Jesus’ Ascension, Acts 1:6–14
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Our reading today is from Acts 1:6–14. It’s the Ascension.
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
Thursday last week was Ascension Day. That along with Pentecost seem to be a few of the Christian festivals that haven’t yet been hijacked for commercial reason. I wonder what on earth we are doing if we don’t celebrate and act on the final words of Jesus?
This week saw a new season of Bible studies within Main Street on the topic of Christian jargon. This week we looked at the word repent and repentance, and discussed that it wasn’t only about saying sorry to God for our sin, but that there was more about action. The Hebrew word for repent, means to return, to come back, like a homecoming. Whilst the New Testament Greek interprets repentance as a change of mind. It’s not necessarily only about saying sorry to God for our sin. The word seems to have a deeper meaning than we might have first thought. As part of the conversation we were also reminded that’s our church commemorated its 148th birthday this week. Before we became us, the building had been a chapel of ease, a simple building put up for temporary purposes while St. Lawrence’s was being renovated. The Chapel was known as St. Dunstan’s. Last Tuesday was St. Dunstan’s Day. This week for us, St. Dunstan’s and Ascension Day, has been a week to celebrate and to remember. It’s my guess that more Christians have celebrated Ascension Day than they did St. Dunstan’s.
Ascension is the day traditionally remembered for Jesus returning to his Father, God. His work is now complete, he leaves his disciples to continue the work he began. “You’ll be my witnesses,” he said. Different commentators argue about the precise nature of how the Ascension occurred. John Stott, for example, takes a traditional view in the way that we heard, or we imagined in our minds. I noticed that he wrote his commentary in the early 1990s and used even older references to back up his own thoughts. Another theologian, Tom Wright, who had been Bishop of Durham, in a previous life, if you like, suggests that many hymns and prayers of the 18th and 19th century speak of heaven as our ultimate home, but remarks that this isn’t how the Bible normally puts it. He says, “In the Bible, heaven and earth are two halves of God’s created world. Heaven is God’s space, earth is our space. Wright goes on to say that heaven isn’t just a happy place where God’s people go when they die. It certainly isn’t home, if by that you mean our eventual destiny is to leave earth altogether and go to heaven instead.
God’s plan, as we see it again and again in the Bible, is for new heavens and new earth and for them to be joined together in that renewal once and for all. Tom Wright then suggests that the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of this renewal process, and that the resurrected Jesus is somehow just as much at home in heaven as he is on earth, somehow suggesting that heaven and earth are two interlinking, interlocking spheres of God’s reality. In essence, heaven and earth are linked together, because both God created it, but also because Jesus is the central figure of salvation and resurrection as the Messiah for the whole world is at home in both spheres. As with messages in church, Jesus is the central point. Worship of him and what we do with him is part of and beyond our Sunday worship. As such, what I’m going to say about the Ascension should not break from our worship of him.
I said earlier that some Christian writers or commentators have different views on how the Ascension actually happened. Did it actually occur in the way that we read? Or was it written in a particular way that had other undertones? Traditional commentators argue that the actual Ascension of Jesus occurred as the Bible says, and cite that there were enough people who saw the occasion. But then we must consider what we think of the terms, the words as, we read them. The word “heaven”, the words “taken up” or “lifted up”, what do they actually mean? Rather than what we actually think they mean. We know that heaven is not a place beyond the sky. The point remains that however the Ascension occurs Jesus is the central figure, to which both heaven and earth bow, and heaven and earth meet. He is the one where heaven and earth meet. When we read that Jesus was taken up or lifted up, we might imagine that he floats into the sky. Whether or not this is a correct image, we know that Jesus goes into God’s space from our space.
We’ve explored a little bit about the meaning of heaven , just a little bit, and we’ve looked just a little bit about what it might mean for Jesus to be taken up. Then we are struck by him disappearing behind a cloud, and he was hidden from view. Let’s look at it from Luke’s point of view. Clouds so often in the Bible are often the signs of God’s presence. Think of the pillar of cloud and fire as the children of Israel wandered through the desert, or the cloud and smoke that filled the temple when God suddenly became present in 2 Chronicles chapter seven, for example. This is a big challenge for our thinking. I like it when Tom Wright puts it like this, “Jesus has gone into God’s dimension of reality, but he will be back on the day when that dimension and our present one are brought together once for all.” I had never really considered another way of looking at the Ascension of Jesus before this week, and I can now see that heaven and earth are different dimensions of the world, the whole of creation. Jesus is able to inhabit both dimensions, because he is so central to God’s plan, to unify the whole one day. We’ll leave the difficulty of the how of the Ascension now, I think, and move back to terra firma, because that’s where the action is.
The disciples are still here on earth. They remember those last words of Jesus to them. In Luke chapter 24, a slightly different account, Jesus blesses them and then is taken up as he leaves them. In Acts, Jesus commands them to be his witnesses. Now, there’s another word that we could use in our Christian jargon studies, “Witness.” A little story to illustrate what I thought it meant. When I was about 14, I remember telling some mates at school that they should get to know Jesus and that reading the Bible and going to church were really good things to do. I thought I was witnessing to them, as my Sunday school teachers had encouraged me to, telling them about Jesus. Perhaps, if I had understood what it means to be an actual witness, my reception may have perhaps been a little bit more warmly received. We know that in legal terms, witness means to give a truthful testimony or account. That’s why , in court dramas, witnesses promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s how they see it. So witnesses tell the truth. They say what they see, to quote the old catchphrase TV program, “They say what they see.” My concordance, tells me that other words for witness include: to speak well of, to vouch for, to spread the word. Sounds to me like giving evidence. I wonder if I were to talk to my 14-year-old self about telling my friends about Jesus, how I witnessed to them. I think I would want to tell a story about what Jesus means to me. A story that doesn’t just talk about theological statements, but to declare, or to vouch for him. My experience of who Jesus is, for me, is my story, is my testimony. I’ve seen how Jesus worked in my life and I’d like to share that with you, please. Stories often offer more personal and warmer approaches to introducing Jesus to others.
The last thing for Jesus to get his friends to know in this narrative in Acts is that they speak well of him in Jerusalem, those nearby in Judea, even to the enemy in dodgy Samaria across the border, but still in Israel, and everywhere else in the whole wide world. We notice the men in white standing with the disciples asking them, “Well, why are you looking into the sky? Why are you looking into the heavens?” The whole ministry of Jesus was earthbound. According to these last words of Jesus, so was their work now. With the coming of the Holy Spirit due in a few days, this would be Jesus’ presence with them to go into the whole world. The ascension of Jesus meant that his friends could no longer see him physically, but it doesn’t mean that he’s no longer with us. We’ll look at that, perhaps a little bit more next week.
What about us as followers of Jesus now? How do we witness? How are we able to vouch for or give evidence, testimony about Jesus? What better way is there than to love our neighbours? Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that the greatest gift is love, even more than hope, or faith. We are all witnesses. Together, we share and we show the love of God to one another, and to our world. Just this week, I was given some home-made cheese scones. Just this week I chatted with a stressed teacher neighbour over the garden fence about how these next weeks might pan out as children and young people are invited to return to school after the pandemic, and how worrying that might be for some, as exciting as it might be for others. We can all be witnesses where we are because that is our mission.
Who we are speaks volumes about who Jesus is; using our natural abilities to love and our spiritual gifts to serve. We can be used by God in our present circumstances on earth, at home with our loved ones. By showing God’s love, that’s the best way of becoming like Jesus. Acts tells us that the disciples returned to where they were staying. They obeyed Jesus ’ request to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit. They did what they had become used to, they prayed together, even with women, which must have been a whole new way of including everybody around them. They prayed together, they worshipped in the temple. This habit of prayer and worship continued until they recognized in the days to come that the temple building was never the physical place where God resided. Looking back to Old Testament prophets, the Holy Spirit’s home was always within God’s people, not a man-made place or a thing, as we saw last week with Paul talking about the unknown God to the Athenians.
The disciples were commissioned by Jesus to go to Jerusalem. For some, this might mean for you to stay close, or stay home. To Judea, to the places they know well, and local because they know the people and the places and the culture, that witnessing about Jesus will be accepted. To Samaria, well, that might take a bit more coaxing or instruction, because it feels like it’s an enemy territory. Even so, it ’s maybe where God’s presence has not yet been, where he would like fully to be yet. Go, go to these places, and to all those places where you and I can share love. In doing so, share the person of Jesus in our lives, because he lives in us, and he lives through us, even to the ends of the earth and to the ends of the age.
As we come in to land from this talk, whether you are feeling like you are in Jerusalem or Judea or Samaria, or whether you are at the ends of the earth, God will use you. God is with you. Maybe your personality, your gifts, just who you are, will tell people about Jesus. Not everyone is called to be an evangelist or a preacher. As we discovered last week, we are all called to be the best versions of who we were created to be because nobody has ever tried being you before. There will be the odd mistake as we go along and we learn to be ourselves. The ascension of Jesus does not mean that he has gone. The ascension of Jesus reminded the first disciples to wait for his Holy Spirit. Now we know that the ascension of Jesus means that we can have him even closer by him living in us by his Holy Spirit. We will unpack that another time.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Wright, Tom. Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1–12. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008.
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