Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Psalm 47 – God has gone up with a shout. (Ps. 47:5)
Psalm 93– Ever since the world began, your throne has been established. (Ps. 93:3)
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.
This week is Ascension Sunday, followed by Pentecost next week. The texts for Ascension are the same for all three years (A, B and C) of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Ascension Day is one of the six major festivals of the church year. It falls on Thursday, however most Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic congregations often celebrate it on the following Sunday.
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.
As Gail Ramshaw says, Luke uses the term “heaven” to suggest a spatial realm inhabited by God and the angels. Whatever ones model for the universe, Jesus goes to be where God is. Therefore, the ascension is a foreshadowing of our own resurrection, our own 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 have ascensions. For example, in Hinduism, Yudhishthira of the Mahabharata 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. An ascension therefore, was a mystical way that ancients proclaimed the uniqueness of a human character with divine qualities.
The Ascension of Jesus is professed in all three ecumenical creeds. Ascension Day is a public holiday in some countries. It is not mentioned by Matthew, Mark or Paul, though the author of Ephesians cryptically alludes to it, saying Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, who has placed all things “under his feet.” It is unknown if these authors were completely unaware of Luke and John’s story of the ascension or if the Ascension simply didn’t figure prominently enough in their theology to mention it. The Ascension appears in Acts (Luke) and is mentioned in John.
There are five Ascension Day sermons 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 by Luther: 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 certainly 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 up the theme of evangelism in a 2007 Christian Century article. The Ascension is about Jesus’ departure, instructions and promise to return. Like Luther, Brueggeman focuses on the instructions – the church’s marching orders. One might say they are Jesus’ strategic plan for the church:
- Stay here.
- Receive the gift of power.
- Be witnesses.
Notice 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 Acts following Paul to the ends of the earth.
The net affect of all this mission activity was to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6):
When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”
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. The ascension looks to the future, to being clothed with power – power to go forth and be a witness to hope in Christ. “Why do you stand there gazing into heaven?” Perhaps this is Luke’s warning for a hyper-spiritualized church. Getting lost in an other-worldly 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. Don’t build booths on the Mount of Transfiguration. Get to work on 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.
- Ascension in North America is not as recognized as Christmas and Easter, but along with Epiphany, Trinity and Pentecost, it is one of the six major festivals of the church year. In some countries it is a national holiday. So, play it up. Add some festive elements to the liturgy. A large procession. Helium balloons that ascend. Process an icon of the Ascension.
- Consider adapting the dismissal for this Sunday to reflect the call to witness.
P: You will be my witnesses!
C: In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth!
P: Go in peace; witness to the truth.
C: Thanks be to God!
- During the Creed consider ringing handbells during the latter part of the second petition that begins, “He ascended into heaven. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come…”
- Incense is traditional for Ascension. Consider burning incense as the psalm is chanted, or process it with a thurible.
I leave you with some prayers. First, the 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.
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
Almighty God, your only Son was taken into the heavens and in your presence intercedes for us. Receive us and our prayers for all the world, and in the end bring everything into your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Sovereign and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.