Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension, (Year A), June 1, 2014
Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever listened to the Creed that we say each week and thought, “Huh. Jesus ‘ascended into Heaven’? What’s that?” The other events the Creed mentions are all really big ones: Jesus’ birth, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, his resurrection, and the fact that he will come again. We talk about them all the time. But Jesus’ ascension into Heaven doesn’t. Here’s the short version: to “ascend” means to “go up.” As we heard in today’s first lesson from Acts, forty days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to heaven. Now, one would think that was the end of the Jesus story, at least until he comes again. Born, taught, died, raised, taught a little more, went back to heaven where, as the Creed says, he is with the father. Jesus isn’t on Earth, so that should be the end of things, right? But you’ll notice that here we are, in chapter one of Acts. The beginning of the book! And Jesus is present throughout the rest of the book, appearing or being mentioned more than a hundred times. Jesus wasn’t physically present with the disciples anymore. They couldn’t touch his hands and side. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.
Here are some of the ways Jesus was present. Most obviously, several times people had dreams and visions of Jesus at various points throughout the book of Acts. Paul’s dramatic conversion when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and turned him from a persecutor to a believer is described in Acts, for example. Then there are all the times people preach about Jesus, his life and death, and his ministry. There’s a lot of preaching in Acts, and all of it centered around Jesus’ words and actions. But most often, we know Jesus was present because the community saw him. They knew that even if Jesus wasn’t physically sitting next to them, Jesus was with them, guiding them and helping them along their path, through awesome highs and terrible lows, as they struggled with what it all meant, what impact Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had on their lives.
And it was a struggle. Our text sums up what happens next in just two verses: All the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with others including many women. If you read through the book of Acts, though, it doesn’t take long to learn that things weren’t always so nice and simple as that makes it sound. There were disagreements and fights—huge ones! Disagreements over just about everything. Money, food, worship, how to deal with outsiders, how to reach out to the community, how best to teach new believers about Jesus, which rules were important to keep exactly as-is and which ones should bend to changing circumstances, how to react in times of trouble and persecution, who should be leaders in the Christian community and what to do when some clique holds all the power in the congregation. It’s easy to read and focus on the miracles, the crowds—thousands of converts at a time, wow! Wish we could do that, fill every pew! But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it didn’t always come easily.
Jesus was there, with them, throughout it. The reason he gets mentioned so many times is because Jesus was at the very center of their life together as a community of faith, and they never forgot it. Whenever there was a conflict, no matter how huge or how trivial, they always stepped back and asked where Jesus was in the issue. Which course of action, which idea, showed Christ to the world most clearly? Jesus said that his followers were one and united, but that didn’t mean that they always agreed on everything; it didn’t mean that they were always in perfect lockstep. What it meant was that they were one in mission, in their goals. They shared the same ultimate vision of what the world and the community should look like. The community should always, always be focused on Jesus and the love he showed to the world. If a beloved tradition and way of living got in the way of showing Christ to their neighbors, it should be discarded or modified. If sharing Christ’s love meant welcoming people they didn’t like, people who weren’t like them—and not just welcoming them, but giving them a place at the table and a true voice in the discussion—then they would do it, no matter how uncomfortable it made them at first. If sharing Christ’s love meant putting their own life on the line, they did it. If sharing Christ’s love meant some people in their community turned their back on them, they didn’t let that turn them away from the path. It was not easy, and it was not smooth. But they did it.
Being a follower in the Way of Jesus Christ meant letting Christ be in the center of everything. We tend to put our own desires first, as if we don’t trust God to know what’s best for us. I know too many Christians who only ask what God might want if they’re pretty sure he would agree with what they want—God’s will is good for justifying their own will, and not much else. Or, worse, have you ever noticed that sometimes people assume that God wants the same things they do? The reasoning goes like this: “I’m a good Christian, therefore God must want the same things I do, and want me to live the way I do, and anyone who’s different from me must not be a Christian.” It’s a comfortable system. You never have to ask the hard questions; you never have to take the risk of God leading you in a direction you wouldn’t choose to go yourself. You never have to truly give your life over to Christ, because you can tell yourself that you already have. It’s easy. Daring to truly ask the question, “What does Jesus want me to be and do? How can I show Jesus’ love to the world?” takes courage. It takes a willingness to be open to change. It takes a willingness to let go and let God take the reins.
So how did the early church do this? How is it that they were able to see and follow Jesus even though he was no longer physically present with them? Remember, our reading from Acts tells the story of Jesus leaving this world and going to be with the Father in heaven. Two things: Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit. He promised he would several times before he left. He would no longer be physically present, but God’s Spirit would still be with his people. We will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost.
Second, they were listening. When the Holy Spirit moved them, when Jesus sent dreams and visions, when God was working in their lives, they paid attention. They prayed all the time. About everything. As Acts says, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They were asking God what God wanted them to do. And when they got an answer, they did it, even if it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or hoping for. Prayer was not just a two-minute rote thing tacked on to the beginning and end of their day. It was a conversation which lifted up their needs and hopes and fears, and asked for guidance. They prayed about everything, even when they thought they already knew what God wanted—and they found out that sometimes, their ideas had been wrong!
This was not a smooth process. They did not always agree with one another. They sometimes hurt one another. There were factions and cliques, and different groups interpreted Jesus’ teachings in different ways. The unity that Jesus had prayed for, the unity that Jesus had given them, didn’t mean there was no disagreement. Being one in Christ Jesus meant that they would respect one another even when they disagreed. Being one in Christ meant that they would do the hard work necessary to reconcile their differences, to forgive one another for hurts and injuries, to come together and love one another even when love was the last thing they wanted to do.
And you know what? People saw that. People saw that they were living a better way. People saw the love of God poured out in and through them. People saw that they weren’t just talking the talk, they were walking the walk. People saw Jesus through their words and actions. The early Christians were great at sending people out to talk about Jesus, and bring people to the faith that way. But they were also great about showing people what Jesus was like in their actions, the way they treated one another, the way they treated others outside their group. Being a witness for Christ wasn’t just something they did once in a while: their whole life was a witness for Christ, a witness to each other and to the world. They loved God, and they loved one another, and they loved the world as Jesus had taught them to do. In good times and bad, in harmony and conflict, in times of change and times of hope and times of fear and doubt, they followed Jesus’ example and showed him to the world in their love. May we, too, be such witnesses for Christ.