Be My Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts)
1 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.”
The Easter season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the attention of either Easter or Pentecost, but it is important enough that the creators of the Creeds took notice:
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I realize that such a statement seems archaic and a reflection of an outmoded worldview. We no longer envision a three-storied universe, with God up and out there. We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve sent space craft to the ends of the solar system. We’ve yet to find this heavenly realm out there. Yet, here we are with the story of the Ascension of Jesus staring us in the face. Now, it is true that only Luke tells this particular story of the Ascension, but does that mean it lacks importance? After all, only Luke tells the story of the continuing mission of God in the power of the Spirit (at least in narrative form).
Despite the problematic nature of the Ascension story, there is something powerful and important present in this story that we dare not miss. While only Luke tells the story of the Ascension, for Luke-Acts the Ascension is the linchpin that connects the two volumes of Luke’s story. Luke doesn’t just give a commission, like Matthew does, Luke unfolds the story of that commission that takes the message of Jesus from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
The Book of Acts opens with a prologue that reminds us that in the first volume Luke gave an account of “all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). Now, Luke will tell us what happens after Jesus is taken up into heaven (volume 2). In this new account, Luke will tell how the church, empowered by the Spirit, proclaims the Gospel to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:47-48).
As Luke’s second volume begins, he provides us with a recounting of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters with his followers, in which Jesus instructs the apostles through the Spirit, offering proofs of his resurrection and teaching about the realm of God. According to Luke, this took place over a forty-day time-span, and it culminates with the story of Jesus’ Ascension (the account in Luke 24 gives the impression that Christ's ascension occurred immediately following if not the day of Easter).
What these first eleven verses of Acts do is mark the end of Jesus’ “visible” ministry, and set the table for the next chapter, in which the Spirit will come upon the disciples so that they can fulfill the commission Jesus’ gives them so that they can be his witnesses, starting in Jerusalem and moving out toward the ends of the earth. They will do this in the power of the Holy Spirit, who will soon come upon them. While both the Gospel and the Book of Acts speak of Jesus’ departure from this plane of existence, the Gospel is less descriptive than Acts. So, when it comes to the Ascension, the second volume would seem to take precedence.
While Jesus was with the disciples, Luke ordered them to stay in Jerusalem until they received the “promise of the Father.” That promise would be the gift of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus tells them that while “John baptized with water, … you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Jesus would commission them to be his witnesses, but they had to wait for the Spirit. Pentecostals often speak of a time of tarrying, when a person waits for the Spirit to come with power (usually accompanied by the gift of tongues). So, the command was to tarry until the Spirit came upon them.
The disciples, of course, still struggled to make sense of things. Despite experiencing the risen Christ, they were still stuck in the old realm, wanting to know when Jesus would finally get down to business and “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). It’s clear that even then that the disciples had a rather narrow vision of Jesus’ calling. They were still hoping for regime change in Jerusalem, but as we’ll see Jesus has a much larger vision, one that was far less localized than this. Indeed, there’s was a nationalist vision. Willie Jennings put’s their question this way:
When will we rule our land, and become self-determining, and if need by impose our will on others. All of this would, of course, be for the good of the world, they suppose. A resurrected Jesus cannot stop such a request from being made, nor could he thwart nationalist desire. Nationalist desire has tempted Israel from the beginning and in fact tempts all people. [Jennings, Acts(Belief), p. 17].
Yes, all peoples want “to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image.” That is, however, not Jesus’ vision of the resurrection. This is not about gaining political power. The realm Jesus represents is very different from the nationalist version. That’s a word that needs to be remembered in every age, especially our own. So, will we live in the old age or embark on a journey into the new age with Jesus.
This brings us to the passage that in my mind provides the key to understanding the Book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus gives the disciples their commission. That commission is this: they will be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” There is a very specific programmatic directive here. They have a mission, and that is to bear witness to Jesus starting in Jerusalem, and then moving outward from that spot into the nearby regions, and from there to the ends of the earth. But none of this can take place until they receive the empowerment of the Spirit of God. That is, this is a Spirit-defined mission.
Having given the disciples their assignment, which is first of all to “tarry” until the Spirit comes upon them, and then when the Spirit comes, they will go out into the world and bear witness to Jesus, Jesus ascends. He rises into the air (yes, this does reflect an older vision of a three-storied universe, but we needn’t get led astray by questions of science and such). The point is that Jesus left the disciples as an embodied person, and gives way to the Spirit, who will lead and empower them for the ministry that is to come.
The danger here is getting caught up in the departing. As Jesus rises into the air, the disciples find themselves transfixed by this event. They watch, spellbound, as he leaves. Jennings writes that the danger here is that Jesus gets turned into an action figure, a “superhero to be consumed in spectacle.” If we get caught up in watching can “easily undermine movement and easily undermine the priority of the journey” [Jennings, Acts, p. 19]. This leads the two men, the two angels, who stand watch in the air, to draw their attention back to earth. Don’t stand their looking up in the heavens, just remember that the Jesus who was taken up into the heavens will return in the same way they saw him leave (in the clouds, presumably).
There is a time for tarrying, but tarrying isn’t the same as staring up into space. As the story continues, even before the Spirit falls, they do some prep work to get ready. The point is, however, that the work of Christ’s witnesses requires the presence of the Spirit. Without that Spirit no program, no how wonderful will work. With the Spirit, however, the mission of God will take us to the ends of the earth.