Jesus is Ascended
Theophilus may or may not have been one person. The word means 'God lover'. Luke's book, Acts, is addressed to those who love God. So - it is addressed to you. Sometimes authors or journalists begin a book or article with the words 'Dear reader' and that is that Luke is doing. Luke refers first of all to his own Gospel which is his historically accurate account of the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection. As you know Luke was a physician by profession. Just as God called the arch critic of the Church, Saul, to become its greatest apostle, so he called a doctor of medicine to document the supernatural events of the virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. The philosopher Mary Midgely has suggested that Richard Dawkins' zeal for atheism could be converted to zeal for Christianity and for Christ. She said she thought it possible that Dawkins could become a Christian. Dawkins is calling himself a 'secular Christian' these days. He's half way there. Secular Christians accept the human aspects of Jesus' teaching only. We have plenty of these living locally as well. The Church of Scotland has ministers, elders and members who do not understand or believe in the ascension of Jesus. There are congregations without any strong collective sense or apprehension of the truth of Jesus' ascension. Lots of people believe in God in a vague and general way. The details of Christianity have escaped them. They have not wanted to go too far, content to paddle in the shallows of faith. A Church of Scotland congregation was vacant a few years ago. In their advertisement for a new minister in Life & Work they invited applications from people who would surprise them. They got what they asked for. So much surprise resulted that a great row broke out, petitions for and against the minister were sent to Presbytery, a formal complaint was raised against the Presbytery itself, lawyers were brought in, the Church's mediaeval legal procedures creaked into life and matters led to a split and unreconciled charge, the minister suing the Church, demitting as a minister completely and leaving the Church of Scotland for good. Without secure grounding in Jesus Christ, congregations do their own thing but it does not prosper them. If we are founded and continuing in Jesus Christ, we have a chance of holding together, resisting the malicious work of evil in our midst and surviving and increasing our Christian presence and witness.
And so we take to hearts and souls and minds what Luke tells us. After his suffering, Jesus presented himself to the disciples and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. This is the supernatural bedrock of our faith. Everything that we are as Christians depends on it. Luke was convinced. That is the language he uses. Others were convinced too as we well know. For forty days, Jesus visited and appeared to those who had been with him before his death. This was a larger group than just the disciples. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that the number was about 500. Someone, maybe more than one, must have made a record of the visitations. People shared their experiences of the Risen Jesus. You would do so too if he came to you. Would you? In this day and age? Would you not be afraid people thought you were daft? Probably. But if it was happening to others you would be emboldened. And that is what actually happened.
There is a clear pattern to Jesus death, resurrection, appearances, instructions and ascension. It all fits together as a master plan. The ascension is essential to the scheme of salvation. The instructions Jesus gives are important. The disciples have no idea what is going to happen next. They don't know what they are supposed to do. One thing has changed though. Now they are filled every day with hope and joy. They are topped up with spiritual energy the likes of which they have never had before. They are far from sad and broken-hearted and they are not even apprehensive. They do not have any doubts. They know that Jesus is alive. They know that they have a part to play in whatever God is going to do next. We should have that same conviction, that same vision, energy, outlook and focus. If we did, The Lord could use us in better ways.
Jesus taught his disciples and the others that they were to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. It is a clear and simple command. Did they understand it? Probably not but they did as Jesus had requested them. Some still thought in the old ways asking if Jesus would soon become a ruling Messiah figure for Palestine, for God's people, for Israel, for the Jews. Jesus replaced this narrow, political and military aspiration with something much greater. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” he said. And that is what happened. From such small beginnings in a far away place on the edge of the Roman Empire. Here we are proof and evidence that Jesus is alive. His words fulfilled. The calling to be a witness then was not just a calling to speak, it was a calling to suffer as a consequence of speaking. The word witness and the word martyr are the same in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written. So – there was a sober and a serious aspect to this calling amid the great spiritual joy and effervescence that was around everyone. In an age dominated by entertainment Christian worship is deeply fulfilling because of its seriousness alongside the joy and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
And now Luke tells us about the ascension. After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Can we work out what actually happened? It is not easy for us in our mechanical and technical and materialistic way of thinking today. Does anything like this happen today? Do you ever sense the presence of God in worship, in prayer, in private or with others? Do you sense the presence of God when we share Holy Communion? Just multiply that a dozen times, maybe one hundred times. The disciples and the others present had met the Risen Jesus more than once. They were living very close to God. They were open to God in a new way. That is the first thing that helps us understand what happened. Secondly, Jesus' resurrection body was continuous with his earthly body but it was not the same as his earthly body. We can only think in terms of dimensions of existence beyond the simply visible and material. How else to we experience God anyway? There's nothing strange about this. Scientists are spending huge efforts at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland trying to discover extra dimensions of existence. They call it 'dark matter'. Among further dimensions must be the life of God. I doubt that scientists will come across it. God reveals Himself to those who seek him humbly and those who do so through Jesus Christ, His Son, our Saviour. Christianity is a life commitment not just an intellectual experimental search. Only the most narrow minded would not allow that this is a possibility.
In the Bible, the cloud was always a sign of God's presence. You may understand that by thinking of what it is like to live in the middle east with its deserts and long hot days. We Scots would say that the appearance of the sun might do the same for us, especially after our long dark winters. The cloud here is saying God was present and took Jesus to Himself. It could have been a physical cloud also or a spiritual cloud that hid Jesus from their eyes. The ascension is important because the disciples had to see for themselves that Jesus would no longer be with them as he had been. It was a defining moment for them and for the Church and for the Gospel. Transfixed with the moment, they were spoken to by an angelic presence, confirming that what they had just witnessed had actually happened. They were not dreaming and were being drawn back to their lives and ongoing responsibilities, turning them back to earth and society. Do you feel that even if in a small way – after you have been worshipping? Or do you forget what has just happened the minute you are out the door? Sometimes our worship is like being on the mountain top and within minutes for leaving we are cast into the valley. Gripes, troubles, burdens visit us quickly to discourage us and try to negate our time with God. But the disciples were filled with joy. Not yet filled with the Holy Spirit – that was still to come. But they were not afraid or disappointed any more.
There is a problem at the end of this passage. The disciples are told that Jesus will return in the same way that he has just gone. It does not say when this will happen. It does not say here that this will happen necessarily in the lifetimes of the disciples – apostles. As far as I know, this has not happened yet. We know that some think it will happen on a certain date although Jesus himself never said so. False prophets have arisen in every generation including ours predicting Jesus' return. We must not spend our days looking into the sky to see if it will happen. We are to live as though Jesus might return. In our hearts we can be ready whatever we are doing each day. That is what Martin Luther rediscovered for humanity. Jesus comes again in our hearts and in our lives. He himself said, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.