Thursday, May 25, 2017 is Ascension of Our Lord, celebrated on Sunday, May 28, 2017.
Acts 1:1-11 – As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’
Ephesians 1:15-23 – God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Luke 24:44-53 – While he was blessing them [at Bethany], he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
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, Muhammad 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 (of the undisputed epistles), though the author of Ephesians mentions cryptically that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, who has placed all things “under the feet.” It is unknown if Matthew, Mark, and Paul 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.
There are at least five Ascension sermons by Luther, in Luther’s works. You can find them in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, volume 3. They 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.
Our texts consist of Luke 24:44-53, the very last verses of Luke, and Acts 1:1-11, the very first verses of Acts. The texts for Ascension, one of the six great feasts of the church year (including also Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, and Pentecost) are the same for all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. There are only two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke, both unique to Luke: the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and this appearance to the disciples which includes the ascension. Here are both texts from the NRSV:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 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. 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 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.”
Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. The first words of Acts, “In the first book,” refer, of course, to the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 24:49, Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem until clothed with power from on high. The same admonition is made in Acts 1:4. There are a number of similarities. This story connects Luke and Acts.
Walter Brueggeman picks up the theme of the Ascension in his 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
Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for Acts. The rest of the book is based on the words spoken by Jesus in this verse:
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.
Acts begins in Jerusalem, then moves to Judea, Samaria, and then to Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire, or what the writers would consider “the ends of the earth.” 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 Acts following Paul to the ends of the earth, in places from where our synod delegation is just returning: Turkey and Greece.
I have always been struck with the outward-focus of these instructions. 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: the rest of the world. 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.
The net effect 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 and a vision so expansive 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 they have 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.
Tie your sermon to evangelical efforts.
Jerusalem: What does it mean to be witnesses in Jerusalem, among your people? How are we growing our own people?
Judea: How about Judea, as our wider community? How is God calling us, as a congregation, to reach the community around us?
Samaria was the home of those crazy Samaritans, who were considered “other” because of their race and syncretistic religious practices. How are we called to engage those who are racially or religiously different? You may want to recall the fact that Jesus made a Samaritan the hero in one of his stories.
Ends of the earth: Finally, how are we proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth? What does global mission look like? How are we supporting it? Are we tithing and beyond? Are we sending missionaries?
Perhaps this is a good Sunday to preach a sermon on mission, as did Luther.
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.