Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Ephesians 1:15-23 – With the eyes of your heart enlightened, may you know the hope to which God has called you.
Luke 24:44-53 – I am sending what the Father promised, so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.
A Heart for Change
- A book of daily devotions
- Some discussion questions for small groups and
- Some background material for pastors and group leaders
Recruit your small groups leaders. Start some home groups. Contact me if you have questions.
We are in the second year of our lectionary, a Markan year, with a smattering of John. We have just come through three weeks of John texts: John 10, on Good Shepherd Sunday, then John 15 the last two weeks, about being connected to the vine, bearing fruit, and loving one another. This week is Ascension Sunday, followed by Pentecost on May 24.
Ascension Day is one of the six major festivals of the church year. It falls on Thursday, however, most Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic congregations will celebrate it on Sunday.
If you celebrate Ascension on Thursday, and not Sunday, the lessons appointed for Sunday Easter 7B are:
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 – The selection of the final disciple.
Psalm 1 – The righteous flourish.
1 John 5:9-13 – I write that you may know you have eternal life.
John 17:6-19 – Susan Hedahl (Gettysburg Seminary) tells us this gospel reading is the first half of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before his crucifixion. The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane in the Synoptic gospels does not appear in John.
The Feast of Ascension
The Feast of the Ascension marks a novena, nine days of prayer for the gift of Holy Spirit after Ascension Thursday, before the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday.
The ascension is a foreshadowing of our entrance into heaven. It is a mystical understanding of the transition from this life to the next both in body and spirit.
Several characters in the Bible are declared to be assumed into heaven: Jesus, Enoch, and Elijah. Lutherans do not subscribe to the Assumption of Mary, but in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared:
“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”
Other religions besides Judaism and Christianity believe in ascensions. For example, in Hinduism, Yudhishthira of the Mahabharat is believed to be the only human to cross the plane between mortals and heaven in his mortal body. In Islam, Muhammed is believed to have ascended into heaven at the site of Dome of the Rock. The Ascension, therefore, was a mystical way that ancients proclaimed the uniqueness of the human character with divine qualities.
The Ascension is professed in all three creeds. Ascension is a public holiday in some countries. It is not mentioned by Matthew, Mark, or Paul, though the author of Ephesians mentions cryptically that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, who has placed all things “under his feet.” It is unknown if these authors are unaware of the story of the ascension or if it simply doesn’t figure prominently in their theology. It appears in Acts (Luke) and is mentioned in John.
Here is a website of some of Luther’s sermons, from an LCMS congregation in Kentucky, arranged by the liturgical year. There are five Ascension sermons here by Luther, three on Mark’s commission (the not-so-great commission) and two on John. The former tend to focus on the things that the post-resurrection Jesus said to the disciples in the 40 days between the resurrection and ascension. Two things strike me about these sermons: First, I am struck with how long these sermons are. I have been told by Luther scholars that Luther’s sermons were actually shorter than those of his contemporaries, but these particular sermons are not short by modern standards. Second, I am interested in how mission-focused these sermons are. It’s Luther the evangelism guy. The John sermons are shorter, focused on faith and gospel, as usual. None of them spend time on the actual physical act of ascension. Luther seems more interested in the implications: Jesus’ expectations for his church.
Walter Brueggeman picks this up, in a 2007 Christian Century article. The Ascension is about Jesus’ departure, instructions, and promise to return. The instructions are the church’s marching orders – its action plan. To wit:
- Stay here
- Receive the gift of power.
- Be witnesses.
I have always been struck with the outwardly focused nature of these instructions. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Jerusalem was the city in which they were currently located. Judea was the wider region in which Jerusalem was located. Samaria was the area to the north, the people with whom Jews did not associate. The ends of the earth left the mission field wide open. This vision would be realized on Pentecost when people came from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem to experience the wind of the spirit, and then return home to spread the good news and be witnesses of what God is doing. This outward mission activity sets the structure of the rest of the Acts of the Apostles: Peter, John, Stephen, and the disciples begin in Jerusalem and Judea. By Acts 8, Philip is in Samaria. Eventually we spend the largest part of Act following Paul to the ends of the earth, in places where our synod delegation is just returning, in Turkey and Greece.
The net affect of all this mission activity was to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Would we get accused of this today? Would we be accused of having a witness so compelling that it was turning the world upside down?
Homiletical opportunities abound. What is witnessing? In North America, immersed with frontier conversion theology, the idea of witnessing leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but a witness simply testifies as to what he or she has seen and experienced. We are not called to convince, cajole, or arm-twist, but only to testify to our own experience, in word and deed.
The ascension looks to the future, to being clothed with power, power to go forth and be a witness to hope in Christ and to Christ’s return. “Why do you stand there gazing into heaven?” perhaps this is a warning for a hyper-spiritualized church. Getting lost in an otherworldly spirituality that doesn’t focus on the suffering of this world is not consistent with Jesus’ reality-engaging earthly ministry. Don’t stand there gazing merrily up into heaven. Engage in a gritty earthly ministry as Jesus did. Jesus’ church is called to mission. Perhaps this is a good Sunday to preach a sermon on mission, as did Luther.
Collect for the Feast of the Ascension (from the Mass of St. Pius V):
Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we who believe Thine only-begotten Son, our Redeemer, to have this day ascended into heaven, may dwell in spirit amid heavenly things. Through the same Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.
Or, here’s one I prayed this morning as I prepared this post:
Life-giving God, before leaving, Jesus commissioned his followers to be witnesses. Grant that your church today may proclaim the love of Christ and the hope of the resurrection at home, in the community and to the ends of the earth, through Jesus Christ. Amen