I’m going to tell you a story: Forty days after the resurrection, when Jesus and his disciples were together in a place outside of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, he told them, “This is what you have heard from me; John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So . . . they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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” (Acts 1:6-8).
“‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them” (Luke 24:44-50).
“[A]s they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going, and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, 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 1:9-11).
Welcome to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, also known as the Sunday after the Ascension… the last Sunday before Pentecost! The Feast of the Ascension is one of seven Principal Feasts of the Church, right up there with Christmas and Easter, and yet we rarely gather to celebrate it because it always happens on a Thursday, precisely forty days after Easter Sunday. So, we rarely get to hear the story of Jesus final farewell to his disciples on the actual day on which we commemorate it. What I’ve just read you is an amalgamation of the details of the event from Luke’s gospel and from Acts (also probably penned by the author of Luke). The story of the Ascension didn’t make it into either Matthew’s or John’s gospel narratives at all, and it receives only cursory attention from Mark. So, when we hear about Jesus’ Ascension, we’re gonna be hearing it from Luke. How might this inform our understanding of the significance of the event?
We don’t know precisely who “Luke” was… other than that he was a Greek-speaking Christian, likely writing in a place, and to a congregation, outside of Palestine in ~80-85 AD. Some Biblical scholars posit that Luke may have been a traveling companion and disciple of the Apostle Paul. Others that he was a physician. One thing we do know is that Luke adapted much of Mark’s gospel into his own. But Luke (just like each of the other gospel writers) had a particular “lens” through which he viewed the life and ministry of Jesus Messiah, and he was writing for a specific group of people who had experienced their share of hardship and struggle, and who were in search of a reason to hope. So, Luke told them the story of a prophet who had come to save his people, but who had been rejected and executed by the Jewish religious authorities. But that that hadn’t been the end. The prophet, who turned out to be God’s own Son, had been raised from the dead and had commissioned his disciples to proclaim the Good News of repentance and forgiveness… not only to Jews and Samaritans, who worshiped the God of Abraham, but to the ends of the earth! So, Luke’s proclamation of hope was for all nations and all races and, amazingly, wasn’t reserved solely for the wealthy and well-connected, but extended to the least of these: the poor, the hungry, the oppressed… perhaps even women and slaves! Hope for the hopeless. All of the gospel narratives touch on these things to one degree or another, but Luke was the original “social gospel.” And not only were Luke’s words intended as a balm to soothe the miseries and injustices of this life, they were a call to action. A call to walk humbly with God, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ unceasingly. A call to stand up for the poor and oppressed and to show generosity to the less fortunate. A call to live simply, showing the world what it meant to be good stewards of God’s gifts. And a call to live a life of service, respecting the dignity of every human being and showing forgiveness and mercy to those who’ve wronged you. That’s Luke for you.
And so, here we stand with Peter and James and John and the other disciples after Jesus’ Ascension looking up into the clear blue (empty) sky wondering, “So… what’s next?” We know that Jesus is alive: we’ve seen him… we’ve spoken with him… we’ve even broken bread with him. And we understand that we’ve received “marching orders,” so to speak, from him: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to a world that may not think it needs it… and that might just want to marginalize and persecute us for suggesting that it does. But we’ve also been reassured that we’ll be given the tools we need to accomplish the mission. We don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, but Jesus said it, so it must be true. But, still, we look up… as if we’re awaiting another sign, or perhaps some further direction. And then we’re surprised to see a couple of guys we don’t recognize… wearing white robes… standing with us. Only, they’re not looking up. They’re looking at us. “Why are you looking up?” they ask. “Jesus has stepped away for a little while… but he’ll be back.”
And that’s the end of the Ascension story, right? Wrong! This final tidbit about the two white-robed visitors (angels… perhaps?) is actually from Luke’s Ascension narrative in first chapter of Acts, which he then follows up with twenty-seven additional chapters describing the mission and ministry of the Apostles for the next thirty or so years, from the day of their empowerment by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost through Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome. What a wild ride that must have been. So, in good Lukan form, when the angels told the disciples that, although Jesus had been taken from them up into heaven… and that he would be returning the same way, their message was not only intended as a balm to soothe the disciples’ feelings of loss and abandonment on that day, it was a call to action: “What are y’all doing lollygagging around, looking up at the sky? There’s work to be done, so get moving! And that’s what Apostles did. So, it wasn’t the end of the story at all, was it? It was only the beginning.
And the story continues with us. Whenever we’re tempted to look towards heaven wondering when Jesus is going to come back and set this world we’ve made such a mess of to rights, we would do well to remember that we’ve been commissioned and will be empowered to continue Christ’s ministry on earth… and to the ends of the earth. To all nations and races… to the poor, hungry and oppressed. To all who thirst for God’s righteousness. And we do this by walking humbly with God, proclaiming the gospel of repentance and forgiveness and by being “doers of the word” (James 1:22)… feeding Christ’s flock and tending his sheep to the best of our ability. We may feel weary and anxious from time to time. We may occasionally steal glances up at the empty sky… but, whenever we’re tempted to sit back and daydream about the future, we’d best listen for the voices of angels calling us to action: “Stop lollygagging and staring into space… there’s work to be done. So, get moving!”