Grace Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
What Are You Looking At?
“What are you looking at?”
You can hear that in the voice of someone trying to keep something a secret, annoyed at being caught in the act; maybe in the voice of a stereotypical tough-guy movie or TV character (though a Robert DeNiro or Joe Pesci character might turn it around to say “you lookin’ at me?”); or a more causul, “hey, what are you looking at?” It’s a pretty flexible phrase.
You don’t expect to hear it as angelic proclamation, though.
But the end of the Acts account here features “two men in white robes” who suddenly appear beside the disciples (that’s a pretty characteristic way of the gospels describing angelic appearances) uttering a much more formal query: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” But really, they’re asking “What are you looking at?” Seriously, you have to wonder if one of the disciples was fighting the urge to turn on the two men in white and exclaim “are you kidding me? Did you not just see what happened here? People don’t just pick up and float off into the sky, you know…”
If one of the disciples did that (my money would have been on Thomas, with his snarky sense of humor), Luke did not record it. Instead, the men in white issue a promise; the Jesus they just saw lifting up into the sky would, and will, return one day in the same fashion. Something to hold on to, I guess, in the now-inarguable absence of Jesus from his followers.
Already Jesus had left this little band with plenty of instruction, and also a reprimand in the bargain. Luke’s account of the Ascension here at the beginning of Acts is a bit more expansive than that at the end of the gospel that bears his name, and there’s at least one really logical possible explanation for that: Luke learned more. At the beginning of the gospel we call Luke the author admits very frankly that the gospel is not an eyewitness account. Luke advises his recipient, “most excellent Theophilus,” that he has set out to gather the best information he could to pass on an “orderly account” of the evens of Jesus’s life. The end of Luke’s gospel sounds frankly a lot like the end of Matthew, with an account of the Ascension thrown in.
But by the time Luke started into the book we call Acts, he has a few things to add to the Ascension story. For one thing, we learn he was around for forty days, which the Luke account doesn’t really suggest. For another, there is more instruction included here. The disciples aren’t to rush off, but to return to Jerusalem and wait for the “promise of the Father,” wait to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” before too many days have gone by. It turned out to be ten days, until the event called Pentecost lit a fire in the disciples (almost literally) and initiated the work of the church on earth in a way that, quite frankly, none of the disciples could have anticipated.
As for the rebuke, one of the disciples (this could have been Thomas too) had to ask, as Jesus drew his remarks to a close, the most oblivious possible question in the context: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at the very end somebody is trying to press Jesus about when he’s going to Make Israel Great Again.
Jesus answers with one of the most ignored (and outright violated) scriptures in the whole book: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” All these so-called ministers or biblical authorities spitting directly in the face of Jesus trying to work out some code or clue that tells them exactly when Jesus is gonna come back. It’s written right here, in Jesus’s own words: THAT’S NOT YOUR JOB. That’s not your place.
Your job is this:
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.
That’s the disciples’ job; wait for the Holy Spirit, and then go! Go all over the world, says Jesus. And the church, in fits and starts, sometimes ruinously and sometimes beautifully, has been doing that ever since.
But what about the Ascension itself? What’s the point of this story with Jesus lifting off like a slow moving rocket and being taken from the disciples’ sight? One of the best explanations in scripture is actually found in this passage from the letter to the church at Ephesus. Towards the end of today’s reading we get the rundown of why Christ’s ascension matters; the same Jesus who walked the earth with his followers now is at God’s side, above – “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” not just now but for all time, with all authority over the church and everything else under his feet. To be short about it, we have no business – at all – giving our allegiance to any authority but Christ. None. (For all we talk about wanting to be followers of Jesus, we sure do skip over a lot that scripture instructs us what to do to be about that very business. Seriously, Christ’s church isn’t nearly radical enough.)
Still, though, you have to feel for the disciples, at least for those ten days. They’ve been told to go back to Jerusalem and … wait. What do you do when you wait for the Holy Spirit to overtake you (whatever that means)?
You have to figure there was some remembering what Jesus said and did, maybe some arguments about those things, some impatience to be sure. You have to wonder if they gathered around a table for a meal at times (they needed to eat, after all) and were reminded again, and again, and again of that last meal with Jesus, the bread and the cup; or the encounter on the Emmaus Road, or back in Jerusalem; you have to wonder if picking up that loaf and that cup could possibly have ever been the same for them, especially now, with their Teacher and Lord physically gone for good.
This meal is handed to us even today, to remember; to take to heart and to rememberthe words and deeds of Jesus in our very beings. With the church in every age, from Ascension to now, we take this bread and this cup and show to the world the Lord’s saving death until, like the men in white promised, he returns that very same way, to be with us and us with him for all time.
For Jesus who departed, and will return, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name!; #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies ; #521, In Remembrance of Me; #265; Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun