Ascension of the Lord (Acts 1:1-11)

The Ascension of Christ, by Pacino di Bonaguida, c.1340

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Common English Bible)

It’s been two-millennia since Jesus Christ ascended to heaven. Since then, a lot has changed.

Yet, on the other hand, we’re still in the same situation as the early church: Jesus is still up there; and we are still down here. That means, because we are still awaiting Christ’s return, the original call and practice of the church is still in effect.

As far as experiences go, it’s hard to top being one of the original disciples and seeing Jesus ascend into the clouds to heaven. Now what? How do you go about your life after that?

In the spiritual life, we move back and forth between moments of genuine inspiration and the sheer routine of our daily mundane lives. The uplifting mountain-top experience and the hard slog of walking through the valley are both important. The trick is to channel the energy from one into the other. For that to happen, 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 they are closely tied to the risen and ascended Christ. The ascension of the Lord Jesus means Christ is exalted above everything; he’s 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 forty days together, post-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. 

But 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. Instead, the disciples were commissioned for a job, which didn’t include gawking at the sky and trying to figure out when the end of the world was happening.

Christ’s Ascension, by Scott Rayl

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 because it’s really none of our business.

Rather, 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.

So, what does it mean to be a “witness?” A few years back, I was called to the bedside of 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, at times during my encounter, feeling helpless. In some ways I was. I certainly couldn’t fix a thing. Yet, this time, I saw my role in a new way. 

I distinctly remember the sense of bearing witness to this sacred event. 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. Even now, I still carry those folks and their story in my heart.

And it was enough. 

Yes, it was enough. This was the first time I ever said that after such a situation. I had a settled sense that the role of witnessing the events in front of me was a blessed and sacred responsibility. Billions of people on planet earth didn’t know the grief of these people. I did. Because 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’s how the disciples felt after Christ’s ascension. Perhaps my experience is what Jesus meant when he said, “You shall be my witnesses.” Maybe a witness is one who has 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, God is present. Wherever pain, hurt, and brokenness exists, God is there bearing witness to it all. 

And, once in a while, the Lord 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. So, 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 possible because of the risen and ascended Christ.

There is not one square inch of 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.

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 the transcendent and divine.

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