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Sunday Sermon

A Matter of Perspective
Acts 1:1-11

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,”they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

~

Following on the heels of Easter, this story sounds familiar- two angels show up and tell the disciples they are looking for Jesus in the wrong place. On Easter morning, it was “why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen” and now, on the Day of his Ascension it is “why do you stand looking up towards 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.” The disciples never seem to know where to look for Jesus. As soon as they think they’ve got him figured out, he disappears- on to mission in another place, on to reach out to the lost, on to find a secluded place away from the crowds to pray, on to the cross, on to the grave, on to walk among the living. And can you imagine what it must have been felt like to be standing there when Jesus Christ is ushered into heaven? I mean- they just got him back. They couldn’t believe he was gone: that he had actually died, everything seemed like a loss- everything that he stood for and accomplished; what was the purpose of going on. Then, by the miracle of God, he was back- somehow risen from the dead- back to restore God’s people, back to be their Savior, back to usher in the kingdom of God. And then, just when they had received him back, he leaves again. It’s no wonder they were staring into the clouds saying “now what?”

Have you ever felt like that? Not sure where Jesus is leading? You think you hear the swoosh of the Jesus’ spirit only to turn around and see that he’s moved again. He’s disappeared behind the clouds. The angles must say to us again “he’s not here, you are looking for him in the wrong place.” So where is Jesus? Where are we to look for him?

When most artists communicate what they think is happening at the Ascension, they usually show Jesus ethereally floating up to heaven with his arms outstretched, a lot like the picture you see on the front of your bulletins today. Sometimes he’s looking up to God; sometimes he’s looking down at the disciples, sometimes you only see his feet sticking out of the clouds. This kind of portrayal leaves us looking at the clouds, wondering when he’ll come back. But there is another vantage point in the painting, one that can help us gain a different perspective of what is really going on.

Now, try to imagine the whole scene from Jesus’ viewpoint. Jesus is looking at his disciples whom he loves, those he has chosen to carry on his work. They ask him about the kingdom which he says God will bring about in his own good time, then he looks them in the eye and says, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high… 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.” And then Jesus begins to ascend, the ground seems to fall away beneath him, the blades of grass becoming smaller and smaller, then he sees the faces of his disciples- their faces of shock and exhilaration, first Peter, then John, then Mary, then the 11, he sees all those who followed him during his ministry on earth, then he sees more people as he continues to rise- people that are not part of his group, people the disciples will run to tell he has risen from the grave- like an ever-widening camera lens, he see more- more rocks, more hills, more trees, more pastures, more people, he sees Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth- he sees all the places where the disciples will be sent, all the places that he will now walk into the world through his disciples and he blesses them.

From this perspective it all makes sense. Jesus must leave if his disciples are going to take his message out into the world. And he doesn’t just leave them, he goes out into the world with them by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the disciples keep looking up to see Jesus, they will never look out to see what he sees- a world in need of God’s love.

But there’s more. Jesus spends his entire ministry preaching the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the kingdom of God and then he leaves us, the church. He leaves us that harried, disorganized, disbelieving, not quite sure where to look, group of people and says that we will be his witnesses, we will be the ones to spread the good news of the gospel and bring about the kingdom of God by the help of God’s Spirit. When the world looks at the church they will see the kingdom of God. We are Christ’s witnesses as long as we are here on earth.

Of course, we have to be careful to say that not everything the church does exhibits the kingdom of God and certainly not everything the church says is the revealed will of God. But the church is, as our Book of Order says “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity. The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to all people in Jesus Christ.” The church embodies the kingdom- it is a place where sinners are reconciled to God and to one another.

Now you may say oh no- there are way more people worthy than I to witness to the kingdom- that’s why we have missionaries and pastors. To which God replies in our passage today, “you will be my witnesses.” Anyone who is a disciple of Christ, a child of God, witnesses to him with their life. Think back over your life, when you received those great revelations into the heart of God and the heart of scripture; what was the vehicle by which those experiences came? Did you hear God’s booming voice, was it written in the clouds, or where you reading a book or listening to someone share similar struggles in their lives who only made it through by the grace of God? Was your heart stirred by things or by people? God can use anything he wants to get our attention, to speak to us in a unique way; but for some odd, strange reason, more often than not, God uses us. He chooses ordinary people like you and me, to do his work and it is those individual influences that often have the greatest impact for the kingdom. It’s through someone’s personal testimony about God’s experiences in their own life that convinces the atheist; it’s through Sunday School teachers who donate decades of their lives that we learn about God’s faithfulness; it’s through a stranger’s selflessness that someone finally glimpses the kingdom and thereby comes to know the heart of God. It’s through us. We may not always know about them because as Christ says it’s not given to us to know it’s times of fulfillment, but it is happening all along, just underneath the surface.

The ascension also marks a phenomenological transition. By the power of the Holy Spirit, as Christ works in and among us, we actually become vessels for Christ himself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “since the ascension, Jesus Christ’s place on earth has been taken by his body, the church. The church is the present Christ himself. With this statement we are recovering an insight about the church which has been almost totally forgotten. While we are used to thinking of the church as an institution, we ought instead to think of it as a person with a body.” The church is not a building, it’s not programs; it’s the people, the body of Christ working to bring about his reign on earth. God doesn’t need a church to do his work; God can be working wherever there is a human being, seeking to witness to God’ new reality for all humanity.

You see, our mission is not primarily what we do when we get together on Sundays, or gather for Bible studies and fellowship events, or even when we accomplish one of our #114 acts of service, although it is those things, but our mission is to witness to Jesus Christ wherever we are. Our mission is to be the church, the body of Christ, wherever we may be.

That makes the expanse of our mission field pretty large; a larger area than even Christ would have had access to with one body. Most people probably have more facebook friends now than Jesus would have ever encountered in 1st Century Galilee. We have more resources at our disposal, more support, a wider audience, not to mention the Spirit of Christ himself. So as we leave the four walls of the church, where might we be a witness for Christ? How might we witness as the church this week, this day, this hour, to what God is doing in the kingdom? Remember, it’s a matter of perspective: don’t look up; look out to see where God is leading you into the world. I would like to close with a prayer by Teresa of Avila:

God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours,
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Amen.

~Pastor Lindsay