Text: Acts 1.1-11; Luke 24.36-53; Ephesians 1.17-23
Many years ago I was approached by a single mother seeking prayer and guidance. Her teenage son, nearly an adult, was living in his father’s home. She was deeply concerned, for her son, who had been given a job in his father’s company, was squandering his opportunity, working only sporadically and reluctantly. Disobedient and irresponsible, he had pushed the limits of his father’s patience and was nearing an age when his father threatened to kick him out of his home.
Knowing he had less than a year before he might be on his own, this mother had made many attempts to protect him from the difficult times that were likely to follow. She tried to impress upon him what it would take to live as a responsible adult and to make a living. She tried to teach him about what he would face financially and emotionally, showing him how to budget his money, manage his resources, and conduct himself as a young adult.
Needless to say, he was not receptive, and this young mother was facing the reality that she might not be able to protect him from the very difficult years that he would soon face. She was learning what all parents do that as much as we try so hard to let our kids know what’s coming and to prepare them for life, they will not always listen and accept the wisdom of their parents. All to often, they need the hard knocks in life before they are ready to meet the difficulties with maturity and grace.
“Will he ever get it?” the mother asked in tears. “What else can I do to help him?”
So what does this mother’s concern have to do with the ascension of Jesus, the subject of our readings today? Take a look at what’s happening Luke’s two accounts.
In this first chapter of Acts, which serves much as a summary introduction to the rest of his story, we find the promise of the Spirit and the almost naive question from the disciples, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom? Now are you going to be messiah in the way we expect?”
The answer, very parental in its delivery: “it’s not for you to know. But in the mean time, the Spirit will come, and you will receive power so you can do what I need you to do and be my witnesses” (see Acts 1.6-8).
Then Jesus leaves them, wide-eyed and staring at him as he goes. The angels show up and essentially say, “Get your heads out of the clouds—he’ll come back you know.” Strongly implied is the message, “Stop gawking and get on with what he told you. You have a job to do until he returns” (see Acts 1.10-11).
It’s all very remarkable. In the Acts account, Luke paints a picture of a parent preparing his children for his absence. Jesus gives his instructions, convinces them that they need to trust him and listen to him by showing himself to them after his death, reminds them that they need to focus on their tasks and responsibilities, and offers them considerable help in the process. “You have a job to do,” he says in essence, “and I am going to provide all the resources you will need to do it.” Then he leaves them to it—kind of nudging them out of the nest, so to speak.
Even more remarkable is what we see when we jump back to Luke’s other account, the one with which he closes his gospel. After the instruction and the promise, after he leaves them with the responsibility, they respond as parents wish their children would. Instead of hiding in fear, instead of grumbling and complaining, instead of grudgingly accepting their task, instead of crying over the loss of their friend and mentor: They worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy, and begin to bless God publicly in the temple.
They still did not know what was going to happen tomorrow. They did not know how often they would be arrested, how many days or years they would spend in chains, or which of them would be tortured or martyred. They did not know how far they would have to travel, how much sand they would clean from between their toes, or in how many strange places they would take up residence and begin the difficult task of witnessing to strangers friendly and hostile. And yet, as Luke demonstrates at the close of his gospel, they were joyful and thankful and embraced their new task, which began with waiting, enthusiastically (Luke 24.52-53).
Are these the same disciples we knew in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry? Are they the same petulant children who often acted on impulse, who whined and fought over position and privilege, who hid from pain and persecution, and who could not quite understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about what was to come?
Of course they were. These were the same disciples Jesus walked with and loved, taught, rebuked, and forgave as parent does his children. They were the same disciples he tried to prepare for what was to come, to save them the fear of his death and to offer them the hope of his resurrection before it all happened. They were the same disciples he tried to give the tools of love and trust they would need to weather the trials ahead.
We have been looking at some of those moments in John’s gospel over the last several weeks, so let’s turn again to John 14 to refresh our memory.
Before we do, let me make an observation. We, the disciples of today—the children of today—have the benefit of looking back on these experiences in the lives of these first disciples and learning from them in ways they could not. If we really take scripture seriously as God’s word to us, we will realize that we have the guidance we need to be children in God’s own household. In these moments we read about in the disciples’ lives, we get a real glimpse into the entire process of growing up in the life of faith. In the moments prior to and after his death and resurrection in particular, we see in the intimate time Jesus spent with his disciples. We see the night he was betrayed and the glimpses of fear and denial as Jesus is tried, tortured, and hung on the cross. We witness the reactions to his appearance after his resurrection, in the upper room, to the two on the road, and to Peter on the beach. In these moments leading up to what we know as the ascension, we get to see how Jesus prepared them, how they struggled and grew, and how they went from being children to becoming friends and adults in the kingdom; from disciples to apostles.
If we really take this seriously, we recognize that as much as this is their story, it is also our story, and we get the benefit of the whole story. So as we look back to those moments when Jesus tries, as a father does for his children, to prepare them for what is to come, listen as though he is speaking to you as well—because he is.
So let’s take a quick look at John 14-17. Jesus just finished washing the disciples’ feet, and he sits down to share his heart with them (after which he prays for them, and for us). Jesus prepares them, as a parent does his children, for the time when he will not be with them—when they will be on their own. Although he says much that looks to the immediate future and his crucifixion, the majority of his comments are looking forward to his ascension, to the day when he returns to where they cannot yet go.
Look at how he begins. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14.1, NRSV). Don’t fear, don’t worry—trust me. I am going to tell you what you need to know, and you need to believe me. And if you do, you will make it! Then the promise—I am going away to prepare a place for you, and then I will come back for you (not to take you away, but to dwell with you). In fact, you already know the way. “You know the way to the place where I am going” (14.4).
Notice the confused and somewhat childish questions the disciples ask throughout this conversation. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And Jesus patiently answers. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (14.5-7).
Jesus makes lots of promises—good, peaceful things he promises to his disciples about this time when he’ll be gone from them.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14.12-20, 25-27)
Wonderful—all is and will be well! But along with the good things, Jesus hints that what is to come will also be difficult, and the promises are mixed with warnings about responsibility and perseverance.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. (John 15.5-6, 10-13, 18-19)
But there is more: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (15.20). Nevertheless, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (15.26-27).
And it gets worse.
I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.
I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes [when he’s going to be about the same business I was—the business that invites the ire of the world], he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (16.1-2, 7-12)
Seriously—what else must they face?
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16.32-33)
Look at the great pains Jesus went through to help them see, to prepare them for what was to come—especially for his leaving. While he is still with them, before he is arrested and before he suffers, they have a very difficult time understanding and accepting what is to come.
Later, when he does leave, when all has taken place, and when his words to them about the persecution that is to come is probably ringing anew in their ears: Just when he leaves as he said he would, and they are in all appearances left alone, they get it, and they rejoice!
If we look ahead in Luke’s account in Acts, we find countless stories that play out Jesus’ parental words to them in vivid detail. They are persecuted, tortured, jailed, and killed. They learn what it means to be hated by the world, and to lay down their lives.
Look briefly at just one of those stories in Acts 16.
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. (16.22-34)
Look at how Paul and Silas reacted to the situation in which they found themselves. Look at the peace they exhibited in the face of prison, the trusting presence of mind that held them steady through the chaos and panic, and the focus they retained on their task, their witness to the Jailer and his family, even the other prisoners.
Often I think we have so much in the New Testament that takes place in extreme situations in a time so long ago that we almost cannot appreciate what really happened, and we have a difficult time understanding how it really applies to our lives in this time and place. They are great stories, but they seem so disconnected from us—and yet they are not. We need to allow the Holy Spirit—the very same Spirit that was to guide them and us into all truth—to give us the same peace and presence of mind and to give us the same holy resignation that keeps us focused on the task without fear of the road ahead.
What did the ascension mean for the disciples and for us?
• They would be persecuted.
• They would learn first hand what it meant to lay down their lives, to work and struggle for Christ and his kingdom.
• They would learn how different his peace is from the peace the world promises—that his peace meant joy in suffering, the peace of loving and serving even when people refuse to listen and put them in chains.
• They would receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit, not in leisure and material provision but in the power to persevere and the comfort of his presence in pain and difficult times.
• They could count on the preparation of Jesus to return to be present with them and give them rest—the rest after the struggle and the hope of a home with the Father when the task is completed.
• And they had a commission, a job to do in the mean time—the cross to bear, the witness to provide, the people to love and to heal, the gospel to spread, and the world, the one that hates Christ and hates them, to reach.
In the face of all of this, they worshiped and rejoiced, blessing God. Why? Because they finally grasped that which Paul desires for all of us to know in our reading from Ephesians.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 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. (1.17-23)
When Christ ascended, he ascended to reign over all things, including in and through us, his body, his church: “The church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1.23). And in that very fact is the peace to endure, the belonging and hope in which to rest, the commission to fulfill, and the resources with which to do it.
When Christ ascended, his disciples, now apostles, worshiped and rejoiced in the face of a daunting task and a great unknown because they finally understood just who it was they belonged to and the full extent of his peace and his promise. They were ready to give themselves over without reservation to the task of building the kingdom, even though it was not for them to know when it would be brought to completion.
They grew up and left the nest.
We have a tendency to talk in Christian circles of living a resurrected life. We are not wrong, of course, for at the heart of all that Christ is and did and what he calls us to is the resurrection. But today we need to consider living ascended lives—lives of maturity and purpose as the body of the ascended and reigning Christ; lives that heed the wisdom of Christ and face our commission with responsibility, that face the unknown with trust, that face the difficulties and struggles with peace and joy, and that face the temptations to complain and worry with resolve and hope.
As Jesus left, he promised his Spirit and inaugurated a new age when he would be present in his people with a power and a purpose heretofore unseen. We live in that age, and we are those people. As we look forward to celebrating Pentecost next week, let us open our hearts fully to his Spirit who is here with us and allow him to make of all of us apostolic witnesses to the ascended Christ.
Let us pray.
Father God, our prayer is simple this morning. By the example of the disciples you have shown us what it means to live under the power of your Spirit and the fullness of the reign of your Son, Jesus Christ. By his words of comfort and warning, by his death and resurrection, and by his ascension, you have given us all we need to know to learn to face this world with peace and joy as we bear witness and do the work you have given us to do. And so we pray that you will find us open to your Spirit, willing to obey our Lord and trust in his promises, and ready to face all that comes with the peace, joy, and hope that comes from giving ourselves wholly to your kingdom and to the task of bearing witness to your love and to your reign. In the name of the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.