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, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnessesof these things. 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.’
The Ascension of Jesus Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
For the World
Not all of the Gospels tell the same stories about Jesus. If you want a birth narrative, you only can find them Luke and Matthew. If you want the turning water into wine miracle, you need to look at John. Mark is the only Gospel that ends with people poisoning themselves as a demonstration of faith. And, it is only in the gospel of Luke that we hear about the Ascension. The Ascension, that moment when Jesus was carried away, is the last story we hear in the book of Luke. Since we have spent most of our Easter and post-Easter time in Mark and John, in order to understand what the Ascension means in Luke, it may be helpful to have a little recap of what has been happening in the rest of the story. After the Resurrection, two men appeared to Jesus' women followers who had come to tend to his body. The men told the women that Jesus had been raised. The women quickly told the disciples, who did not believe them. Peter was the only one who would got to the tomb. He saw that Jesus was gone and was amazed.
We did talk about the next part of the story, when Jesus appeared to two of the disciples as they walked to Emmaus. In that part of the story, they only recognized that it was him when he broke bread and shared it with him. We haven't heard the next part of the story. Luke tells us that when they were telling the other disciples what had happened, Jesus appeared among them, showing himself to all of the disciples for the first time. He showed them his hands and his feet, and then ate fish to show that he wasn't a ghost. The very next part of the Gospel is our reading for today. Remember last week when I talked about how the goal of the parts of the Gospel of John that we had been reading was to comfort Jesus' followers. The parts of John that we have been reading, and that was the second reading today, all happened before Jesus' death. This story in Luke shows Jesus comforting the disciples after his death and resurrection.
He does this by offering an explanation of why he thinks everything that had happened happened. I'm sure his friends were yearning for an explanation. You see, while you and I have had seven weeks to think about the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection, in Luke, this story happens a mere two days after Jesus was crucified. We are catching a glimpse of the disciples right in the midst of their deepest, earliest grief over the loss of Jesus. We are seeing them at a time when they are undoubtedly asking questions about their future and how they go on without Jesus. They must of wondered if all their time with him had been wasted. Their lives had been changed by their time with him. They couldn't simply go back to fishing or farming or tax-collecting. What would they do now?
Much like the image of Jesus in John, who cared enough to try to prepare his friends for the tragedy to come, Jesus in Luke tried to help them make meaning of tragedy of the crucifixion and help them understand the resurrection. As many of us who have gone through tragedy know, many people need to hear that the tragedy they went through had a meaning. If it did, then, somehow, it is easier to bear the weight of it all. In this section of scripture, we see Jesus giving his disciples something that countless people would like to have: An answer for why he was killed. He sat with them and spoke of Hebrew Scripture. He explained, once again, that his life was deeply embedded in the stories of redemption and salvation that they all learned from the time they were children. He explained to them that death and new life were parts of that story, no matter how much it hurt. He showed them that, though death will come, in the end, love will win and life will win and repentance and forgiveness are possible.
Here Jesus is, at one of his most pastoral moments, making sure the people who are closest to him in the whole world are ok. Jesus said that I know this was hard, but I think it had to be this way. Here I am now. Death did not have the final answer. And, death will not stop God's reign of love and justice. Even though I won't be physically here anymore, my mission and my Spirit will go on, and they will go on through you. That's right. Not only did Jesus help give them a sense of meaning of their shared tragedy, he also helped restore their sense of purpose. He gave them a job. He said that his message must continue to be proclaimed and they are the witnesses to what has happened. It is their job to continue his work, and he will make sure that they can do it. He said that they would be clothed in power. The Spirit will come. And, the Spirit will guide their work. After offering them meaning in the face of tragedy and commissioning them to continue his work, he blessed them one more time. As he did so, he withdrew and was carried away. Even as he was leaving, he made sure that they knew they were blessed and beloved by God. And, they are felt great joy and returned to the temple where they continually blessed God.
One of the scholars I read this week pointed out something interesting. His name is Troy Toftgruben. He points out that many people talk about the Ascension primarily as an excuse for Jesus' physical absence from the rest of the story. Jesus raised up and now we don't have him with us and more's the pity. Think of all the good he could have continue to do had he stuck around a little longer. Think of all the people he could have healed. Toftgruben says that Luke, and it's sequel, Acts, are actually stating quite the opposite. The Ascension isn't primarily about Jesus' absence, but the ways in which he became present in a different way. Toftgruben argues that the author of the Gospel describes it as a story about all that Jesus "began to do and teach." The doing and teaching did not stop with Ascension. They simply changed. As we read through the book of Acts, we will see that when the disciples speak during a healing, they will often say, "Jesus Christ heals you." They understood that this was a way that Jesus was still engaged with humanity, but now, primarily through the actions of those who act in his name. Jesus is not gone, but is simply present differently.
It seems that it is not simply the disciples who carry Jesus with them as they heal and speak of God's love. I think all who follow Jesus have access to his presence. Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila said it this way: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people." How are you being the presence of Christ to people who need healing? How are we as a church demonstrating Christ's presence in our community? Here's a couple stories of churches being Christ in their community that I read about this week.
One Sunday morning, Mary Martha Kannass, pastor of Hephatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, welcomed a young man back to church. He had been gone for a while because he had been in prison. The first Sunday that he was out of prison, he came back to church with his mother and siblings. Pastor Kannass said this to him during worship: We have been praying for you every Sunday during your incarceration.” Asking him to stand him to stand, she also said, “And we will continue to pray for you, that you will be able to find a job, continue your education and witness your faith to us at Hephatha.” The church applauded his return, and Pastor Kannass invited him to help her serve communion. I probably don't have to tell you that not everyone is welcomed back to church so heartily upon being released from prison. The congregation went on to pray for 14 more people who were in prison and also had some connection to their church. Not only did they pray for them during worship, but they also took the names home and continue to pray for them at home.
Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee also discerned a need to follow Jesus' call to visit those in prison and to tend to captives. They realized that there were four minimum security prisons within a few blocks of the church, and every year 600 people were coming through their doors. People who have been in prison need help finding jobs, finding housing, and, often, restoring relationships to the community. In response to this huge pool of need, the church began an outreach program called RETURN, Returning Ex-Offenders to Urban Realities and Neighborhoods. Since this program began in 1980, they have served hundreds of people. These people found restoration of familial, communal, and congregational relationships that would have been very difficult without a program like RETURN. People have found healing in this place, all because the church wanted to continue to show people Jesus, and the power of love, repentance, and forgiveness.
I'm pretty sure that urban parts of Milwaukee aren't the only places that need to feel Christ's presence in order to receive healing. I bet our town, and this church, could use a little presence of Christ, too. Maybe that's why you volunteer at the food pantry, because you know that the folks who come in there could use a little Christly love. Maybe that's why you participate in Special Olympics, because you know the power of healing that comes through good fun and comradery. Maybe that's why you help clean up the little part of the earth that this church is in charge of, because you know that the planet we live on needs some healing, too. However, you do it, know that when you do those things, you do so in memory of Christ. You do so as Christ's hands and feet in the world. I pray that we all may remember that we carry Christ's presence with us, and not be afraid to share it with the community around us. After all, we're all the body he's got left.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Troy Toftgruben's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2385
Barbara Lundblad, "Don't Ask Jesus to Say the Table Prayer (John 17:6-19)":
Erica Schemper shared Teresa of Avila's prayer in "After Easter: A Series for Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Beyond": http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2014/after-easter
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.