Waiting and Witnessing
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
May 24, 2020
Main Idea: Jesus calls us to be witnesses.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today marks the last Sunday in the season of Easter and a special festival day know as Ascension Sunday. While this celebration doesn’t get the attention that Christmas, Easter, or even Pentecost receive, it is still a foundational story on which rests much of our understanding of Jesus, and God, and the church. The story of the Ascension entails waiting, saying good-byes, and looking to the future. It is an opportunity to discern and participate in the work of Christ. Jesus directs the apostles and us to be his witnesses. This morning we will explore what witnessing Jesus’ Ascension means to us in this extraordinary time.
Before we get to the text, I want to differentiate between being a spectator and being a witness. Spectators watch a spectacle; like watching TV or a sporting event. Spectators watch but they do not participate. They cannot alter or contribute to what is happening. Fans at a baseball game are not allowed to interfere with play on the field. Spectators are passive.
Witnesses participate in what they see. They claim the experience for themselves. They take responsibility for their role in whatever is happening. Witnesses are active. The Ascension is a dramatic spectacle but Jesus calls us not to be spectators. Jesus calls us to be witnesses to the power of God’s love.
Our text today comes from the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles which was written by the Gospel writer, Luke. The Ascension story is the hinge that holds the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles together. Luke actually tells the ascension story twice, ending the gospel with a similar account. The book of Acts begins with an address to Theophilus just as Luke’s Gospel begins. Theophilus may be a prominent Christian of the time, or Luke may be addressing all of us who read the two volumes of his work. The name Theophilus means “lover of God”. Notice that in Acts, Luke has changed “Disciples”, meaning students, to “Apostles” which means those “sent out”. (gotquestions.org), in other words, witnesses. Luke begins with a short summary of the events which followed Easter and reports that Jesus taught for 40 days about the kingdom of God. Jesus tells the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for their baptism with the Holy Spirit.
So the apostles wait. And as they wait, they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6). “We have seen and believed some amazing stuff! Thanks for coming back to us! So now, let’s do what you have been talking about. Now you can overthrow Rome and liberate all of us who have struggled under Roman oppression. It will be easy! Why wait any longer? Let’s go!”
Even after all that has occurred, the apostles still do not understand what Jesus is all about. They are still looking for a political leader who will restore their nation. But the kingdom of Judah is not the kingdom Jesus is talking about. His plan is to share God’s love with the whole world. Jesus tells them “It is not for you to know God’s timeline. But 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.” (v.7-8) Once empowered by the Holy Spirit, the apostles will be unleashed upon the whole known world, sharing the Gospel in ever widening circles, to places beyond their imagining.
But first, while they are waiting, Jesus is lifted up and a cloud takes him out of their sight. In this act, he continues to teach them about God. I imagine him saying as he leaves, “See me? See God! Know me? Know God! Hear me? Hear God!” Like a tracing overlay, Jesus’ life and works are seen as the very heart of God. “See? Watch! I and God are one and the same.”
The text doesn’t tell us so, but surely the apostles are stunned and heartbroken to see Jesus leave them again. They stand, as spectators, gazing at the spot where they had last seen him, frozen in their amazement and grief. Suddenly they are joined by two men in white. The men ask “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11). These two men in white, perhaps Moses and Elijah, certainly heavenly visitors, refocus Jesus’ apostles away from being spectators and toward their mission to witness to God’s Good News. In today’s language they would say “Hey, why are you standing around? Go do what Jesus asked of you! Don’t focus on what you have lost, prepare for what you are about to receive!”
The apostles do as Jesus had instructed. They go to Jerusalem to wait in an upper room. Their waiting is not just passing the time, watching movies, or playing games on their phones. They wait together in prayer and contemplation, getting ready for when they would be sent out with the Holy Spirit. It is striking that the last time they were gathered in an upper room, they were frightened and despairing. Now they are full of determination and joyful anticipation. They are ready to be witnesses to the power of God’s love.
So what does this story tell us about Jesus, God, and the church in this time?
After the Ascension it is no longer possible to talk about God without talking about Jesus; Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son, itinerant preacher and healer, champion of the poor and the outcast, fully human and fully divine, who lived among the people, who suffered and died among the people and was raised. He, with all of his compassion and experiences both good and bad, he resides in the heart of God, the very center of God’s nature. As Brian McLaren puts it “God is like Jesus”. God is not detached from our human experience. God is vulnerable, reaching out over and over to people who often turn away. God is approachable, a divine presence who know each one of us by name and who cares about each one of us.
After the Ascension the stage is set for the giving of the Holy Spirit; that Holy Power that is poured over the people on Pentecost and that moves through the church throughout the ages, that moves among us today. Jesus ascends because his physical body, even post-resurrection, is not big enough for the power that will be given through the Spirit. We will talk more about this next week on Pentecost, but it is the Holy Spirit which leads the church to be established worldwide, and enlivens and empowers us today.
In today’s text, Jesus tells his apostles what they are to do after he has gone. They are to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Spirit so that they might be witnesses to all the world. This guidance is not just for the apostles. It speaks to us today. It is tempting to be spectators as we all sit at home, to grump about the news and the strictures placed upon us. But Jesus calls us to be witnesses, to participate in the work of Christ! This does not mean rushing out to gather as we used to. In this extraordinary time, we witness to Christ’s power by waiting and discerning to what God is calling us. As much as we would like to just return to what was familiar just a few months ago, this is not possible. God is calling us to new ways of being church.
In this next week, a committee of the Unified Governing Board will start working on plans and recommendations for how we can use our building in the coming months. Most likely, the building will open for small groups long before we can safely gather for Sunday worship. We will need to reimagine how we use the various spaces in the building. Over the summer we will continue to improve our online presence, continue to support our mission partners, and ponder new ways in which to connect with each other and with our wider communities. We will wait to gather in person until we discern that it is safe for all of us to do so. Even though we are not worshipping together in person, each one of us can witness to Christ’s power by recognizing and speaking about how Christ’s love has changed our lives, by showing love to those around us, by caring for the vulnerable, and by advocating for the health and safety of all.
The disciples had to say good-bye to their friend and teacher Jesus so that their Lord Jesus Christ could show them the very heart of God and so that the Holy Spirit might be with them in their new endeavors throughout the world. In this liminal time, as we say goodbye to some things and hello to others may we be encouraged and sustained by the power of God’s love for us that will not let us go. Ascension Day is a day to celebrate. As Charles Wesley writes in his hymn Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise;
See! the heaven its Lord receives
Yet he loves the world he leaves,
Though returning to his throne,
Still he calls the world his own, Alleluia.
Let us pray,
Ascendant Lord, we thank you for showing us the nature of God. We pray that we might be empowered by your Spirit so that we can witness to your love and grace throughout our community and our world. Amen.