“It is necessary”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Acts 1:1-11 (with references to Matthew 28 and John 16)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It’s kind of an amusing picture that Luke gives us in Acts 1. Jesus has ascended into heaven and the disciples stand looking at the sky. Gawking at the clouds, wondering what to do. Apparently they stand there long enough that the angels – well, Luke calls them two men in white robes, but one wonders who else that could be – the angels feel compelled to appear and ask the disciples just why they’re standing there, gazing up to heaven.
It’s a good question for us to answer as we celebrate the Lord’s Ascension. It would be easy to see this as a day of sadness – Jesus left the earth to return to the Father, and wouldn’t it be better if he were still walking the earth with us? And don’t we also stand looking at the heavens – if not literally then spiritually – when things go wrong, wondering where God is, why God allowed this or that, what God intends to do to make things right?
But the question is a good one: why stand there looking for God’s Son to return when in fact we’ve been promised that we will receive the power of God ourselves, when in fact we’ve received a call to do God’s work?
We’re not that different from the disciples, or anyone expecting salvation and help from God.
Humanity tends to like magic more than relationship from its gods. Throughout history prayer is often shaped as a way to get God to do what we want. And Jews and Christians aren’t immune to this – the desire for a Messiah who would restore Israel, who would end oppression and make all things new and just take charge, comes from the same hope.
Even after they face the reality of Jesus’ death, once he is raised, Luke says, the disciples ask, “Now will you restore the kingdom of Israel?” They still haven’t caught on. What the cross and resurrection showed them, and us, is that God’s plan for redeeming the world is far more complicated than magical restoration, or even divine intervention with power. Meanwhile, the disciples stand there, gawking at the skies, wondering what they’re going to do.
But we’re doing the same thing, looking in the wrong direction for God’s answer. Like young children who hope that if they sit in the mess long enough their parents will pick them up and make it all right again, we prefer God to be the one who does the heavy lifting. As if the cross and resurrection of Jesus are not the chief answer from God to the pain and suffering of this world.
The parenting image is apt here – because a good parent wants his or her child to start learning for themselves, learn responsibility for their actions, and become part of the solution to what needs solving in the world. And so God, too, desires that for us. All of Jesus’ ministry and teaching prepared us for it, if only we could see it. And his Ascension makes it necessary, because he’s left us to do the work. Which makes the Ascension itself necessary for our growth and our call.
This is not a sad day because it’s the day of our commissioning, the day of our calling, the day we get the news as certainly as we can: God’s work will continue with us.
In Matthew’s account of the Ascension, Jesus in fact gives what we have come to call the “Great Commission.” But in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes it even clearer when he says: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” John 16:7
It is to our advantage that he goes away – because the Spirit cannot come without it. In the mystery of the life of the Trinity we cannot understand why this is so. But the promise is real: in leaving us physically, Jesus makes it possible for us to be with him always in the Spirit. And that, in truth, is what makes God’s continuing work in us possible.
For better or for worse, God’s plan of salvation is to save the world one believer at a time, through the love we are given. Instead of becoming an earthly King with infinite power over this earth, Jesus ascends – he goes away! – and tells us, in effect, to “keep up the good work.” Jesus leaves so he can send the Spirit to us, to give us the power of God for this work. He leaves so we can continue God’s plan.
But God’s plan is still not to magically fix everything. God’s transformation of the world will happen in the same way Jesus worked, through self-giving love, through re-creating relationships between the people of the world and God. Jesus’ cross isn’t a misstep or a mistake – it’s the beginning of the whole plan of God to bring the world back to God. Through Jesus the Son, the triune God offers this loving relationship freely and with forgiveness. Through us, those who believe, God spreads that news.
It’s not terribly efficient by the world’s standards, but the means are as important as the end to God. Forcing the world to love each other and God could be done, but it would not be worth anything. Jesus showed the power of God by his sacrificial love. And now for us, for the world, the only way to show God’s power is by our love. By our lives. By the Spirit making us new from within so that we can love others, even though that is not the way of the world, because through this love everything can be changed.
So we gather tonight not to gape at the heavens wondering when God will come back.
We gather here tonight, the people of God who have claimed the name Mount Olive for our fellowship (or at least those who came before us did), and we remember that on the Mount of Olives our Lord left us so that we might continue his work. We remember that we are named for the place when it all became abundantly clear: God needs us to continue the work of Jesus.
And here’s the best news: we’re only 10 days from celebrating how God will make this happen. We are promised that same Spirit of God Jesus has, to do this love, this work. We are promised God’s abiding presence so we are not alone or abandoned.
So wait for it. Watch for it. Pray for it. Then let’s spread the love of God – because that’s been the plan all along.
In the name of Jesus. Amen