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What if...?

This is the message I shared with God's people at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 5/13. We celebrated Jesus' Ascension. The text was Luke 24:44-53.

Memories are powerful things. Because of this, I grow sentimental when Ascension Day, which was Thursday comes around. It is one of those feast days that can be moved to the Sunday after. When my family lived in Bethlehem, we worshipped at Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. On Ascension Day afternoon, when the kids were out of school, the various congregations of Redeemer (Arab, Danish, German and English) would meet on the Mount of Olives, behind Augusta Victoria Hospital for a picnic and a multi-lingual service. The hymns we sang all had very familiar tunes, so each of us sang in our own language. It was like an aural symphony. Throughout this post, you'll see pictures of the grounds of Augusta Victoria Hospital. To the left is 
a picture of the area all the kids liked to play on. By the way, I was in contact with the current pastor of Redeemer and she said they still have that service at 4:30!

Why do we bother celebrating the Ascension? First of all, Ascension refers to Jesus rising from the earth to return to his Father. It has “less to do with geography (where Jesus is) than it does with his exaltation (who Jesus is). [It] firmly establishes him as the Lord and Messiah, exalted at God’s right hand in ways [that are] not merely physical…The ascension of Jesus speaks volumes about who Jesus is, without confining him to house arrest until he returns again” (Troftgruben).

What if all the disciples had to rely on were their feeble memories of their time with Jesus while he engaged in his earthly ministry? Throughout the gospels, we see how they have a hard time remembering the things Jesus taught them. 

Rather than scolding his followers for earlier hiding in fear, here we see the risen Christ, the patient teacher and reminder of everything Jesus had lived and taught his disciples. After all, the ball was now in their court. Jesus didn’t just lecture his disciples like he was preparing them for a final exam. “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45). 

Not only was the disciples’ understanding of scripture enriched, but Jesus recalls the highlights of Luke’s gospel and deems them necessary acts of God’s purposes. I can only imagine this as the ultimate “Aha” moment of their lives thus far. The light went on and the disciples understood in a way like they never had before. We too need to approach God’s word with minds and hearts opened by the Holy Spirit, listening for the Spirit to enlighten our understanding.

Now we come to the promises Jesus gave his followers. For one thing, Jesus was calling them to be witnesses (vv. 48-49). The interesting thing is, Jesus was asking them to be and do what they already were. He said, “You are witnesses of these things.” The commissioning of the disciples was also rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, as Luke writes, “Thus it is written” that Jesus was to suffer and rise and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be “proclaimed in his name…” (vv. 46-47).

Ok, one cannot help but wonder, “What things were the disciples witnesses of?” Those things are the suffering, death, and resurrection of their Lord and of how this was God’s plan all along as Jesus connected the Hebrew Scriptures with what occurred in his life and ministry. This is more involved than simple prophecy and fulfillment, but rather that the gospel is in continuity with what God has been doing and planning in the Jewish scriptures, which is repeatedly underscored by Luke. The Hebrew Scriptures bore witness to Jesus, which was the heart of the earliest preaching, according to Acts. Those are all things in the past, but in this passage of scripture, Jesus also turns the focus on the disciples and their future. 

Being a witness is not a spectator sport. The word we translate as witness is from the Greek word for martyr. Often in the early church that was exactly the case. That is what was at stake for any that would live their lives as Christ-followers, particularly if they dared to speak to others about the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. To be a “witness” is language for the comprehensive call to testify about Jesus “to the end of the earth” as is written in Acts (1:8; 2:32; 3:15 etc.). 

How could these disciples who had messed up so much be effective in their lives of witness? Jesus said he was sending “what the Father promised…[that they would be] clothed with power from on high” (v. 49). In other words, Jesus was sending the Holy Spirit to be with and in God’s people, to enable them to do the miraculous deeds we read of in the Book of Acts. If you’ve never read Acts, do so soon. It is a page-turner that will challenge you. 

Luke is the only gospel writer to write of the actual, physical ascension of Jesus to the Father. He tells us that Jesus took his disciples out near Bethany, about 1.5 miles to the east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (wikipedia.org). It was as if Jesus was leading them to the trailhead that would lead to the Gentile mission, but prevented them from beginning their journey until they received the promised power of the Holy Spirit.

The point of Jesus blessing his disciples is doubly emphasized in today’s gospel reading. First, we’re told he lifted his hands to bless them and then while blessing them he “was carried up into heaven” (v. 51). This kind of blessing is an act in which “the thing pronounced becomes true through its being pronounced” (St. J. HOARE). When Jesus blesses the disciples, they are made happy by the act of blessing. 

We’re told Jesus was taken up to heaven. Don’t you wonder where heaven is? As theologian and teacher Robert Jenson wrote, heaven is “wherever God is.” In worship, we catch a glimpse into heaven. Heaven comes to us in the everyday stuff of bread and wine, water and words. Do we come to church expecting to glimpse heaven in our worship life? If not, why not?

Time spent with Jesus changes our lives. It changed the disciples’. God had done some tremendous work in these timid, fearful disciples. Remember Jesus’ first visits with them after his resurrection? The disciples were locked away in fear. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, we are told they went to Jerusalem with “great joy.” That’s quite a transformation. Jesus’ blessing was powerful. Do you think that if Jesus could do that in the disciples’ lives he could transform us as well?

I recently read a reflection that expresses Jesus’ ascension and its meaning in this way:

It’s 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. [Martin Luther taught about the “ubiquity” of Christ, that is, that Christ is in the bread, in the community of believers and in all things]. 
And next Sunday is Pentecost—Holy Spirit, come—this is the one who comes as promised, to call, bring together, inspire, and make holy. (sundaysandseasons.com)
Let us watch for the presence of Christ. Where do we find that? We find Christ’s presence wherever and whenever God’s church pours itself out in love for others. Such outpouring of love can be expressed in many ways. There are those in our congregation who cannot leave their homes to do the things they need to such as shopping, doctor’s appointments or the social activities that so enrich our lives. One of the things the members of Grace Lutheran Church in Petersburg, WV, where I did my internship, do is they visit those that missed church and bring them the bulletin. We email or mail them out, but there is nothing like the personal touch.

Friday I visited one of our ladies who has recently come home from rehab. We did something really special together. Along with her sister, who was helping her, we went into the kitchen for coffee and a snack. The table was neatly set with three place settings of china. We had a very elegant and enjoyable coffee klatch. It made me think of a tea party, except for the drink being coffee. 

We can be creative. Maybe you’d like to help someone get groceries, but you really don’t have the time to do so. What if those groceries were ordered online and then you picked them up and delivered them? 

As I’ve said many times, there are many organizations through which we can be witnesses of the gospel and God’s love: St. Susan’s, Love Inc., UCAN, the Jamestown mission. The list goes on and on, as well as those things our congregation is already involved in through Caring and Sharing, the Honduras Mission and the 5 and 2 Ministry. 

As we come to know Christ and the hope to which he has called us, may we have open minds, enlightened hearts, and be clothed with power from on high so that we may spread God’s kingdom throughout the world (sundaysandseasons.com). 

Amen!

References

Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation, Luke

William R. Herzog II, F. Bolton Joyner Jr., Feasting On the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide.

Wilk Miller, correntsjournal.org


Troy Troftgruben, workingpreacher.org

Pictures from Rev. Mark Brown and the ELCJHL website.

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