On this Seventh Sunday of the Easter season, it is fitting that the first reading is about the Ascension of Jesus. There is a real sense in which Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension are two parts of one glorious act; he rose from the dead and he kept rising into heaven. Between the two risings were 40 days in which he took care of some crucial business, but Luke speaks as though those two risings are the last act of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
“In my former book, O Theophilus, I wrote about what Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven….” Now in my second book I’m going to tell you what Jesus continued to do after he was taken up into heaven. The first part of Jesus ministry was on earth in his body by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then his body ascended into heaven and that was the turning point in Jesus’ mission. The second part of Jesus’ ministry is from heaven through his body, the church, by the power of the Spirit.
That’s what the book of Acts is about—how Ascended Jesus began to turn the world right side up (cf. Acts 17:6 KJV and RSV), so that God is King and we are his willing subjects. Thus, it was no accident that Jesus spent those 40 intervening days doing two things– convincing his apostles that he really had risen from the dead and speaking of the kingdom of God. To promote the Kingdom of God, his apostles had to be fully convinced witnesses of his resurrection.
In spite of Jesus’ intensive teaching on the Kingdom, his disciples were still confused. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” That was not a stupid question. Since Jesus had just spent 40 days teaching them about the Kingdom, it was at the forefront of their minds. Further, as good Jews, they knew all those Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth contains the Benedictus and the Magnificat which surely seem to speak of Israel’s restoration. And from the beginning of his public ministry Jesus preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Jesus responded not by answering the question, but by reorienting his questioners. They wrongly assumed that they knew Jesus’ agenda, so Jesus explains his real agenda. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons…. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses … to the end of the earth.”
Notice how diametrically opposed those two agendas were. The disciples say, “Are you…” Jesus replies, “You will….” They were looking for Jesus to do something for them, to serve their interests, to be their servant. Jesus has already done everything for them and now is calling them to be his servants. They say, “At this time….” Jesus says, “It’s not for you to know the times….” They wanted to proceed on their timetable, but Jesus said that God is in charge of the schedule. They focused on the restoration of their country, but Jesus was focused on their witness to the world. They wanted the Kingdom to come into their own lives, but Jesus wanted them to spread the kingdom all over the world. They wanted to be kings so that their will would be done on earth; Jesus wanted God to be King so that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Their agenda was getting back on top; Jesus agenda was getting God back on top.
As Jesus sets the agenda for the future of the church, two things are especially worthy of note. First, promoting the Kingdom of God and witnessing about Jesus are not in opposition. Often people talk as though they are, especially in my theological circles. People with a kingdom orientation seem more interested in social justice issues to the exclusion of personal witnessing, while people who are committed to witnessing about Jesus think that social justice issues distract the church from its true mission of making disciples.
Jesus’ immediate juxtaposition of Kingdom and witness tells us Jesus wants both. The kingdom is advanced throughout the book of Acts by ordinary people bearing witness to the Risen Christ. When people are converted, they become disciples, bend the knee to the living God and join the Kingdom. The result of such witness is that the Kingdom comes not just to Israel, but to the ends of the earth. Promoting the Kingdom is precisely the goal of witnessing about the Risen Christ. And those who are now in the Kingdom because of that witness must pursue social justice as part of their witness to the rule of God over all of life.
The second thing to note in the agenda setting part of our text is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. Don’t worry about times, says Jesus, focus on the Spirit. The only way you can promote the Kingdom is to witness about me, and the only way you can witness is by the power of the Spirit. You are about to enter Kingdom conflict and you don’t have the power to oppose the Kingdom of this world. “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.”
How audacious, how ridiculous, how thrilling! Eleven apostles with some other men and a few women, one hundred and twenty in all, will carry the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth by simply witnessing to the Risen Christ? Yes, by the power of the Spirit.
Can it be accidental that Jesus’ last words were “to the ends of the earth,” and then he left the earth? His last will and testament were followed immediately by his last saving act. Yes, saving act! Jesus said it himself. “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7).”
So, to further his mission on earth, Jesus left the earth; “he was taken up before their eyes and a cloud hid him from their sight.” None of them saw Jesus rise from the dead, but all of them saw him rise from the earth. Note the frequency of references to vision: “before their very eyes, from their sight, looking intently, why do you stand here looking into the sky.”
People today denigrate eyewitness testimony, because the very act of seeing can change the facts. But it was very important to the apostles (and to Jesus who spent 40 days making sure they could believe their eyes). They didn’t make this up; they saw it. They were witnesses of these things. That would matter greatly as they travelled the earth spreading the Kingdom of God. It all depended on the reality of the Resurrection (and now the Ascension). If he didn’t rise and rise, he wasn’t the Lord and Christ they claimed him to be.
But they couldn’t stand there staring into heaven forever. The angels (presumably, though one scholar thinks they were Moses and Elijah) urged them to close their gaping mouths and move their stunned feet with a promise as dramatic as Jesus last act on earth. “This same Jesus… will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Jesus had clearly taught his return in the Gospel of John, but not with this sort of specificity. He will return in his resurrected body. He will return in the clouds from heaven, so that his return will be visible. No wonder the New Testament epistles are filled with allusions to the Second Coming. Jesus’ Ascension is intimately connected not only to his Resurrection, but also to his Return.
How would Jesus apostles react to the last words and acts of Jesus Christ, their Lord? With a rush to build shelters on the Mount of Olives (as Peter had suggested on the Mount of Transfiguration)? With shouts of hallelujah and songs of praise as the lectionary Psalm for today does? With sadness at his absence, scattering back into their individual lives as they seemed to have done on Good Friday? Or with gladness at his promise, hurrying back to their homes to tell the story of Jesus rising and rising?
None of the above. “They returned to Jerusalem…,” because that is exactly what Jesus told them to do. “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised… in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
It is fascinating and instructive to see how they waited for the Spirit. If we want to continue Christ’s ministry of promoting the Kingdom of God by witnessing about the risen Christ, here’s what we must do as we wait. First, they were together, as the body of Christ. “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the upper room (the same one in which they spent Maundy Thursday night?) where they were staying.” We cannot be witnesses on our own.
Notice how important it was that everyone was there; the absence of one apostle was so significant that one of their first items of business was the appointment of the twelfth apostle. And note how Luke makes a point of including women in the waiting, praying, witnessing body (a foreshadowing of Joel’s prophecy coming true on Pentecost?). They were all together.
Second, they prayed, and prayed, and prayed. “They all joined together constantly in prayer….” They were not praying to change the will of God; they were praying that God would do his revealed will. Well, if God was going send the Spirit anyway, why should they pray about that?
That is sometimes how we reason about prayer. God is going to do what God is going to do, so why bother to pray? That seems reasonable, but it runs counter to everything Jesus taught and to everything we read about the early church. Perhaps the western church is losing members rather than gaining them like the early church precisely because we have let our reason overwhelm the revelation we read in the Bible. For 10 days the church “joined together constantly in prayer,” and then the wind blew and the church grew and the kingdom of God spread to the ends of the earth.
Ascension Sunday, this Seventh Sunday of the Easter Season, is a day to celebrate the ongoing work of the Risen Christ, to pray without ceasing that the Spirit will empower us for witness, and then to actually go out into the world and bear witness to the Risen Christ, so that the Kingdom may come in all its glory.
That phrase in Acts 17:6 ((KJV and RSV) about the apostles “turning the world upside down” is a powerful angle into preaching on the Kingdom of God in Acts. The apostles were actually turning the world right side up. In his great book, Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard summarizes how the upside-down-ness of the world ruins every society. “The end stage of every successful society is when it begins to believe that it is responsible for its success and prosperity and begins to worship itself and rebel against the understanding and practices that enabled it, under God, to be successful in the first place.” Underneath the problems of the world, he concludes, is “the radical evil of the human heart—a heart that would make me God in place of God.” The world is upside down, and none of our attempts to change the world will restore the peace and justice of God until the world is turned right side up and God is King again and we are his willing subjects. And that depends, finally, on the Church’s Spirit empowered witness to the Risen Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 Commentary