a sermon on Acts 1:6-14
e have now arrived at the seventh and final Sunday in the fifty-day season called Eastertide, and by next Sunday when we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost we’ll have removed the Easter liturgy cards from our menus and tucked them away for another year. It is a fifty-day festal season, which symbolically trumps the forty-day fast of Lent; a full fifty days in which to proclaim, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
What might have slipped right by most of us was that this past Thursday was Ascension Day, a major feast day in the liturgical calendar. Clearly, Ascension Day doesn’t have near the profile of Christmas or Easter, and at least in North America the churches that marked it as a liturgical feast day drew only smallish congregations. To those outside of the walls of those churches, it was all but invisible. And no, at saint benedict’s table we don’t hold an Ascension Day service… though maybe we should.
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It isn’t hard to account for the low profile of the day. Partly it has to do with the fact that Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday, which is not typically a day for going to church in our generally pluralistic and secularized society. In this part of the world, we are deep into Spring, and our attention tends to be drawn to our yards or to going for a bike ride. Maybe there is a year-end school concert to attend (that is where I was) or a team sport to be played. All very reasonable distractions…
But I suspect that the low profile of Ascension Day has at least something to do with our modest embarrassment around the story we tell that day. I mean, the appeal of the Christmas story is so evident, and the Easter stories are all about death being defeated and hope flowing back into the lives of those disciples; into the life of the world, in fact. Hey, we might even invite our non-religious, non church-going friends to come with us on the days when we tell those stories and celebrate those events. But as it is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, on the fortieth day after the resurrection—and after promising his followers that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit—the risen Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9b). That works very well within a pre-modern flat earth cosmology, but now that we know that the earth is a spinning globe and that “up” is really only relative to the vastness of space, what do we do with such an image? And why would I bring the skeptic friend who has been reading Richard Dawkins to hear this? I think maybe we’ll just go for a bike ride.
The designers of our lectionary cycle of readings, however, have done a nice little end-run on our modern anxiety, and landed the ascension story squarely on our Sunday evening laps. And that is a very good thing.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles actually opens with something that is particularly timely this year. Anyone here not know about Harold Camping, and his predictions that May 21 was to have been judgment day? That whole phenomenon has come under a good deal of mockery, particularly in the days immediately following May 21, but I’m aware of all the shaken faith and broken hope that must now be on the minds and hearts of those who had believed Camping’s predictions so completely that they quit jobs and gave away savings as expressions of their absolute faith and trust. Yet what is it that Jesus says to his disciples when they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answers them by saying, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” which suggests to me that all of the end-times predictions, calculations, and speculations in which Christians have engaged on and off for 2000 years pretty much miss the point. Whatever the culminating fullness of time and history might be, the last thing that should occupy us is trying to nail down the timing of its arrival.
So what is it that Jesus tells them to be about? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I like how the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner summarizes this: in an “almost matter-of-fact” way, “Jesus tells them what God will do, and what their lives will look like as a result. No requests. No orders. No threats. No exhortations.”
The Holy Spirit of God will come upon you, and you will be witnesses to Christ in Jerusalem and beyond, right to the ends of the known world. The story doesn’t end when Jesus departs from them, and neither does it go on a kind of prolonged hold. As the book of Acts unfolds, we see how those disciples bore witness to Christ in both word and deed. Yes, they tell and retell the story—and Acts is filled with preaching—but they also enact the gospel, by making sure that no one goes hungry, that no one is excluded, and that the old values of the empire are replaced by a new way of living. In his second century defense of Christianity, Tertullian observed how it was that Christian love attracted pagan notice: “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness… ‘Look, how they love one another’”
But before that all takes hold, there is still that experience of seeing Jesus lifted up and carried away; a description that makes very little sense to a world that understands at least something about the nature of space and the universe. Yet for those early followers it did make a great deal of sense, and so how else would they experience things? What better way for them to describe Jesus going from them?
And you know, it isn’t as if Luke (the author of Acts) was some sort of primitive thinker. As is abundantly evident in his careful and sophisticated writing, Luke is both a theologian and an artist, and more than just giving us a spatial picture he is offering a proclamation about the state of things. Again from Matt Skinner:
“The right hand of God” is not a place, as if we could find Jesus and his Father sitting in a throne room somewhere, or sharing a booth in a heavenly tavern. The reference is not so much to location but to status: Jesus receives power and authority. Call it sovereignty, glorification, or whatever.
By virtue of his elevation to this status, Jesus reigns over all creation. Creation is his. He has a role in everything. Therefore he is present throughout all creation through the Holy Spirit.
Great and extraordinary things are about to unfold; things of the Kingdom, in the Spirit, and lived out in the lives and witness of those disciples and the others who find this movement utterly transforming.
In preparation for all of that, they do the thing that is most important. In obedience to Jesus’ injunction, they return to Jerusalem and they wait. They keep company together, they occupy themselves in prayer, and they wait. They don’t jump into action, they don’t bother trying to predict or calculate how it is going to all play out. In prayer and in community, they wait. It is a holy patience, and one that we would do well to cultivate, as we too open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit of God is always and ever about to do in our midst.