Understanding Witnesses

Scriptures: Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11

Bulletin-TL 6-2-2019 YC E7

Let us pray:

We would be understanding, Lord God. We would be disciples of your Son Jesus Christ, and we would be led by your Holy Spirit into the world on your behalf. Lead us, we pray. Amen.

These two passages concerning the Ascension of Jesus after the resurrection describe the same event, but have differing details. Yet they are also traditionally claimed to come from the same hand, the hand of Luke, a sometime eye-witness in Paul’s travels and ministry. However, much of the thematic ties between Luke and Acts concern the Apostle Peter. I’m intrigued by this, and I am also intrigued by what our application of this passage might look like played out in the real life we live here in Trout Lake, in the Presbytery of the Cascades, in the Pacific Northwest.

Briefly, let’s take a look at the two accounts of Jesus’ ascension. In Luke, Jesus is speaking his final words and blessings, and then he is carried up into heaven. In Luke 24:45, we find this summary phrase: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Then the text continues with these final words of Jesus recorded in Luke: “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.”

Our pericope from Luke ends with his leading “them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:50-53)

Now let us move to Acts. In this account, the writer has Jesus giving a slightly different final set of words. The writer indicates, “While staying with them, [Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” (Acts 1:4) Then Jesus speaks again with a bit more detail: “This is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Then we have an interesting question inserted here that didn’t’ make it into the dialog in Luke. The writer of Acts records: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6) Let me stop right there for a minute. I have to wonder, after all the disciples have been through and witnessed in Jesus Christ, after all he has taught them about God’s heavenly kingdom on earth, do they still think he’s going to set himself up as a political king, kicking out the Romans and making the nation of Israel sovereign and independent again? Do they really think Jesus will lead them into another golden age like the one they reminisce over when David was king? Or when Solomon expanded David’s kingdom to its farthest reach and built the first Temple for God?

Jesus 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:7-9)

Then some additional intriguing details are added: “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.’”

I am not entirely sure what to make of that. There have been many stained glass windows of Jesus in the clouds, but what application does that have for our life on earth? Paul Walaskay likens the two men dressed in white robes with the two who speak with Mary at the tomb and the two transfigured on the mount with Jesus – there identified as Moses and Elijah.[1]

Another commentator says it is to help us fix in our minds that Jesus is continually interceding for us, boosting our prayers farther than we could send them ourselves.[2] I confess I have a bit of a theological quandary over that. Yet another one says Luke “moves us from the first book’s focus on the work of the second person of the Trinity to the second volume’s focal point, the work of the third person, the Holy Spirit.”[3]

Perhaps therein lies our application. For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God (verse 3), but the disciples want to know about the kingdom of Israel (verse 6). Oops, sorry boys, you missed the boat…and sitting in our pews on Sunday mornings, I wonder sometimes if we do too.

So we ever have some preconceived notions about what we want our version of the Kingdom to look like? I know I certainly do. Can you think of any descriptors? Let’s consider a few. How about the kingdom of survival? There is an almost standard litany for many of our sister congregations of the presbytery that goes something like, “We are a small congregation that desperately needs young families to join our grey-haired church so that we will survive.” Then there is the kingdom of activity: “With more than thirty opportunities a week for people to come and serve, we are busier than ever!” Then there is the kingdom of consumption: when churches think bigger and better, with more entertaining worship. Those are only a few. If we were to hold the mirror up to our little church here in the valley under the mountain, what do we see? Are we looking in hind sight, like the disciples, wishing for a restoration to the good old days kingdom? Or are we looking for the way we think the church ought to be – the way it best satiates us?

These are all temptations, but Christ’s Ascension is a time to remind ourselves that we are living, even as the early church of Acts was, in a time of transition. Commentator David Forney writes,

“The opening of the book of Acts is a two-layered transition. The top layer is a transition from the Gospel of Luke to the Acts of the Apostles. Underneath this layer is a far more important transition. In it, we are moved from passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix things in the end times to actively participating in the work of the Holy Spirit now.”[4]

I think, finally, the disciples understand this at the very end. They return to Jerusalem and await the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. Just as the baptism of Jesus initiated their first three years together, so the baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost becomes the triggering event for the life of the church thereafter. [5] We are still in that place of shared vocation with the apostles, at the same time we are in a very different time and location. Like the apostles, in order to embrace our role of witnesses, we have to relinquish some of the expectations of, “Jesus, come fix it” and enter into the work of ministry itself. But not alone, never alone, for in the body of Christ there are many members, and we are parts of it.

Let us pray:

Holy God, you have opened our hearts to hear you. Now lead us to the places you would have us go to be your true disciples. In the name of Him who lived, died and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Paul W. Walaskay, “Exegetical Perspective, Acts 1:1-11” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[2] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective, Acts 1:1-11” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[3] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective, Acts 1:1-11” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Examples of possible preconceived “kingdoms” and the final quote come from David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective, Acts 1:1-11” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[5] Richard M. Landers, “Homiletical Perspective, Acts 1:1-11” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

Question for Reflection: How is your faith strengthened by knowing that we do not look for Jesus in only one place but find the Risen One everywhere, because he has ascended to the throne of God?

Morning Prayer: I wake this day mindful of the Light within all light, Soul behind all souls. Strengthen me this day to do your work. Amen.

Evening Prayer: O Lord, in the darkness of night, in the stillness that surrounds us in the unknown depths of our being, we pause to listen and take our rest. Amen.

Prayer song of the week: “Be Still and Know” Hymnbook #414 Repeat several times

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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