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Ascension Sunday, June 1, 2014

My son ate mustard sandwiches when he was little. Eew. Later on I learned from my sister that my mother also liked mustard sandwiches – like grandmother, like grandson, I suppose. My sister Lucy is the unofficial keeper of the family lore. She has a little green book that tells the story of our family back a few generations and has a phenomenal memory for the “Remember whens” that connect a family’s life together. Lucy got the job of family story teller when Dad died. We had to decide what to keep and what to get rid of, the tangible as well as the intangible things. We sold the house, kept relevant photo albums and kept as much hold as we could of what we had experienced as part of the Eskew and Biddle families. We transitioned from Mom and Dad’s generation to being the ones that recounted family experiences. The four of us are now giving the information to our children because one day, they will be the keepers of the family lore, which they will have added to.

The Ascension and the events surrounding it are a transition from Jesus as the first generation to the church as the next generation of story tellers about God’s mercy shown in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Jesus calls the disciples to be his witnesses. They were the ones who would tell the story to a new generation of believers in a convincing enough way that this new generation would be the next to transfer the saving knowledge and so on.

There are five parts of the ascension story that are critical for the transition from Jesus to the church as the Body of Christ in the world. The first is that Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand scriptures. Acts still shows them as not getting the whole thing, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are asking if now is the time God will restore the kingdom to Israel. They are still stuck in the familiar expectation of what the Messiah would do, even though Jesus has explained to them before about his being the fulfillment of the scriptures in a different way.

He told them that God had always planned that he as Messiah should suffer, die and be resurrected to save the world from sin and death before he could be exalted to the right hand of God. He showed them where the Law, the prophets and the psalms gave evidence of this. The events in his life were not an accident but foretold. Also foretold was God’s intention that the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sins be carried to all the earth. Finally the disciples get it. They are given a miraculous new understanding of what they have heard before and have puzzled about. They are to talk about bringing the kingdom of God – a kingdom characterized by mercy, justice and love – into the world, not the kingdom of David.

To be witnesses, the disciples also needed to have experience, and they were the ones who had followed Jesus closely. They had lived with him, learned from him and been sent out in his name to do his works. They had experienced the crucifixion and the miracle of the resurrection. They had experienced God’s love, God’s pain, God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness. They had heard all about what the kingdom of God was like and were now able to connect the dots of what Jesus said with his activities during his ministry. His teaching, his preaching, his healing and his feeding were all meant to express God’s great love for God’s people. God’s love would be the center of God’s kingdom, and this reality was what they would preach to show new converts how to live.

The third thing that was needed to transfer witnessing from Jesus to the disciples was the Ascension itself. Jesus had to ascend to his glory so that the disciples would become the next generation to tell the story. Instead of just remaining in and around Israel as Jesus did, they and the disciples they made could spread out and preach to the ends of the earth, which is what Jesus wanted. It also seems that at the moment of that miracle, the finally saw Jesus as God and not just as their resurrected master (Nancy J. Ramsay).

Witnessing was not going to be easy for the disciples. The need for a redeemer to suffer and die would not be a tenet of any religious group, from Jews to Gentiles, that the disciples were going to be speaking to. Not only that, but it would be hard for the Jews to accept that this message of salvation was for everyone, everywhere, even though God had blessed Abraham to be a blessing to all nations (Nancy J. Ramsay). The word witness comes directly from the Greek word that means martyr, and that’s what many of the apostles would be, because the hierarchical power structure of the day, both religious and political, that had put Jesus to death would not be eager to have communities of his followers springing up everywhere bringing their subversive message of the power of love.

If the disciples had to go it alone, they would surely fail, but they do not. The disciples will be witnesses through the power of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus will send as his Father promised. Once they have been filled with the Holy Spirit, they will be able to go out with eagerness and joy to proclaim the gospel.In Acts, the disciples stand looking up into heaven toward the place where Jesus has ascended until two angels come and tell them to quit doing that. They are no longer in the past, where Jesus is among them physically. They are now in a transition to the future, where they will be the ones who will point to Jesus and his mission to redeem the world. They return to the upper room and spend the time in prayer waiting for the power to bless them. In Luke, the disciples, knowing for certain now that Jesus is God, worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy. They continue to be in the temple praising God.

And that is the fifth element needed for witnessing – worship. In worship we come together to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament, to be continually taught and strengthened for service. The Holy Spirit fills our minds and hearts with what we need to do our witnessing, and we go out to the world to spread the news.

I am on call for jury duty in the Alexandria district court the last two weeks in June. If I am put on a jury I will hear witnesses tell the part of the story they know. We will make a judgment call based on how convincing witness testimony has been. So do people who hear the word of God. As we sit in church today, we might want to ponder the question: What are our lives witnessing to today? Are we witnessing to the culture or witnessing to the kingdom? Are our lives lived out in faith or fear? In positive or negative thinking? Do we succumb to the world’s culture of busyness or do we take some time during the day to quietly listen to God’s voice calling us into action? Do we serve others as an example of what Christ would do for us or are we self-serving, focusing solely on what we want and think we need? Are our lives full of hope or of despair? Most importantly, do we talk to others about God in our lives or do we avoid that subject like the plague?

Many of us feel we are not equipped to witness to the power of God, in history and in our own experience. We want to know how to feel the Holy Spirit empowering us and making it possible for us to say we have had the experience of Christ moving in our lives. Sometimes big things happen to us that we can point to – the finding of a new job, a healing, a turn of events we recognize as one we did not generate through our own power. But mostly, it is the small things that remind us of the Holy Spirit’s action in us and our call to witness to others. I feel the Holy Spirit when I write my sermons. I get ideas about stories I would not have remembered without help. The gift of a friend’s phone call is a reminder of the Holy Spirit expressing God’s love for me. The gifts in our lives are signs of the Holy Spirit. And we have all experienced repentance and forgiveness for our sins – God’s great gift to us in Jesus. If we trust that the Spirit is with us, we will be able to carry out our mission to preach the gospel, to tell about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

The Holy Spirit moves in everyone, not just a chosen few. God needs all the witnesses God can get if God is going to save the world. The ascension of Jesus to be with the Father has left us as the proclaimers of the kingdom of God. We are Jesus’ witnesses; when we go out these doors, let us go into the world to tell the story.


     - The Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
Nancy J. Ramsay, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 516