Sermon for Ascension Sunday 16 May 2010
Acts 1: 1-11, Luke 24: 44-53
By Sharyn Hall
There is a medieval manuscript from the twelfth century in Christ Church in Canterbury, which has beautiful illustrations of the stories about Jesus after his death. On one large sheet of manuscript paper, there are twenty-two illustrations, which depict the Biblical stories of the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to the disciples. There are pictures of the disciples discovering the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden. Other illustrations include Jesus with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus eating fish on the beach with Peter and other fishermen, and Thomas seeing the wounds on the hands of Jesus.
The last two pictures are the Ascension of Jesus and the Pentecost experience of the disciples. In the picture of the Ascension, we see a group of disciples huddled together all gazing up toward heaven. Two figures in white robes stand on either side of the group; they are looking at the disciples, not up to heaven. At the top of the picture, there is a red and yellow cloud, and only the two feet of Jesus are visible hanging down from the cloud. If you did not know the story, you could conclude that the picture is very strange, but the picture illustrates the experience of the Ascension in vivid detail.
We know the story so well that we no longer wonder at the supernatural quality of the event. One moment Jesus is talking with his disciples, and the next moment he is lifted up and disappears into a cloud. There are other stories in the Bible of people ascending into heaven, for example, Elijah in his fiery chariot, but observing a person ascending into a cloudy sky was not an everyday experience.
In our story from the Book of Acts, the disciples continued to gaze up toward heaven after Jesus disappeared. I believe that we would react in the same way if we witnessed our friend suddenly levitate and disappear into a cloud. In our modern age, we have watched rockets and space shuttles blast into outer space, but we still find the ascension of Jesus difficult to comprehend.
In the Acts version of the event, the disciples seem dumbfounded, speechless and motionless. In the version in the gospel of Luke, the disciples are filled with great joy and return to the temple in Jerusalem to praise God. It is interesting to note that Luke probably wrote both versions of this event, and yet his descriptions differ in some details. The differences between the two versions of the same event remind us that Luke did not witness the Ascension of Jesus. He received his information from the recollections of the disciples. Perhaps not everyone remembered the event in the same way.
One detail in the Acts version, which is not in the gospel version, has significance for understanding the message of Jesus. That detail is the presence of two men in white robes, who are angels from God. They ask the disciples, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” The answer may seem obvious. The disciples are looking for Jesus. The angels assure them that Jesus is gone, but he will return. Having witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples may wonder if Jesus truly has left them this time. In several ways, Jesus had been telling them that he must leave them and return to God, but they did not understand what that would mean for them, the ones left behind. Was this the end? Would they go home now, back to their life before they met Jesus?
Jesus had other plans for them. They would receive the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit, but with that blessing would come great responsibility. They were to carry on his mission to baptize, not with water as John did, but with the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Would they be overjoyed at this news? The gospel passage says they were filled with great joy, but the Book of Acts says they were motionless. How could they do this without Jesus? What did he mean that the power of the Spirit would come upon them? So they stood gazing up to heaven until the two angels snapped them out of their motionless moment and confirmed that Jesus was gone.
Perhaps the two angels also encouraged them to believe in the promise of Jesus to send them the Spirit. We are not told in the scriptures if the angels talked with them or simply disappeared. What did the Ascension of Jesus mean for their future? We know from the scriptures that soon the disciples would have another amazing, supernatural experience when they would be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, but that is another story.
Today, over two thousand years later, we commemorate the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but we did not experience those events. Can we be convinced that we share in the mission of Jesus? It seems that some people can be convinced and others cannot. After his resurrection, Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” When we talk with friends and neighbours about our Christian faith, it is important to remember that faith is not about logic. Faith has a mysterious quality, which defies definition. People can learn about faith, but they may come to believe in God and in Jesus only through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would come upon them, and because of the Spirit they would be able to be witnesses to his mission beyond Jerusalem, into the hostile region of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Christian scholars divide the age of the Christian faith into three parts: first, the time of Jesus on earth, his teaching, his death and resurrection, until his ascension to God; secondly, the in-between time, which has lasted more than two thousand years; thirdly, the time when Jesus will return to our world. We continue to live in the in-between time, a time of expectation and anticipation, but in this time of waiting we are not to be idle. Jesus made that message clear to his disciples. We, like them, are to be witnesses to his mission. There is much work to be done to bring God’s healing, justice, compassion and love into our world, but we need not work alone. May we always be guided by God’s gift of the Spirit. Amen.