We gather tonight, on this 40th day of Easter, to keep the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, reading from Luke’s account of this event in Acts chapter 1, an account that’s similar in many ways to his account at the end of his Gospel. Luke picks up with the story of Jesus’ ascension, here at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, opening the book with these words: I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven. And, even after living with Jesus for 3 years, and after watching him die and rise, and after 40 days of Jesus appearing alive with many convincing proofs, still, the apostles don’t get it! They ask: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?
They’re still stuck in their thinking that Jesus has come to rule and reign here and now, overthrowing Rome and reestablishing the kingdom of Israel, with himself as king and the apostles as his courtiers. And, any time we come to a text like this, I can’t help but wonder what sorts of things we’re getting stuck on and stuck in as individuals, congregations or across the Church. What is it that God in Christ, through the Spirit, has been trying to get us to understand that we miss, because maybe it’s different from what we’re used to, or outside of some boundary we believe God has set or wants maintained.
I find this question particularly interesting in light of the Church’s call for us to discuss and think about who we welcome, and how we welcome, to the Font and the Table – to these central things of our faith by which God grants us grace, through which we believe God works to change and save lives. There’s a definite tradition, in one sense, that Baptism comes first and then, once one is baptized, they’re welcomed to the Lord’s Table. But there’s another way of looking at it, in that neither Scripture, nor Luther, state explicitly that this order must, or even ought to be, maintained.
And I wonder if there aren’t those who have felt excluded by this tradition to the point that they’ve not bothered to investigate the faith beyond that initial exclusionary experience. And I ask that question as one who knows that the closed Table practice of some of our brother and sister denominations has resulted in some of my own family members, my twin sister among them, excommunicating themselves because they want to stand in solidarity with those to whom the Table is closed.
And this isn’t some academic question, in the end, or some mere theological rabbit trail. If we really do believe what we confess to be true, that the Font and Table are means of grace – vehicles that God has chosen to use, through which God will grant the recipient the forgiveness of sin and eternal life with and in Christ, if these are truly God’s chosen means – then what does it mean that we exclude some from receiving those means? And, going back to our text from Acts 1, note that the very last thing that Jesus says, just before he ascends to the right hand of God the Father, is that we, Christ’s disciples, will be empowered by the coming of the Spirit to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And to my way of thinking that means that we had better be pretty careful to make sure that whatever we’re doing or saying in the name of Jesus is a faithful witness to who this God in Christ actually is.
And so I’m glad that Luke starts the Acts of the Apostles out with this reminder that he’s already laid out the story of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven. And we ought to, then, take a moment to remember some of those things that Jesus did and taught in Luke’s Gospel, like
- How the first words he speaks in Luke’s Gospel are: didn’t you know I’d have to be about my Father’s business?
- How his first sermon is about the coming Jubilee of God, wherein liberty comes to captives, sight comes to the blind, release comes to prisoners, the poor receive Good News
- How he teaches and demonstrates love of neighbor and enemy
- How he breaks barriers – religious, social and legal
- How he eats with tax collectors and sinners
- How he heals and delivers and welcomes and lives and dies and lives again
Because remembering all these things helps us to frame our understanding of what it means to be his witnesses even as we live here at the very ends of the earth to which Christ points his apostles.
But we also need to be careful with and honest about the language that Jesus uses, and about what that language says about the nature of our living as his witnesses. You will be my witnesses certainly means continuing to tell the story in word, but as our baptismal promises make clear it’s also about witnessing to the saving love of God in deed, as well. And that’s where the Greek word translated witness comes into play.
The word in Greek is the word we would otherwise translate as martyr – literally, Jesus is saying, you will be empowered by the Spirit to be my martyrs – those who die for the sake of the cause. And this shouldn’t be any surprise. After all, this is Jesus talking here, the One who calls his disciple to take up their cross and follow him. Why would we be surprised to hear him send his followers out to die? He’s the One who has already died for us – dying to destroy our death, and rising to restore our life.
And in the power of the Spirit we go forth, proclaiming that death and resurrection, and inviting all to come and see, to come and hear, to come and experience new life in him.
And in the power of the Spirit we go forth, following the example of our Lord Jesus, dying to self and self-interests, advocating for change, for justice, in this world we live in here and now, so that others might live in the abundance of God’s grace.
And in the power of the Spirit we go forth, striving for justice and peace in all the earth, not drawing dividing lines, not worrying about who’s in and who’s out, but throwing the doors wide open and inviting all to be encountered by the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ, in the central things around which we gather –
- A saving bath
- A word that kills and brings back to life
- A meal of forgiveness and grace
- A sending out to live for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the other.
The risen Christ says: You will be my witnesses, and we respond with shouts of joy:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!