Ascension: On Being Witnesses

The Ascension - Luke 24:50-51This is a version of the sermon I preached for worship at BBUMC for Sunday, May 24, 2020. It’s the Sixth Lord’s Day of Easter, and celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. 

Today’s sermon is based on Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:1-14.\

When the schools shifted to online learning this spring, our kids began a new hobby: skateboarding. I’ve joined in with them, because I wanted to do something with them, and because, I thought, “What better way to deal with a season of fear than by doing something that I find, at times, terrifying?” One of the hardest things about skateboarding for me has been that my left leg – the one I balance on – is not as strong as it once was. That may be true for every part of me, but it’s especially true of my left leg. I tore some ligaments in my left knee in high school. When that happened, I longed to get back to normal. I did all the exercises and therapy after surgery. I put in the effort, at least for a while, but it has never gotten back to normal. Not completely.

IMG-1514As the disciples gather with Jesus in our reading from the beginning of Acts today, I wonder if they were struggling with a desire to get back to normal. Gathered at Bethany outside of Jerusalem, they’d had quite a journey. They’d traveled with Jesus for up to three years while he turned their lives and the world upside down. They had hoped he’d restore the old normal: that he was the one to redeem Israel from occupation to former glory. As some grieved on the road to Emmaus, that hope seemed to have died with Jesus. But then, when he was raised from the grave to new life with them, normal seemed possible again.

According to Luke, life was normal for forty days. Jesus’s resurrection restored the disciples’ sense of normalcy, for a while. Jesus was alive and with them again, almost like death hadn’t happened. Alive, he bathed them in God’s presence. He taught them about God’s kingdom, and their hopes for God’s coming kingdom, the renewed normal, were alive with him. But even so, they weren’t entirely sure normal would last. John’s gospel shows them returning to what they knew – fishing. And even the ascension account in Luke 24 has them huddled in Jerusalem room wondering what’s next.

And so, at Bethany with Jesus, they asked about returning to normal: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (v. 6). He hadn’t done it before his crucifixion, they thought, but surely he would now. Surely they could get back to normal, the normal in which there was no Rome and Jesus was the new Davidic king of Israel. But, nearly crushing their hopes, he essentially tells them, “Nope. Not today. Only God knows.” And then he disappears from their presence, lifted up into the sky in a cloud, as he blesses them (Lu 24:50-51).

Jesus’s resurrection restored the disciples’ hope for a return to normal – either Jesus inaugurating a new heavenly kingdom on earth, or continued life in his presence – but in his ascension, Jesus redefines normal. No longer will they be just fishers or tax collectors or whatever else they’d been. Now, in the new normal, their foremost calling was to be his witnesses. When Jesus ascends, he transforms their reality. Jesus promises them power from the Holy Spirit. Jesus gives them a mission. And Jesus blesses them. Jesus transforms them into his witnesses: Luke tells us they returned to Jerusalem worshipping Jesus with joy (Lu 24:52). That’s the start of their witness. At his ascension, Jesus transforms his disciples into his witnesses, so they can live into a new normal as his mission in the world.

We can relate to the disciples’ longing for a return to normal, can’t we? Like I’ve longed for leg strength, this staying safe at home season of our lives is really starting to wear on us, making us long for normal. You remember normal, right? When we didn’t worry about if we should wear masks or not, or if it was safe to go out or be with friends or family, or when we could come to the church to worship in person, or we could do all the summer activities we’d planned and hoped for. We’re longing for a bit of that normal, and it seems awfully slow in coming, right?

As church, a great deal of my energy lately has been focused on the question, “When will the church resume in-person ministry, so that we can get back to normal?” The Church Council and other ministry teams have met over the past week to discuss this question, and this is their answer: “Normal, as we know it, isn’t returning soon.” The general feeling of the church’s leadership is to proceed with caution and a goal to resume in-person worship as soon as possible with reasonable safety. But even then, physical distancing and safety guidelines will ensure that the new normal won’t feel like the old normal.

This is hard news to share, because I know we experience God’s presence together as church, in-person, just like the disciples experienced God’s presence with Jesus in-person. But what if we viewed Jesus’s ascension as an equally transformative event for us, today? What if we recognized the way Jesus is calling and blessing us for transformed lives of witness in this season?

In the coming weeks, I’ll be seeking to share video messages in worship from people of BBUMC related to this question: “How is Jesus empowering you to be his witness?” If you’d like to share, please contact me. Here’s a start of how I see Jesus calling, blessing, and equipping us for transformed lives as his witnesses. Audrey Foster, Denise Sughayar, the education committee, and others are living into our new normal by creating video Sunday School lessons in a VBS-style format each week throughout the summer. Jesus is calling and blessing them to be his witnesses, so that we can live in this uncertain season with praise and joy.

Beyond Sunday School, I sense the Spirit calling, blessing, and leading us into a new season of ministry at BBUMC, a new normal. The shape of this new normal isn’t entirely clear right now, but I sense the Spirit saying to us, “I’m with you, transforming and equipping you as witnesses of Jesus.” As we figure out how to live a little more fully with physical distancing, I sense a few options opening up to us.

Some of us have developed fairly large quaran-teams, so to speak. If you have a handful of people with whom you’re doing life with, perhaps you could try joining together on Sundays, or some other day, to worship with BBUMC online, and then use the reflection questions that I post on my blog with my sermon. This way, you’d be practicing physical distancing, while also enjoying Christian community and nurturing each other in faith. Perhaps some people without internet would welcome you into their homes with a cellular-enabled device to worship together. In this, we could embody what the disciples did after the ascension: they spent time together “united in their devotion to prayer” (v. 14).

Those with a smaller team, or who are staying alone, could pick a couple people to call and talk with each week about worship, the message, faith, and their lives. You could read scripture together, even over the phone. And in so doing, you’d be living as witnesses of Jesus for one another. Even when we resume in-person worship, there will be many who will opt to stay safe at home. Could we develop weekly calls with these people to share about worship, devotions, and what God’s doing in our lives together? Could this be like the disciples returning with worship and joy?

As I’ve been skateboarding, I realize that the normal of my 18-year-old-strength is not returning. But I’m having a lot of fun in the new normal anyway. Similarly, Jesus’s ascension transforms and equips us for a new normal, not a return to an old normal. For the disciples and for us, the new normal is a season of joy in worship, a season of deepening spiritual connection through prayer, and a season of creative waiting. For soon, the disciples would experience a new revival among them. So too will we. Jesus calls, blesses, and transforms us into his witnesses in preparation for renewed revival. May it be so. Amen.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What does being a witness of Jesus mean to you?
  2. How are you actively and intentionally seeking to be a witness of Jesus?
  3. We might posit that everything we do and say bears witness to something, someone, and/or some belief that is central to who we are. If so, what other messages, ideas, or entities are you a witness of through your actions and words? Does your witness to these line up with your calling to be a witness of Jesus?
  4. What questions does the text raise that this sermon doesn’t answer at all, or adequately for you?
  5. In a speech that arguably foretells Jesus’ death and resurrection (and perhaps his ascension), Jesus says, ““I’ve been using figures of speech with you. The time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in such analogies. Instead, I will tell you plainly about the Father” (John 16:25). I think this relates to when Luke says in Acts 1:2-3 that Jesus teaches the disciples. But, do you find it interesting, odd, challenging, or perfectly acceptable that, rather than write all these “plain” teachings down here, Luke just reports that Jesus instructed them?
  6. It’s interesting to compare the disciples’ experiences and responses to Jesus’ resurrection between the gospels (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24:36-53; John 20-21). What are their primary responses? Do you think you’d have responded differently?
  7. Regarding the disciples’ responses to Jesus’ resurrection, fear is a prevalent emotional response. If you have struggled with fear, or are currently, what does Jesus’ response offer you?
  8. I find it fascinating that, in John’s gospel, Peter and the disciples go fishing. Without making too much of this, can you relate to Peter’s desire to return to what is normal and familiar to him? Why, in times of stress or uncertainty, is it comforting to do something familiar (or mindless)? Can you relate? In what ways is this a faithful response? In what ways is it an unfaithful response?
  9. In what ways do you find yourself longing to return to normal in this season of your life? What makes normal so appealing? What of normal do you miss? What of what was normal do you not miss?

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