Thursday just gone was Ascension Day, the day when Jesus left earth and ascended to heaven with his disciples looking on. It comes 40 days after Easter Day and 10 days before Pentecost.
For many traditions it is a day of celebration with fireworks going off to mark the Ascension. It also seems to bring out the best in what I like to call religious tat! You see, it is possible to buy an inflatable Jesus which can be let off at the appropriate moment – I kid you not!! But as non-conformists, Ascension is a feast day we tend not to mark. Perhaps because it’s mid-week it seems to pass us by.
Yet despite my personal feelings, Ascension is important for it is the day when Jesus finally gets wheat he deserves; he returns home to experience the glory that belongs to him. It is the cause for wild celebrations. We may be a few days late but still our worship today is a faint echo of the welcome Jesus receives in heaven on his return.
On Ascension Day in particular we can let rip with our praise, and our focus is not on our needs and wants, but on Jesus, it is his day. Think of occasions when people are lifted up – rugby or football players after a famous victory; new babies who may be paraded round church after baptism, even a bride being carried over the threshold – does that still happen? What a feeling – that is the feeling of Ascension.
Ascension marks the end of Jesus’ physical presence on earth and his historical ministry, but it is also a new beginning both for Jesus and for his disciples and then, I guess, on to all of us here today.
For Jesus, who’s hands and feet still bore the scars of sacrifice, he took his rightful place at God’s right hand.
For the disciples, Ascension meant that the Holy Spirit could be poured out on them and enable them to do what must have felt impossible at times; and for us, while still pondering all that has happened over the last 40 odd days, we too can share the expectant joy of the Spirit and all that we can achieve through her.
I wonder though just what the disciples were thinking during all this – after all, they’d been through a heck of a lot over the last 6, 7 weeks.
From Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday then the horrific events of Good Friday. If Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had been around 2000 years ago, I am sure the 11 remaining disciples would have been front of the queue for a diagnosis.
Death had always been accepted as the ultimate end and having struggled to come to terms with seeing their friend die, the next thing they know, he pops up again and apart from the scars on his hands and feet, he seems none the worse for his ordeal.
The resurrection of Jesus turns the world upside, death was no longer the end, there was literal life after death.
Then having got used to Jesus being around again, there he is disappearing before their very eyes. It’s exhausting just thinking about it let alone living through it.
But goodbyes are never easy, whether it’s a child going off to Brownie camp for the first time, a teenager off to University or even a family emigrating. There are often lots of things you want to say but usually the words just don’t come out as we would like. Perhaps even more so when the goodbye is a final one.
The disciples had previously failed with goodbyes – even Peter the ever-enthusiastic disciple could conjure up nothing but denying Jesus. And yet despite all fears and trepidation, it is in saying goodbye and letting go that people can grow. And for the disciples, the physical absence of Jesus will bring them new responsibilities.
The disciples had wanted Jesus to fulfil his promise of restoration and to finish the work he begun, but in fact it will be the disciples, indeed it will be us, who are tasked with continuing that work.
After the Ascension the early church could have ended up as a simple shrine to Jesus, worshipping there but not taking the good news any further. Thankfully they had faith in what Jesus had told them, and actually faith in themselves.
First though, the disciples are told to wait rather than rush off to begin their contribution of growing God’s Kingdom, they may feel alone, but still, God is with them, as he has promised. They have to wait on God first, to pray and to stop thinking about their future plans.
They will be strengthened, refreshed, and led by God in mission. Sometimes in our busy lives we get so worried about our mission plans and our strategies that we forget this. It is quite difficult to stop, to wait on God, to let go and let God in.
The disciples are told to go first to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, then the whole world. Perhaps this is Jesus challenging them – they must look at and overcome their prejudices and assumptions which prevent them from venturing into the unknown.
After all, what were the ends of the earth for first century Palestinians? Could it refer to the pagan world or the Roman Empire? Whatever it meant in terms of geography it basically meant no boundaries. The missionary spirit must embrace everyone, including women, children, foreigners especially refugees, all those considered different or not whole – in fact all of us sitting here today.
Is Jesus asking too much? Or is he giving his disciples and us something more liberating? To the ends of the earth can be anywhere and everywhere. Think of your own communities, how many worlds are there? How many cultures, ethnicities and languages are spoken in our little corners of the world? And that’s not including non-verbal communication from art or body language, sign language. We all use these every day and yet a lot of the time we don’t consider them part of our mission.
Think how the disciples had been changed by their encounters with the living God in Jesus. Are we allowing that to happen to us, are we allowing that to happen to those we interact with?
What is important to us – is it people in the pews or a real encounter with those on the margins?
How can we reach out to the ends of the earth in our own communities? Whether it’s those of different genders, experiences, values, theologies, or faith.
But as well as the ends of the earth in our own communities, how about the literal ends of the earth?
I find it helpful that this year Ascension falls during Christian Aid week because they do reach, well if not quite the ends, then certainly places we couldn’t, supporting over 250 projects in 14 countries including the focus of this year’s appeal, Malawi.
It is in supporting groups like Christian Aid that we do fulfil the commission of Jesus to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
But going back to our reading. After Jesus is taken from their sight and the disciples are just standing there, perhaps open mouthed, trying to make sense of what they have seen, they are joined by what are described as ‘two men in white’ possibly angels, who knows. And they are basically told off, why are you standing here gawping, there is work to do.
Now I don’t know about you but after a telling off I tend to be a sulker, but the disciples’ response is a great example to us, for on returning to Jerusalem we are told they devoted themselves to prayer. We have no idea what they prayed for, in fact they may not have prayed specifically for anything but simply offered thanks and praise to God.
But I have a feeling having heard Jesus’ commission of being witnesses to the ends of the earth, their prayer would have been for help, perhaps strength and commitment, devotion and enthusiasm for the enormous task that had been left to them.
For what they have been tasked with cannot be achieved through their own human accomplishment and striving. They may have spent three years with Jesus learning the ropes, they may have spent 40 days with a post-resurrection Jesus – but knowing would not be enough. They needed to be empowered to succeed in being witnesses and doing the work of Jesus which must have felt an impossible task.
But what they did do, as well as pray, was to stay together, they remained in community. It would have been easy without the focal point in their lives to go their separate ways, but they didn’t. They shared together, they shared their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries perhaps even their anticipation for what the future held.
Jesus had originally gathered them together in community, they had travelled together as Jesus taught them together and eventually the Holy Spirit would descend on them as they were gathered together.
It is the same for us. We are a community, the Body of Christ as Paul put it and together, we can achieve far more than we could ever do individually. Community is at the centre of our faith life – church life should never be a clique – it is open to all and anyone. Everyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and be witnesses to the good news of the life and love of Jesus.
It was what we see in the growing Jesus community as we read further in Acts, coming together, sharing together, praying, and worshipping together, breaking bread together, and because of being together this early church becomes a real missionary community called together by God and sent out into the world with the power of God’s Spirit.
But it’s important to remember this isn’t just set in the history of 2000 years ago. The witness of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany or that of Martin Luther King Jr in segregated America to name just two shows the importance of witnessing to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Think of your own witness here as St David’s Uniting Church whether it’s for refugees or equality for all, you are witnessing to the ends of the earth.
But the disciples had to wait before they could start witnessing and waiting is not easy, especially when we remember that God’s time is not our time. We live in impatient times with 24-hour news, instant results, and same day delivery. Waiting can feel like torture. Yet nearly two thousand years have passed since the Ascension and for God, that is but the blink of an eye. God continues to wait for us humans to turn to him and to follow that great commission and be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Wating for God to act is not easy but waiting with others, with friends or strangers is an act of solidarity. Have you ever sat with someone and just waited, whether it’s at hospital or simply at home. you’ve sat in silence because there are no words and just waited. Waited perhaps for news or waited for bad news to sink in.
Waiting is not easy, we often we feel we need to say or do things but sometimes waiting and simply being is enough.
And that’s what the disciples were doing – the focal point of their lives has gone, and they could have scattered to the four winds, gone back to fishing or tax collecting or whatever but instead they waited together. They were joined together by their faithfulness and hope that the coming of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus would happen, they just had to wait for it.
For now, the disciples prepare themselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They must simply watch and wait and pray but that is a story for next week!
In the meantime, we, like the disciples must wait. We can reflect on the last 40 days and the impact the resurrection of Jesus has had on us and our faith. Wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit and what that will mean for us as we continue to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Amen