An Ascendant Mission – Lectionary 05/24/2020

Luke 24:44-53

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 witnesses of 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.”

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.

Acts 1:4-11

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They 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.”

Sermon Text

The work of the Church is founded in the gift of the Spirit from the Father to us through the work of Christ, the Son of God. We have worked, over the past month, through how the Church has and has not found its way in the world. The work of the Church stands or falls based upon its dependence on God. We gather together and worship because God works, sometimes unseen, in our life. We prove our place in the Kingdom of God through our commitment to love for one another. We are able to love one another because we follow the example of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit. We maintain our identity in the Spirit through Unity in the diversity of the body of Christ.

The final act of Christ on Earth was to depart to be bodily with the Father. The language used in Luke-Acts is designed to connect this exit with traditionally apocalyptic imagery. Jesus leaves swathed in clouds, a symbol of divine presence as old as the Exodus. The departure recalls the Son of Man and Ancient of Days of Daniel. This departure happens on the Mount of Olives, which Zechariah had placed as the point from which the Messiah would reenter Jerusalem. The final act of Christ on earth, the departure from Earth to Heaven and from being present among us to present with the Father, is not an ending in any sense, but a point of shift from which a definite continuation begins.

Christ leaves the disciples in a way that propels them forward. The are pushed, whether by a sheer outpouring of joy and praise or by the urging of an angelic messenger, to return to the city. The Son of God who had been killed and then raised, now is seated beside the Father. The first two definite marks of the Church’s beginning were established – the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Now the disciples only had to wait for the final sign, the arrival of the Spirit, the fulfillment of Christ’s parting promises that he would be with them always.

The arrival of the Spirit is not all that is promised to us in Luke-Acts account of Jesus’ departure. Christ implicitly gives us a strong statement about where we can find strength in our pursuit of our mission. The mission of the church is Ascendant, it aspires to climb to higher and higher heights. It is never sufficient that it should settle, even in rest it must be on the move. Upward spirals of activity follow the path of Christ’s life and work so that we who are humbled in our baptism work toward new heights of goodness and pride, not in ourselves, but in the transformation which has been worked within us.

Throughout the Gospels, and indeed the New Testament as a whole, the presence of Jesus at the right hand of God is what allows our life to be lived out as it presently is. Our prayers are heard directly by God, but also our concerns are lifted up by Christ who advocates for us. The Ascension is not the endnote of Jesus’ ministry, it is a continuation of what Jesus’ ministry has been up to this point. The descent of Christ to be among us in the incarnation established the permanent fusion of divinity and humanity. In ascending that fusion was put in a new context. Like how divinity entered humanity in a unique way in the incarnation, the ascension allowed humanity to enter into the divine realm.

We continue on as people who are caught between realities. We do not yet see the fullness of Heaven and Earth brought together, but the Spirit within us attests to this reality. The greatest proof of this possibility spent time among us and lived out an entire life exactly as we did. Then that proof went before God and remains there to this day. The Church now fulfills the role that Christ once fulfilled on Earth – we are the visible sign of Christ until Christ returns, the proof of Heaven and Earth combined. We are the sign of God’s presence in the world, and our presence must be an active one. The change of our hearts, the realization of those divine characteristics, if they do not produce activity then it is only a change of appearance not substance that we have experienced.

Oftentimes we internalize the mission of Christ as something that changes us and then stands still. We are saved from damnation or from our own evil and then we are content to have that be our story. If we branch out beyond this, we often do so in mild ways. We may share about our faith, ideally in the positive but often in the negative. We should speak to the wonders of God working in our life, but we are no strangers to identifying our faith through negating other worldviews. If a poll was put out to people on the street, it would likely be easier for people to name what the Church is believed to be against than what it is for. The things it traditionally abstains from stand out more than the things it seeks after.

Yet, we are people called to go out and preach the Gospel. A Gospel that saves not only in the next life, not in the World to Come alone, but in this life and this world. We are people who preach a message that dares to say that the Last are First and the First are Last. We cannot simply say what we believe but must also live it out. Though we cannot define ourselves through antagonism, but we stand in contrast to the world around us. The Church is an alternative to all systems of power and order, Jesus establishes a Kingdom which is like no other.

The implicit promise of the Ascension is established in Jesus’ words to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. They ask if Israel is to be restored, Rome deposed and the Davidic Kingship re-established, and Jesus redirects their thinking. “It is not yours to know the times or periods God has established…” We do not need to know what comes next and usually have no idea. If anyone sitting here today claimed that they knew where we would be today six months ago, they would be lying. The disciples in this moment did not understand the next step of the Church’s mission either. They had no idea what their journeys would consist of.

Jesus tells them that there will be two sure things. The Spirit will come to them and that will allow them to complete their mission – that is the first sure things. No less important is the statement that is given in Jesus’s apparent negation of their question, “It is not for you to know the time or periods God has established…” That implies that God has planned ahead what the Church should do. There is no mission we can undertake that God does not already have ideas about. The Spirit is not shocked by circumstance, the Son is not put off by our requests, because the Father has prepared works for us from before Creation.

This section uses two words for time which we translate as, “time,” and, “periods.” The first word, κρονους describes time generally, every individual moment. The second word, καιρους is a word that refers to an appointed time, something which is planned ahead of time. This second word is usually taught as being, “God’s time,” (καιρος,) however kairos just means an opportune or preplanned instance. The text allows us to read it in two ways – that we do not know what God has put before us, either in the moment to moment existence we live or in the set events of the future, but neither do we know our own plans, our own experience of time.

Plans are changed constantly. Trips planned years in advance can be canceled because of rain. Budgets are reworked because of unexpected expenditures that are nonetheless necessary. Ministries are reworked because needs or resources change. Even in smaller affairs, we do not know what will happen. If we walk into the kitchen and eat some grapes we cannot know if they will be sour or sweet. Our best predictions and models fall apart regularly. We may, through experimentation and experience, make better and better projections of things to come, but until we live in a moment it is a mystery to us.

Of all that we see in the Ascension of Christ, there are few things as reassuring as this brief statement. No matter how we choose to understand God’s sovereignty over time and space, the reality of God’s sovereignty remains. We are given freedom to act in our life. This freedom allows us to make right choices and wrong choices, to find ourselves on paths that lead to life and to decay. Yet that freedom is under observation, not so as to make our freedom into an illusion, but to see that we are never so far afield as to be completely lost.

The mission of the Church can never become completely derailed because God watches over it. Individuals within the Church, administrative systems within denominations, even entire congregations may lose track, but there is never a point of no return. God who sent them into the world initially never lost them, God who established the pillars of the Earth has authority enough to see all time, all seasons, to completion. God is not a tyrant that stands over us with an iron fist, but the established work of God is toward restoration. Even though we do not know the moment of our restoration, it is always there, prepared for us for when the time is right.

This does not mean that our life is guaranteed to be easy, living it properly means we will have our fair share of problems. It does not mean that we will always have a clear road ahead of us, obstacles will appear and twists will occur that we never could have anticipated. What it does mean is that we have the complete experience of our advocate working with us. Christ who lived out a life sufficient to know all that we may experience personally. The Spirit that inhabits us and testifies to us about Christ. The Father who sees the road ahead, every twist and turn it will take for us, and gives us grace upon grace enough to respond to it.

The mission of the Church is built off of the foundation of Christ, and like Christ its end point is the Heavens. In Christ’s incarnation Heaven came to Earth, in the Ascension Earth came to Heaven. When Christ returns Heaven and Earth will meet again, never to be separated ever again. In the meantime, we have this assurance, that even if we go astray, even if we lose the plot, God sees where we are, God can and will save us. The mission begun by God, will be finished by God. This is the nature of our faith.

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