Ascension Day – Vicar Stoppenhagen
The Ascension of our Lord
Text: Luke 24:44-53 (Series B)
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
May 13, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
How long would those forty days have felt like to the disciples? Surely the three days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday felt like an eternity. But what about the forty days after Jesus rose? Most of us would probably agree that time has moved quickly for us since Easter Sunday on April 12. But I have feeling that for the disciples, those forty days probably flew by in a flurry of excitement. Forty days of journeying, teaching, and eating with the resurrected Jesus. But in some ways, the disciples probably felt as if no time at all has passed. For them, it was as though time stopped on that Easter morning and never started moving again.
In fact, that’s the way Luke writes the end of his Gospel. He starts this last chapter with, “On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb…” and every event that he recounts after that point seems to happen on the very same day. The women found the empty tomb, the Emmaus disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and then Jesus himself appeared to the rest of the disciples—all of this is written as if it happens on the first day of the week. Even the Ascension becomes part of the ongoing narrative of that Easter Sunday as a sort of grand finale for the resurrection chapter—even though it happened forty days later. For Luke, time falls apart after the resurrection. In the presence of the resurrected Jesus, life is experienced as one continuous day—the Eighth Day, the day of the new creation.
In the midst of this never-ending Easter, Jesus told his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” But what exactly were they witnesses to? Most obviously, they were witnesses to Jesus’ entire ministry, his suffering, death, and resurrection. And now that Jesus had opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, they saw that everything in the Law, the Prophets, and Psalms are fulfilled in him. Everything that Jesus did and said, and that the disciples witnessed with their own eyes and ears, was to fulfill the Scriptures. But at the same time, everything they witnessed was building toward this eternal moment in Jesus’ presence. They themselves were getting to experience life in the Eighth Day—the day of the new creation.
But the disciples’ witnessing was more than looking to the past and seeing how that led to this moment of bliss. Being a witness meant turning to the future as well. Jesus not only turned them back to see how the Scriptures were fulfilled. He turned them forward to see how he will continue to work in the world through their witness. The Scriptures will continue to be fulfilled as repentance for the forgiveness of sins is be proclaimed in his name to all nations. In other words, the disciples aren’t just passive witnesses of the things of the past. Their witness was active and ongoing, as Christ sent them out with the Holy Spirit to preach repentance and forgiveness to all people. I short, they were to continue the Eighth Day existence—the journeying, teaching, and eating with Jesus—and share it with all nations.
But as usual, the disciples didn’t quite get it. They were still stuck in the past. Of course, they wanted to keep the glory of the Eighth Day, but they also want Jesus to bring back the glory of Israel. In the Ascension account from Acts, we hear the disciples ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s as if they’re saying, “Jesus, you say you’ve fulfilled the scriptures. But there’s one part your forgetting! Let’s get rid of those Romans and get our county back!” But Jesus, I’m sure, rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t you get it? This whole Eighth Day thing isn’t going to end. And it won’t be stuck in a particular place, either. My kingdom transcends space and time. That’s why you’ll receive the Holy Spirit and be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Trust me—this will be better than any earthly power I could give you.”
That’s why the Ascension is so important. The Church of Christ couldn’t transcend space and time if Jesus remained in a particular place and time. The Eighth Day existence couldn’t spread throughout the world if Jesus was still in Jerusalem. His Ascension was the necessary first step in the formation of the Church. Those forty days after the resurrection was the time of preparation for the disciples, so they could finish their hands-on training in Jesus’ church leadership course—brushing up on their preaching points, learning how to break bread with him, understanding how to manage a capital campaign (Okay, maybe not that last one). Now that the disciples were ready for action, Jesus had to return to the Father so he could send the Spirit of power. Only after Jesus is ascended and enthroned in glory can the Spirit descend and the Church begin its work of witness.
During those forty days, I wonder if Jesus warned the disciples how their witnessing would end. Did they expect be taken up in a fiery chariot like Elijah? Maybe even ascend in glory like Jesus? If they did, they were going to be sorely disappointed. Witnessing in the world wasn’t going to be an easy task. Most of the disciples quickly learned that living the Eighth Day life isn’t tolerated in a world that expects you to completely accept its own way of being. Public shame, imprisonment, suffering, and even death was the price many would pay for their witness. But nonetheless, they were Eighth Day martyrs. Death was exactly what their journeying, teaching, and eating with Jesus was preparing them for.
Good witnesses stand in the shadows so that the person they witness to can stand alone in the spotlight. Jesus’ witnesses take the humble position, acknowledging that they depend on Christ and stand at his disposal. And this is exactly what the martyrs of the early church did. They didn’t draw attention to themselves. They showed that a disciple’s witness should do nothing but cast the deeds of Christ in starker relief. Because in the end, the goal of any Christian witness is to bring others to the knowledge of Christ—and not just to know him as some historical figure, but to encounter him as the Savior of the world.
That’s why our witness today looks a lot like it did back then. We aren’t doing anything too different from what they did in the early days of the Church, because the ways we encounter Jesus haven’t changed. His disciples are still on the move, wandering with him through the wasteland of this world. He’s still teaching us, still opening our minds to the Scriptures. He’s making sure that repentance for the forgiveness of sins is still proclaimed. And he’s still breaking bread with us, drawing us into his ongoing feast.
You all are witnesses of these things. You have experienced how our ascended Lord remains with us, even as he is seated at the right hand of the Father. You dwell in that Eighth Day that transcends space and time with him and all believers. You know that Christ will return, in the same way he ascended, and gather us to himself. As we await that day, may you always be reminded of the hope to which he has called you. May you never forget the riches of his glorious inheritance which awaits you. And may you always possess his peace, which surpasses all understanding.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.