Although we will celebrate the Day of Ascension on Sunday in our worship services, the Day of Ascension was yesterday. Tradition holds that on the 40th Day after the Resurrection, Jesus bid farewell to his disciples. Ten days after that, the Holy Spirit falls on the Day of Pentecost.
When we approach the matter of the Ascension there are certain historical-critical issues that need to be taken into consideration, and we must wrestle with the question of how literally to take this. Did Jesus really ascend into the clouds with Angels surrounding him? That is a question to be wrestled with, but not today. I'd like to simply have us listen to the story as Luke tells it in Acts 1, a passage that will in one way or another be part of Sunday's lectionary options.
I have noted elsewhere that I believe Acts 1:8 to be the key to understanding the message of Acts and it also gives us a sense of our own calling as church -- to bear witness to the Gospel from our own doorsteps to the end of the world. This is, to me, part of the missional mandate that the church has.
So, in this first chapter of Acts we find Jesus commissioning his followers to share the gospel with the world, starting from Jerusalem, but they must wait for the denouement of the Holy Spirit. After the Spirit falls upon the church, empowering them to share this message3 of good news, as we read the book of Acts, we find that each step along the way out from Jerusalem, the Spirit is breaking through religious and cultural barriers, so that the new covenant community might be an inclusive one, encompassing both Jew and Gentile. Of course, if you continue reading this story, you'll find that there is tension between these two groups, which suggests that inclusion is always more difficult to achieve than exclusion!
Here in chapter 1 Luke provides us with the first hints that the primary actor in the book of Acts will be the Holy Spirit. After proving to the disciples through "many convincing proofs" that he was alive and teaching them about the kingdom of God, Jesus promises that they will receive the Holy Spirit. Until this promise is fulfilled, they are to stay in Jerusalem. If you go to Luke 24:53 you will find that after the Ascension, [according to Luke's Gospel the Ascension occurred at Bethany while Acts places it at the Mount of Olives (1:12), there also seems to be disagreement between the two accounts on the timing – the Gospel seems to suggest Easter evening while Acts suggests a forty-day period ], the Disciples returned to Jerusalem and worshiped continually in the Temple. In Acts, however, we are simply told that they returned to the Upper Room, where they selected the replacement for Judas and waited for the Spirit.
The key phrase here, however, concerns the gift of the Holy Spirit. In verses 4-5 Luke speaks of the promise of the Father that would soon be bestowed on them.
"This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
Then in verse 8 Jesus continues with his promise:
"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."
In these two passages Jesus stresses the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit. He contrasts the baptism with water that John had offered with the baptism with the Spirit that he now offered. John the Baptist had made this promise at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Luke 3:16).
Clearly for Luke the baptism with the Spirit is superior to the baptism with water. This does not mean that water baptism will be replaced, but it needs to be seen in the light of this promised provision of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In verse 8 Jesus defines what it will mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. By receiving the promised gift of the Spirit the believers will receive power so that they can be witnesses to the Gospel. This theme of provision of power for witness will remain central to Luke's ongoing narrative. Although Jesus may be departing from their midst -- a parting that would have created within them deep grief and misgivings -- as the Book of Acts unfolds we discover that the Realm of God that Jesus inaugurated during his earthly life will now be extended to the ends of the earth.
For the Realm of God to be extended, the church of Christ, will have to do several things. First, it will have to obey the mandate of Jesus -- "Go." Second it will need to be a community of prayer -- once they return to the upper room they will begin to pray. Third, it will require unity -- success in living and sharing the realm of God means being on the same page with one another -- in the Spirit. It should be remembered that the modern ecumenical movement was born on what was the the "mission field," in places like China and India, where denominational conflict was undermining the message. Finally, it will take dependence on the Spirit. Jesus tells the church to go out into the world, but it is to wait for the Holy Spirit. Only after the disciples had been filled with the Spirit could they have the necessary power to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. We find that this truth is emphasized over and over again in Acts, beginning in Acts 2 and continuing throughout the book.
So the questions for us today concern the nature of this good news, the means by which we express it, and finally the way in which we will allow the Spirit to move in our midst. It's important to ask the question of whether we put a lid on the Spirit, which is detrimental to being church. Perhaps we can be like the Disciples, who when they began to wait for the Spirit in the upper room they did not know what to expect, yet they remained open to what God would do in their midst.
But in the midst of all this comes the story of the Ascension, which according to Luke marks the end of Jesus’ “visible” ministry. Both Luke's gospel and Acts speak of his departure – the gospel is less descriptive and the time line is off just a bit when we compare the two. But, when we look at the description of his departure in Acts, we might notice several things.
First, and this would appear to be a departure from the gospel, Jesus has gathered together with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and from there departs. Note that this differs from both Matthew and John, which put this departure in Galilee. In this account, however, we see Jesus gathered with the disciples and having given them the assignment, he is taken up into the clouds. As they look upwards, they are confronted by two men in white robes – could these be the same ones who spoke to the women at the tomb? While they are gazing into the heavens these two men appear beside them and ask them:
“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” (Acts 1:10-11).
The question is: what does this mean? Could it mean that they are not to worry about where he has gone but simply know that he will again return, so be true to your calling? Whatever is the case, the community of disciples returns to the upper room to await the next stage of their journey. The question for us concerns: what are we to do ourselves?