A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 28, 2017
“Well, dear Theophilus, God-lovers all, the story continues…” writes Luke at the very beginning of the book of The Acts of the Apostles. His aim is to show how Jesus lives on in the life of the church through the empowerment and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the one who fills Christ’s followers with courage and strength. The text tells us that life in the Holy Spirit is not only promised to the disciples in the days to come, the Spirit is actually the One through whom they have received instructions from Jesus. The Spirit has already been active in their lives indirectly; now they are promised direct experience of that same Spirit.
Much of Christian tradition has made a claim for the Resurrection as the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry, but a case can be made for the Ascension. John, in particular, argues this. “…now I am no longer in the world…I am coming to you… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” Jesus prays to God. John wants us to understand that Jesus’ journey is, most importantly, from there to here and back. But, just as important is the message that this journey is also ours. We come from God; we return to God; and always and forever it is in God that we live and move and have our being. This is crucial to what Jesus was trying to show those first followers – and us – in the Incarnation.
Haddon Wilmer writes that “the incarnation of God in Jesus is not to be regarded merely as a single secluded event, a special privileging of one man over against all others, but rather as the pivotal revelation, realized in one person, of the relation God intends and seeks to have with all humanity, through flesh and blood, in historic community” (Haddon Wilmer, quoted in Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, Resources for Preaching and Worship: Year A, p. 154). In the movement of Jesus Christ from there to here and back again, we see God luring all creation to the fulfillment of life in God’s steadfast love for what God has made. “…now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Although the Resurrection is surely a most spectacular event in the Jesus’ story, his life goes on, as Luke shows us in Acts. The good news for those left standing on that Judean hillside is that Jesus not only comes from God, he returns to God. This is the big picture, the true scope of movement for followers of the Way – we come from God, we return to God. The challenge, in the meantime, is to keep our lives centered on God, rooted and grounded in God, allowing God to be the one in whom we “live and move and have our being,” here and now, on this earth. The return will happen in God’s time, according to God’s plan. We can trust that it will happen because we’ve seen it happen for Jesus; we don’t need to worry about when and where.
In contrast to the end of the Luke’s gospel, the Ascension story comes, in Acts, only after Jesus has had an extra forty days with the disciples, “speaking about the kingdom of God.” You can imagine that these followers, who have already demonstrated difficulty in understanding Jesus’ purpose among them, can use all the help they can get if their movement is to have any future at all. You may also imagine that the turmoil in Jerusalem, along with the turmoil in their own lives, from the events of Passover week has not entirely subsided. Though they are elated to have Jesus with them, they are still cautiously hiding out in locked rooms, bags packed for the return trip to the relative quiet and safety of Galilee. They want to go home; at the same time, they don’t want to let go of Jesus.
The challenges of the Jesus Way continue for them. Jesus instructs them to remain in Jerusalem even though he is planning to leave them physically. He has promised them the gift of the Spirit, if they can just hold on a little longer. Their innate curiosity kicks in, though their question shows how much more they have to learn. “…is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” They continue to show short-sightedness, they can’t yet envision the big picture. “Your vision is too small. You’re not ready for nor do you need to know the details of how God is operating here. You need to get yourselves ready for the coming of the Spirit, that will be the next leg of your journey on the Way. It is enough for now. It is all you can handle.”
They are to be Christ’s witnesses, beginning where they are, spreading the good news to the “ends of the earth.” Before they can ask a follow-up question, in front of their very eyes, he ascends into the clouds and disappears from sight. Again, we can imagine that they were dumb-founded, left standing on that hillside, their necks craning to see beyond the clouds, their mouths hanging open. Then, more miracles – angelic voices bring them back to reality: “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.”
From God, to God, yes, but in this coming and going the membrane between heaven and earth is eternally altered. There is now the promise of coming and going in new and exciting movement along the Way. The beginnings of a thoroughfare have been outlined and Jesus has been the first to travel it. The promise is that many more will travel it in the days ahead because these same awkward, gaping disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit will show the Way.
Among other things, this text underlines how God works through the simplest of folk – peasants and outcasts, thick-skulled and fearful folk – to change the world. These disciples are given responsibility for Jesus’ radically revolutionary movement to turn the world right side up. They may seem an unlikely group on the surface, caught up in conventional concern for the restoration of the literal Davidic kingdom in Israel, not able to see beyond their concrete desires for their own welfare, but Jesus stays with them long enough to be able to pass them off to the Spirit who will continue the work Jesus has begun in and among them. They are about to find voices that will indeed speak truth to power and spread good news to the very ends of the earth.
The challenge for us modern disciples is to do likewise. When and where do we find ourselves standing, “looking up toward heaven,” hoping that Jesus or someone will do it for us? How are we hamstrung by our inability to see beyond the conventional into the miraculous promises that are still given to us today as followers of the Jesus Way? What would it take for us, as individuals and as a community of faith, to travel this thoroughfare that leads from God to God?
Those first disciples must have shared with one another their anxieties and fears, their hopes and dreams, their wonder and anticipation as they retraced their steps to Jerusalem that first Ascension Day. Jesus gathered them as a community, taught them as a community, and left from the midst of their little community. The Spirit was promised to them in community. Of course, individuals can and do have experiences of the Spirit, but Jesus makes it clear that it is the Spirit, working in the community, that will spread the good news around the world and bring in the reign of God. That reality has not changed in two millennia, it still takes a community of faith, Spirit-filled, to spread the good news and bring in the reign of God. That is our challenge and our commission as the Body of Christ, followers of the Jesus Way.