirit. It took repeated revelations by the Spirit to get the apostles to realize that God accepts people from every nation who turn to God.
Today's church also struggles when it comes to preaching a crucified Christ and accepting all people equally.
Jesus leaves his disciples with a blessing.
The departure of Jesus consists of the blessing and the ascension. Jesus' blessing of the disciples is placing them in the care and favor of God. They are assured of God's care and attention even before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus leave his disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus said in other places, he does not leave his disciples alone, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. The mission for them is to be Jesus' witnesses. They must not simply launch out, but must wait until God has given them authority from above--being clothed with power from on high.
The Holy Spirit will bring to the minds of Jesus' first followers all that Jesus has taught them. The church's task with be difficult; special abilities will be needed to accomplish it. It cannot be carried out in mere human strength. Just as Jesus' presence at the table has shown, God's intimate, indwelling presence is necessary to carry out this plan.
The three New Testament writers who speak the most about the Holy Spirit are John, Paul and Luke: for John, the Spirit is the continuation of Christ's presence in the church--leading, reminding, teaching and comforting, for Paul, the Spirit creates in us the Christian life and equips us with gifts for ministry, for Luke, the Spirit empowers the church for its mission in the world. If the power of the Holy Spirit was so important for the mission of the early church, what makes us think we can do God's work without God's direction and power?
When Jesus ascended, according to our reading from Acts, two men in white ask the disciples why they were just standing there looking up into heaven. In other words, don't just stand there, there is work to be done. That work was one of waiting for the power from on high. In this hope they returned to Jerusalem and the temple, full of joy and blessing God.
Prior to the ascension, Jesus appeared to the disciples numerous times. He would come, he'd visit and then he would leave. On Ascension Day, Why didn't Jesus just say, "Good-bye" and go? It was important for his disciples to know that when he went to "sit at the right hand of the father," he was really gone this time. The baton had been handed over to them. He would not be returning until he comes to judge the living and the dead. How could they love Christ in their neighbor if they were always on the lookout for another resurrection appearance of Jesus?
Ascension is the completion of the resurrection. It marks the end of Jesus' earthy ministry, preparing the way for the birth of the church with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Up until this time, the gospel was about what God in Christ has done for us. Now it is about what God in Christ is doing through us as his church in the world.
What is the most convincing proof of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus today? It is the daily testimony of God's people that Christ is living and that the work of his kingdom continues.
It's visible through disaster relief in Nepal, through neighbors helping neighbors after a tornado, neighbors helping neighbors during and after a mega snow storm. The work of the church is visible through the work of food pantries, homeless shelters, drop in centers, after school programs, programs for the elderly, hospice and lest I forget, the wonderful work of our Honduras mission.
There are many more ways we here at St. Timothy's/Mark's can have an impact on our community. WE need to look with open eyes and open ears to see where the Spirit is guiding us. Amen.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
John Fairless and Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab Commentary
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/