It has been two-millennia since Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. Since then, a lot has changed. On the other hand, we are still in the same situation as the early church: Jesus is still up there, and we are still down here. What that means for us is this: Because we still await Christ’s return, the original call and practice of the church is still in effect.
As far as experiences go, it would be hard to top being one of the original disciples and see Jesus ascend into heaven (Acts 1:1-11). Christ was crucified, dead, and buried; he rose from the grave. For forty days Jesus appeared on and off to his disciples. Then the day came when he ascended to heaven, in full view for all the disciples to see. All those powerful experiences of being with the risen Lord and seeing him ascend into the clouds! Now what? How do you top that?
In the spiritual life, we move back and forth between moments of genuine inspiration and the sheer routine of our daily mundane lives. Both uplifting mountain-top experiences and the hard slog of walking through the valley are important. The trick is to channel the energy from one into the other. We need to work out rhythms of grace that connect expectant prayer with the action of being witnesses.
Prayer and witness – both are necessary for the church; and, are closely tied to the risen and ascended Christ. The ascension of our Lord Jesus means Christ is exalted above everything. His glorification translates into our sharing with him in his glory. The ascension means Jesus is in charge. By his authority he has made us prayerful witnesses and given us the means of carrying-out that job.
Jesus and the disciples, even after our Lord’s forty days with them after the resurrection, were not on the same page. The disciples were anticipating a restoration of David’s kingdom. Their vision for the future was a great apocalypse in which Jesus, as the ultimate mixed martial arts champion, would beat up all their enemies. Then, set up a political kingdom just like King David of old.
However, Jesus had a different agenda. Instead of creating an immediate utopia where the disciples would be in charge and in control, Jesus bluntly told them that knowing God’s timetable is not in their pay grade. The disciples were commissioned for a job, which did not include gawking at the sky and figuring-out when to expect the end of the world.
Although we understandably and deservedly want peace and justice now, Jesus avoided handing out prophecy charts detailing when that would happen. He essentially said to quit thinking about that stuff; it is really none of our business. Instead, our business is being witnesses of Jesus. The angels came along immediately after Jesus ascended and said to the disciples to stop standing there slack jawed. Jesus is coming back and, meanwhile, there is a job to do – to be witnesses of Christ’s redemptive events. And, the strength of that witness will come from the Holy Spirit. So, hang tight in prayer.
I will share with you my understanding of what it means to be a “witness.” I was once called to an emergent situation with an actively dying patient. The patient’s spouse and parents were present. In the space of two hours I watched them in the throes of grief. And I provided all the spiritual support I could. The situation had similarities to many emergencies I have attended, with one exception: I noticed that I was different. I did not “do” or “say” a lot. Mostly, I was present. I remember the feeling, at one point, of helplessness. In some ways I was. I certainly could not fix a thing. Yet, I saw my role in a new way this time around.
I distinctly remember the sense of bearing witness. There was an entire world outside the patient room that knew nothing of this family’s intense grief. But I knew. I watched the whole thing. I was present for all the struggles of the medical team, the tears of the husband, the grief of a Dad, the angry questions of a mother toward a God that she didn’t know how to approach – who seemed aloof and capricious. I was there for it all. And I still carry those folks and their story in my heart. That was enough.
Yes, it was enough. This was the first time I ever said that after such a situation. I had this very settled sense that the role of bearing witness to the events in front of me, being a witness, was a blessed and sacred responsibility. Billions of people on planet earth did not know the grief of these people. I did. I was there. There is something both mystical and necessary about this understanding of being a witness with active prayerful observation.
I wonder if that is how the disciples felt after Christ’s ascension. Perhaps my experience is what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Maybe it is serving in the special role of observing the suffering of Christ, his resurrection of the dead, and the ongoing work of the Spirit.
God is, I believe, the ultimate witness. When no one else sees, God sees. Where there is grief, he is present. Wherever pain, hurt, and brokenness exists, God is there bearing witness to it all. Sometimes he is gracious to invite me into the scene to witness it along with him. Jesus is our Immanuel – God with us. And that is enough for me.
In the book of Acts, praying and witnessing was a consistent pattern that the early church practiced. They prayed about whom to choose as leaders and bore witness to the Spirit setting individuals apart for the work of gospel proclamation and service to the church. They prayed for the Holy Spirit to come on people and bore witness to miraculous signs of the Spirit’s work. They prayed for the courage to preach and heal and bore witness to the saving work of God.
As the book of Acts unfolds, we see Peter imprisoned for being a witness. The church went to prayer. Peter was released, and when he showed up at the prayer meeting the believers at first did not believe it was him. Even with their little faith they were able to witness God answer their prayers (Acts 12:1-18). It was at a prayer meeting where Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the Spirit to bear witness in other locations (Acts 13:1-3). While traveling from city to city, Paul constantly devoted himself to prayer and listened to the Spirit (Acts 16:1-35). People came to Christ because of prayerfully listening to the Spirit and the obedient action that followed by Peter, Paul, and the other believers giving witness to how the risen Christ saved their lives.
This was all possible because of the risen and ascended Christ. There is not one square inch of all this earth that Jesus is not Lord. This means we can be alive with devotion to prayer and to being witnesses in this world for Jesus. Just as a cup of coffee needs a warm-up, so our prayers need to be refreshed so that God’s purposes will be accomplished. And his purposes are that all of creation comes, in a real and practical way, under Christ’s lordship.
As God does his gracious work of gathering people into his kingdom, we have the wondrous privilege of bearing witness to his merciful and transforming power. The psalmist actively observed God’s activity in the world, and gave this witness:
God is setting the lonely in families;
leading out prisoners with singing….
When you, God, went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel.
You gave abundant showers, O God;
you refreshed your weary inheritance.
Your people settled in it,
and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor. (Psalm 68:6-10)
What does the ascension of Jesus Christ mean for us today? That we belong to God and have the wondrous privilege of prayer and witness in a world that so desperately needs to connect with their spirituality.