This is the message I shared with St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Ascension Sunday, 5/8/16. The scripture text is Luke 24:44-53.
Tag--you're it! Luke's closing section of the gospel is like a holy game of tag in which Jesus tags followers, saying, "You're it. Now you're me in the world." These are words we gather in worship to wait for, and we don't have long to wait. We're a part of Christ's family. When we meet at the table, we taste promises. We become Christ's body.
Today we are celebrating Jesus' Ascension. Jesus leaves his disciples with instruction, a commission, and a promise of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus' time of instruction with his disciples serves to bring closure by recapping major themes of the gospel and to set the stage for the coming of the Sprit and the work of the disciples as witnesses in the months and years following his Ascension. Jesus' training consisted of teaching the necessity of the things that have come to pass. Initially, Jesus reviews the key events in Luke's gospel and shows them to be a necessary fulfillment of scripture. He reminds the disciples that "everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled (v. 44).
The gospel is in continuity with what God has been doing and planning in the Jewish scriptures. This is repeatedly underscored by Luke. This was no long, dry history lesson of the Jewish people. Instead, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (v. 45). There in a nutshell, is how Jesus interprets his death, resurrection and their significance as the fulfillment of scripture. It was this understanding of Jewish scriptures, that the disciples bore witness to Jesus, which constituted the heart of the earliest preaching.
When God calls his children to do something, he gives them the means to do it. Jesus calls his first followers to be witnesses. Jesus does not dwell on the past, but turns his focus upon his followers, calling them to be "witnesses of these things" (v. 48). This will not be a mere spectator sport. It is not simply about what they had seen in the past, but the disciples are being given a comprehensive call to testify about Jesus to "the ends of the earth" (v. 48).
But the disciples are not left on their own to figure out how to accomplish this task. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come and help them to understand all Jesus taught. They were to be "clothed wIth power from on high" (v. 49). The gist of this promise is Jesus' followers will have the capacity to be Jesus' witnesses in every way that is called for. We see this illustrated throughout Luke's second volume, the book of Acts.
Jesus gave his followers the promise of the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that God is not through with his church, with the gatherings of Christ's people--with us. As we get to the end of Luke's gospel, it is not the end of Jesus' ministry. In Luke's second book, Acts, we see a Jesus still engaged with the world by healing (9:34), associating with his followers (9:4; 22:7; 26:14), and working through those who act in his name (3:6,16; 4:10, 30; 16:18). After Jesus' Ascension, Jesus works in ways that are more hands-off.
What Jesus' Ascension signifies has less to do with geography (where Jesus went) than with his exaltation (who Jesus is). Jesus' ascension establishes him as the Lord and Messiah, exalted at God's right hand in ways that go beyond the physical (Acts 2:22-35; 3:26; etc).The Ascension of Jesus speaks volumes about who Jesus is without limiting him to any particular time or space.
As he ascends, Jesus blesses his followers. The disciples did what Jesus told them to do--to go back to Jerusalem. There, they were continually in the temple blessing God (v. 53). The ending of Luke' gospel implies how Jesus' followers are to live: worshipping God, waiting for Jesus' promises, and do this "with great joy" (v. 52).
What does this mean for us? Today's gospel is a powerful message for those of us who recognize that not all is right with the world, but who live in a holy hope that God's purposes will be fulfilled. Our God is on the loose, desiring to use us to proclaim the good news to the whole world. When we get to the tomorrows of our lives, God is already there, and God's grace is sufficient.
As we come to know Him and the hope to which he has called us, may we have open minds, enlightened hearts, and be clothed with power from on high!
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpretes Bible, Volume IX, Luke
Troy Trufgruben, workingpreacher.org