Why stand ye gazing up?

by Sharon Marr and Chris Ison

(Based on Acts 1:1-18)

The book of Acts begins with a greeting from Luke to his friend Theophilus, as he shares his thoughts and observations of the most astounding news.  Today this reflection is brought to you via me, from our dear friend, mentor and teacher Chris Ison.  I hope you will find the same awe, wonder, challenge and excitement Chris’s words echo as I have, as he unravels Ascension for us today.

Farewells are some of the most difficult things we have to handle as human beings.  They evoke some of our strongest emotions, whether it is at the level of seeing a child off to school on their own for the first time, or that final farewell when someone close to us dies.  Farewells remind us that life is full of changes and they remind us also that life is finite; things will not go on for ever as they are.

We all experience many farewells. The reality is of course that without farewells there is no growth or development.  Children grow up, go to high school, leave home, go abroad (ours going as far away as they could, Otago, then Wales) and, at a more subjective level, I would argue that the only way we grow emotionally, intellectually and spiritually is to say farewell to those things that lock us into our comfort zones.  As St Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult I put an end [said farewell] to childish ways.”

It is with some of these thoughts in mind that we can best understand what is going on in today’s readings.  One of things you may have already realised is that Luke’s Gospel closes and Acts opens with the same story, which gives you some idea of the importance with which the event of Jesus’s ascension was regarded in the early church.

As we speak of farewells we recall that Jesus’s disciples had, only a few weeks previously, suffered what they thought at the time was a catastrophic farewell, as the person they had set all their hopes on was brutally executed.

Then, in the most extraordinary event in human history, that man – the man they had set their hopes on as the Messiah, only to have them so conclusively dashed – returned to them as the resurrected Christ.  He talked to them, ate with them and showed them his wounds.  Then, as recorded in Luke, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”

We see, with the benefit of hindsight, the Easter event as the turning point in human history, in God’s plan of salvation for humankind; but at this point in history it is not yet fully consummated. Jesus has returned to his disciples, but even yet they have not fully grasped the significance.  As Luke records in Acts they have not yet got the full picture. The wrong question is still being asked, or rather the full magnitude of the solution is not yet being comprehended: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  The significance is far beyond their current understanding – it is much bigger than them, and Israel.

The disciples have to grow up spiritually and intellectually to understand what this is all about.  And, of course, even the resurrected Jesus can only manifest himself in particular times and particular places.  The knowledge of God’s saving providence of all things cannot be trapped in particularity.

It is time for another farewell, but this time with a ‘date in the diary’.  “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 worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

Christ’s work on earth is now complete.  He returns to the Father, risen, ascended and glorified.  The baton has passed, as it were, to his followers, who are as yet not fully equipped.  That is still to come at Pentecost.  For then, as he has promised, “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.”

The significance of Ascension Day cannot be underestimated.  It sets the scene for Pentecost and is a major point of transition – a farewell.  But a farewell, as I said before, with a date in the diary.  This though is not just a date. It will be a point where the disciples’ faith is transformed, matured, from a limited view of God’s purposes … to an understanding of their promise for everyone.  This is not, as they thought, about restoring the kingdom to Israel, but so they may be, “my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is now our charge, our responsibility, as the Church.  We are called upon to be witnesses, if not to the ends of the earth then to this entire community.

And what does it mean to be witnesses?

To be a witness is to testify to something we have seen and experienced – the gospel of Jesus Christ – and the gospel is not something of which we can say, ‘fine, got that’ and rush of busily with our own plans for social or religious transformation or just the busyness of our daily lives.  The gospel is something that confronts us – something we can’t possess but that we are always re-learning.

And how do we re-learn it?

Notice what happened with the disciples: Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” and then they were ordered to wait for the Spirit, and what they did was, “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

So, being confronted by and re-learning the gospel is something that has to take place in our church community as we gather together for the proclamation of the Scriptures, for prayer, fellowship and to share the sacraments.

This is the start point and the basis for our witness; that which nourishes our faith and empowers our witness.

Witness is not an invitation to frenetic activity but it does confront us with uncomfortable realities.  Witnessing involves being sent.  As Martin Luther King said, church is not a place you come to – it’s a place you go from. But it will involve us in going possibly where we don’t want to go and doing things we didn’t think we could do; but always rooted in fellowship, prayer, proclamation and the sacraments.  Only in this way can we bring the gospel of Christ – risen, ascended and glorified – to those in our community who so desperately need good news; the news of God’s saving love and grace for all.

So my dear friends, with these wonderful, challenging, reassuring words ringing in our ears from Chris, let us not be caught as the disciples were at first – standing, looking up towards heaven. But instead be found out in our communities sharing the Good News of the liberating love of God by being his hands and feet – but most of all his heart – here in this place.  

I leave Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes to conclude for us today.

The Ascension is not about Jesus’s body rising above the earth, but about Jesus expanding beyond his body.
        He didn’t go up, he went out. Into all of us.
        The disciple stand there, almost ready to believe (they won’t until Pentecost) that the body is not there but here: we are the body, the body of the risen Christ.
        Christ is not just an individual but a community. You are not an individual but a member of that community.
        When Jesus prays “May they all be one,” it isn’t about opinions. It’s that we’re all cells of one body.

See that way. Act that way. Love that way …

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