You may have noticed something kind of unusual about our readings this morning – and that is that we actually read the same story twice. Both our first reading from Acts and our gospel reading from Luke tell the story of Jesus’ ascension. Acts was actually written by the very same author as the book of Luke – which means that Luke is the only gospel that comes with its very own sequel!
And, like any good sequel, the story of Acts picks up “where we last left our heroes.” We read about Jesus’ ascension in the last chapter of Luke, and then we pick up the story again right away in the very first chapter of Acts. The ascension is sort of the hinge between the two books that connects one to the other. But there are some differences in the stories.
At the end of Luke, the ascension is presented as this mystical, mysterious event; Jesus is taken up just as he is blessing his disciples, and they are filled with joy and start worshiping God, and the credits roll, and they all live happily ever after. But in Acts, this story doesn’t feel like as much of a happy ending. We have anxious disciples and mysterious strangers and an even more mysterious Jesus. And we get the sense that the ascension isn’t really the end of the story at all – in fact, it’s only the beginning.
After Jesus ascends, it feels to me like the disciples are like characters in a movie who don’t realize that the movie isn’t actually over yet. Jesus peaces out and they literally just stand around gawking at the sky, like they’re waiting for the end credits or the apocalypse or something to come. But then the two men in white appear, reminding them that Jesus has given them work to do.
So the ascension is the hinge that turns us not just from Luke to Acts; it also turns us from focusing on the ministry and mission of Jesus to the mission and ministry of the early church. From this point forward, the followers of Jesus aren’t just followers anymore – they have to step up and become leaders. They have to find a way to step up and take on the work that Jesus has left for them to do: to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations. Last I checked, there are a LOT of nations, so that is not exactly a small task! And throughout the rest of the New Testament, we see Jesus’ disciples wrestling with the conundrums and joys and challenges of not just following the body of Christ, but being the body of Christ – of being Christ-bearers for the whole world.
The ascension is the hinge that turns the story from the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of the church. The ascension also marks a turn in how God chooses to be in the world. Up until this point in the gospel story, God has been one physical, embodied, singular presence in the world: the person of Jesus Christ. But now, Jesus has ascended, body and all. On the one hand, this leaves his disciples confused and consternated and unsure about what exactly comes next – but on the other hand, it leaves open space for God to come and do something new and awesome. And that’s exactly what God does! Shortly after Jesus’ ascension, the church receives power from on high, just as he promised: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The apostles and disciples are inspired with the Spirit and burst forth into the world to carry out the mission that Jesus gave them. And because of the Spirit, God’s action in the world is no longer limited to one finite person and time and place – instead it now explodes across the world, continually breaking forth in unexpected places, among unexpected people.
In a way, Jesus’ ascension democratizes and decentralizes the work of the Spirit. The Spirit no longer acts only through Jesus – it acts through the whole body of the church. And just like with the earliest disciples, the ascension is the hinge that changes where and how we look for God. Instead of thinking that the way to see God is by just gazing up into the clouds, or even by looking up at images of Jesus or his cross in church, the ascension instead turns us outward toward the world and it fills us with the expectation that we will see God there.
The two men who appear to the disciples particularly bring this home for us. They ask the disciples why they are still standing around staring up into the sky, and they remind them that they have work to do. The men remind the disciples that they are no longer just supporting characters in this story – in the sequel to the gospel, they have been given leading roles! Instead of gazing up into heaven, waiting for God to act, they are now called – just as we are called – to be part of God’s action in the world. They have been given the power and the responsibility to proclaim and enact God’s kingdom of love and mercy to all the ends of the earth.
We who are now part of the body of Christ – we get to do these things too. When Jesus walked the earth, he fed the hungry; he healed the sick; he taught God’s word; he proclaimed God’s kingdom; and he brought liberation and hope to those who lived with oppression and grief. Now the Holy Spirit works through us to accomplish these things. How amazing is that??
This was so wonderfully clear over the past few days at Synod Assembly. We got to hear from people all over the synod – and even beyond that – about how the Spirit is at work feeding, healing, teaching, preaching, and liberating through the body of Christ.
- We heard from congregations in the synod’s transformational ministry process about how they are feeding and connecting with the hungry people in their communities all around the state.
- We heard from Bishop Fredrick Shoo, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, about how ministries in the Nebraska Synod have connected with the Northern Diocese of Tanzania to expand access to healthcare for those who need it.
- We heard about the educational opportunities being developed right here in Nebraska to give both lay people and clergy people the chance to learn about God’s word from seminary-caliber professors.
- We heard about the inspiring work that Followers of Christ prison ministry is doing, setting free even those who are behind bars through God’s grace.
- We heard about flood relief and faith formation and welcomed a new congregation into the synod and the list goes on and on.
It is mind-blowing, just in our own synod, the amazing things that the Spirit is up to through us.
And that’s something we celebrate today. On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate the fact that God has chosen to make us not just servants, but partners in ministry. And we turn once more on the hinge of ascension, away from gazing upward into the clouds, and instead gazing outward toward the world, with eyes and hearts open to God’s Spirit living and active all around us and through us. God has entrusted us to continue carrying out the mission of Christ. So we are not just passive watchers of this sequel to the gospel. Oh no. Just like the first disciples, we too have been cast in very important roles. And the same Spirit flows through us as we take up our parts in the same divine mission. So, everyone, take your places – lights, camera, action!