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Most Christians know, or THINK they know, what the resurrection is all about. Even non-Christians have some idea. But the ascension is another matter. In fact, if you get folks to talking about the resurrection, and to defining it, you can hear some really confusing stuff. For many, the resurrection is also the ascension.
Maybe we get the idea that they are one and the same from the Apostlesí Creed, which states that "the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven." But I think that this mixed understanding is unfortunate. Because for me, the resurrection is just the BEGINNING. Christ WAS raised from the dead. Christ OVERCAME death.
But if we are stuck at the empty tomb on Easter morning and think THAT is all we should be excited about, we miss out on a lot. Because Jesus decided to hang around for awhile, and his ministry continued. In fact, his earthly ministry continued in his post-resurrection appearances all the way to the ascension. And THAT, for me, is why the ascension is really important.
We might say that the Easter season, between resurrection and ascension, is the PROVING time, the time Jesus spent giving his disciples confirmation of everything he had told them before his death.
Indeed, I suspect that if we didnít have those forty days after Easter until the ascension, if we did not have those post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesusí disciples may not have carried on his work.
Now, many pastors and evangelists base their whole calling, ALL their work, on the final words of Jesus in the gospel according to Matthew. It's best known as the great commission, and I think it could also be called the words of the ascension.
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
"And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
But personally, I get pretty excited by the words in the gospel according to Luke. One MIGHT argue that they say pretty much the same thing, but I think that Luke's version tells me MORE, gives me a fuller picture of who Christ was, and what Christ was all about.
In the forty-fourth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, we read, "Then he said to them, "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."
Now, he PROBABLY could have said, "I told you so!" But he didn't. Instead, he carefully takes the disciples through the steps of WHAT has happened, WHY it has happened, and how he KNEW that it was GOING to happen.
The crucifixion and the resurrection were not accidents. They were prophesied and proclaimed in scripture. And Jesus had told the disciples that the fulfillment of prophesy was inevitable. And Jesus was the CENTER of all that.
The disciples needed reminding. WE need reminding. That Jesus KNEW what he was doing. Although Jesus WAS crucified--which might make him LOOK like a VICTIM--Jesus was in CONTROL of these events to achieve what God had set forth as God's will for him. In fact, those who brought about Jesus' death, although they probably thought of THEMSELVES as being in charge and in control of the events of the moment, were in fact little more than the PAWNS of history.
I once had a friend who had a beautiful house in one of the Kansas City suburbs, and I commented how much I envied her, how much I wished I owned a house. And she replied, "YOU don't OWN a house; a HOUSE owns YOU."
And how often in OUR lives, when we think that WE are in control of things or events, are we really being CONTROLLED by those things or those events?
But when it came to the crucifixion and the resurrection, in fulfilling the will of God, JESUS was in charge, and he proves it to his disciples.
But he goes on to say, in what I consider to be the most powerful verse in this passage, "and that REPENTANCE and FORGIVENESS of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
Now, this is DIFFERENT from his closing words in Matthew. In Matthew he commissioned his disciples by telling them to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach. And that's good. We should. But in some quarters of the church we have become so hung up on the making of disciples and the baptising, in the creation of ever-larger churches, that we have forgotten what Jesus told us to TEACH.
In Matthew Jesus tells the disciples that they should be "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." And we should. But that's a mouthful. So I like Luke's report "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed."
Repentance and forgiveness. The whole message of the story of the prodigal son.
And it occurs to me that if we truly preached and practiced repentance and forgiveness, with God and humanity, we would not need to CONCERN ourselves with the making of disciples and the baptizing. They would take care of themselves. We would have disciples by the billions.
But then Jesus goes on to say, in a seemingly innocent sentence, "You are witnesses of these things."
Now, I say seemingly innocent, because it sounds like a simple statement of fact, like a report. But I think there is more to this than meets the eye. I think that he is telling them that BECAUSE they are witnesses, they carry a special responsibility.
THEY are the ones who will be entrusted to carry the message, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.
What I'm saying is that to BE a witness is not a static, passive role. We witness not only by watching, listening, reading, whatever. We also witness by DOING. In fact, Christians can't HELP themselves. If someone knows I am a Christian, I am automatically doing witness. Everything about me, to that person, is going to reflect my Christianity.
And I WORRY about that. Because not all Christians witness to repentance and forgiveness. Some Christians witness to condemnation and damnation. Some Christians witness to a narrow view of the world that will not permit thinking other than their own.
In fact, I suspect that a lot of United Methodists, maybe myself included, do that. But I don't think that was what Jesus Christ was all about.
"You are witnesses of these things." We, along with those early disciples, carry a lot of responsibility whether we like it or not.
But Jesus KNOWS that he has left the disciples with a difficult task. This is no minor assignment. So he is going to SEE to it that they are prepared.
"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."
So what DID God promise? God promised the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.
And the twenty-sixth verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John tells us that "the Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you."
And we know that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples.
Well, we weren't there, and that event is not likely to be repeated. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit is NOT with us. Indeed, WE are clothed with power from on high any time we truly enter into a prayer relationship with God.
But look REAL CLOSE at what Jesus is saying. He's saying, "I'm sending you help." And he's saying WAIT until you have been clothed with power from on high. He doesn't EXPECT us to go it alone. He KNOWS we need help.
And he's also telling us to WAIT until we get it. And I find that comforting. God IS patient.
So what does that say about OUR witness?
One of the things I learned about twelve years ago during twenty weeks of clinical pastoral education I participated in at Baptist Regional Health Center in Miami, Oklahoma, was that in many times of crisis there ARE NO right words to say. There are no textbook solutions. All we can do is listen, ESPECIALLY to the Spirit, and move as the Spirit moves us.
"Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them."
This echoes an account in the twenty-second verse of the ninth chapter of Leviticus: "Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them."
And again, in the Apocrypha, in the Book of Sirach, the twentieth verse of the fiftieth chapter: "Then Simon came down and raised his hands over the whole congregation of Israelites, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips, and to glory in his name." Jesus blessed the disciples he had sent out on mission.
"While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God."
Now, this completes a pattern. It is a pattern followed by other biblical departure scenes in Genesis and Deuteronomy.
Luke concludes both the appearance of Jesus to the eleven disciples and his gospel with first, a blessing; second, the departure; third, a response from the witnesses, the disciples, in this case, worshiping Christ and returning to Jerusalem with great joy; and fourth, an act of obedience, in this case, continually blessing God in the temple.
One might even say that this provides a model for contemporary Christians. We begin our week with worship, a time in which we are blessed by the presence of God in our faith community. But it is a brief time, and each of us must depart our separate ways and lead our separate lives.
Yet, if our worship has been meaningful, if we have felt truly blessed, we will be moved to return to our everyday lives with a feeling of great joy that Christ does live within us, and our daily lives throughout the following week will find us blessing God in return.
But to get back to the original disciples. Isn't it ironic, that their best friend for the past few years, their teacher, their master, has gone away forever, never to be seen again, and they are JOYOUS?
But NOW they understand. NOW they know what it's all about. NOW it all makes sense. But MORE than that, they have SOMETHING to look FORWARD to. God will soon be clothing them with power from on high to continue with their witness.
And the same can be said for us. WE always have something to look forward to. If we are patient and receptive to Godís call in our lives, God will clothe us with power from on high to continue with our witness.
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