May 20, 2012
I. On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus’ disciples seemed to have locked themselves into the house for fear of the Temple authorities (John 20:19). When the risen Jesus began appearing to them, he explained how his death was God’s redemptive plan as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Matthew 28:7, the angel told the women to send the disciples to Galilee to meet Jesus. John 21 reports Jesus’ breakfast with seven disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and the reconciliation with Peter. In Matthew 28:16 Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission on a mountain in Galilee, but this was not the place of the Ascension which is described in Acts 1:6-11. Life had not gone back to normal: traveling from village to village teaching and healing. For forty days Jesus appeared to the disciples erratically and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3) They waited for the barely understood coming of the Holy Spirit in power with little inkling of what was next. They were in an interim period of transition to a future they could not possibly imagine. I expect they did a lot of standing around staring at each other. Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem until the received the promise of the Father and were baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:4-5)
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.11They 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.” (Acts 1:6-11)
A. Luke is the only New Testament writer to report Jesus’ ascension.
1. Sometimes the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 is assumed to report the ascension in Galilee in contradiction to Luke, but it never says anything about ascension. Mark 16:19 does say Jesus ascended, but all scholars agree this was not written by Mark but added much later.
2. Ephesians 4:8-9 does make an oblique reference to ascension by quoting Psalm 68:18, but the point is that Christ descended to be incarnate as the man Jesus and to give spiritual gifts to the Church.
B. At the start of his Gospel (1:2), Luke said that he interviewed eyewitnesses to write an orderly account of the life of Jesus. At the conclusion of his Gospel, and as a bridge to his second book Acts, Luke 24:48 records Jesus telling his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” Witness, as both noun and verb, is the driving force in Acts and the thread that connects it to the Gospel of Luke.
1. The Greek word for witness is cognate with martyr. It implies being so confident of what you have witnessed you will die for it.
2. The Apostles were witnesses of all that Jesus did, especially of his death because of its centrality in God’s redemptive plan. After Jesus’ ascension, when the Apostles choose Matthias to replace Judas, Acts 1:22 specifies that he had to have been with them from the baptism of John through Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
C. For Luke, witnessing Jesus’ ascension was important to validate the whole story, to show that Jesus didn’t just gradually fade out after his resurrection. The Apostles were eyewitnesses of a spiritual reality.
1. We will do well not to envision Jesus’ Ascension in spacial terms, as though he is rocket man zooming past the planets, stars and galaxies until he reaches a place called heaven at or beyond the edge of the universe. I think the iconographers give us a better picture than Renaissance or realist painters.
2. The cloud is not a platform lifting Jesus from the earth. The cloud echoes the Shekinah Glory of God that guided and protected the ancient Hebrews. Now it hides the risen Christ and the Kingdom of God from human view until it is drawn back to reveal him at the climax of history.
D. Knowing you have eternal life, Jesus sends you as a witness to his resurrection.
II. If we’re going to be Jesus’ witnesses, we better know what we’re talking about.
A. 1 John 5:13 says that John wrote so we can know that we have eternal life. Sounds presumptuous and arrogant to people today. To know you have eternal life is beyond the scope of our usual ways of knowing.
1. Scientific experiments and empirical measurements cannot investigate eternal life.
2. The rational arguments and logical proofs of philosophy cannot establish eternal life.
3. Subjective mystical experience may be an illusion.
4. With the recent exonerations of many who were wrongly convicted of crimes by eyewitness testimony, we’ve come to see how unreliable that can be. I’m reminded of a great story in the Apocryphal book of Susannah (1:52-59).
Two lecherous old men spy on beautiful Susannah as she bathes in her garden. They try to seduce her, and when she refuses, they accuse her of adultery with a young man. The prophet Daniel rescues Susannah by separating the supposed eyewitnesses and asks them under which tree they saw Susannah and her supposed paramour. One said the mastic tree and the other the evergreen oak. So Daniel vindicated the righteous Susannah.
5. Unlike the mystical writings of many traditions, Christians, Jews and Muslims believe God is known by revelation. Muslims believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed in ecstatic trances. The Bible is the record of God’s interaction with people through many generations in a wide variety of situations. 1 John 5:9 calls this God’s witness, and verse 13 supports Luke’s assertion that he wrote the witness of the Apostles. But if you have ever tried to quote the Bible to settle an argument with an unbeliever, you know that without the witness of the Holy Spirit the witness of Scripture is unconvincing.
B. To be Jesus’ witnesses is not to talk about our faith or about pragmatic results, such as answers to prayer. Not that those things don’t matter, but as a way of knowing we have eternal life, they are susceptible to personal whims and changing circumstances. Rather, we are witnesses to God’s redeeming acts in Jesus, namely his death, resurrection and ascension. We can witness that we have been encountered by the risen Jesus. It’s not about us but about Jesus. While this witness is not amenable to our usual ways of knowing, we do witness an objective reality that is beyond ourselves. The validation of Scripture is not an abstract revelation but the cumulative testimony of many corroborating eyewitnesses.
C. Knowing you have eternal life, Jesus sends you as a witness to his resurrection.
III. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus uses imperative language as you go, make disciples, baptize and teach them. He is giving instructions. In Acts 1:8, Jesus describes the mission of his Apostles in declarative language: you will receive power; the Holy Spirit will come on you; you will be my witnesses.
A. To try to be Jesus’ witness without the power of the Holy Spirit is futile. We know we have eternal life by the power of the Holy Spirit. We speak of Jesus with confidence by the power of the Holy Spirit. We face opposition and ridicule with courage by the power of the Holy Spirit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we witness Jesus encountering other people as we bear witness to his resurrection. Our witness does not convince people to trust and follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit does!
B. Jesus also gives the mission of his witnesses a broad scope that becomes the organizing structure for Acts.
1. Jerusalem was the home territory for the Apostles. Duncanville is your home territory – your Jerusalem. An important part of the mission of 1st Christian Church, Duncanville is engaging the people who live right around you.
2. Judea was the surrounding region for the Apostles. People shared language, culture, economy. 1st Christian Church, Duncanville already reaches out into the surrounding area: Cedar Hill, Desoto, Lancaster, Waxahachie, and Dallas.
3. Samaria was not only geographically a little farther away for the Apostles, its people were politically, culturally, socially, ethnically and religiously different. Going to Samaria pushed the Apostles out of their comfort zone. For 1st Christian Church, Duncanville, Jesus’ call to Samaria will mean crossing cultural boundaries to embrace the growing ethnic diversity of the area. It will also mean reaching out to a younger generation who have little if any experience with church or Jesus and finding ways to welcome them as well.
4. For the Apostles, the “ends of the earth” was the Mediterranean world. They could not have imagined the Gospel’s expansion into Europe, Africa and Asia much less the New World. For 1st Christian Church, Duncanville the “ends of the earth” is youth going to Chicago, praying for Sue and Inga in Mexico, giving to the Week of Compassion. Vigorous involvement with the global mission of the Church will fuel the local witness of 1st Christian Church, Duncanville.
C. Knowing you have eternal life, Jesus sends you as a witness to his resurrection.
IV. When the Apostles came together, they were not expecting the ascension. They asked, “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after all Jesus had taught them about the Kingdom of God for three years, they were still looking for a provincial political messiah. Jesus warns them off of speculating about the future and urges them to be about their mission as his witnesses in the present. They were not going to stand around staring toward heaven until he came. No! They were to be his witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.
A. The US is now into the next presidential election cycle. Despite all the noise of campaigning, when it comes to doing the work of government, too many are standing around staring at each other until the election is over.
B. In the interim between pastors, churches all too easily slip into standing around staring at each other until the new pastor comes. I want to commend the leaders of 1st Christian Church, Duncanville for being on the move, taking advantage of the opportunities of this time.
C. A friend of mine grew up in Thailand with his missionary parents. He came to have a love and anguish for the people of neighboring Burma. The brutal military dictatorship not only suppressed the pro-democracy movement and violently oppressed tribal minorities. He and his family have been instrumental in a team that brings some level of compassion and relief to the tribal people. Even when it seemed pointless, they kept going to villages to help them rebuild after being burned by the army. They didn’t stand around staring at each other waiting for things to improve. Just a couple of weeks ago the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement Aung San Suu Kyi took a seat in parliament after being released from over 15 years of house arrest. Like the Apostles at Jesus’ ascension, like my friend in Burma, Jesus says to 1st Christian Church, Duncanville in this interim transition between pastors, “Don’t stand around staring at each other. You will receive power from the Holy Spirit to be my witnesses.”