The events at the close of the Gospel of Luke and the first chapter of Acts make up the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his final commandment to the apostles. It also sets the stage for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In reading the texts for this morning, a couple of phrases and ideas stood out to me that I would like to explore with you. Let’s begin with the gospel.
Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. This idea seemed important to me because I wondered which scriptures Jesus opened their minds to. For the Jewish disciples, they would have already been taught the Hebrew Bible. Did Jesus explain something new to them or provide a new understanding? Did the disciples finally understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of the hope for a Messiah? Did the disciples finally understand all the parables and teachings that Jesus had given them? Or was there something else going on here? When Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, was he really helping them to understand all that they had been a part of…the healings, the teachings, his death and resurrection…and what was to come with the gifting of the Holy Spirit?
Jesus blessed them. Before Jesus ascends into heaven, he blesses the disciples. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the disciples standing near Jesus, perhaps in a circle, in this final moment, and that he goes around to each of them, lays hands on them in some way, and tells them he loves them. It’s this image of unconditional, trusting, confident love that Jesus has for his followers, who for better or worse, haven’t always understood their mission and ministry, but who have been called together for a common purpose, that I find so endearing in this moment of departure.
Moving to the book of Acts, we have a recounting of the events of the ascension, but with a few new details.
Jesus tells the disciples “You will be my witnesses”. It’s not the great commission, it’s not the sending out two by two, but it is the command that the disciples will carry on the story of Jesus, proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, and continue the mission and ministry that Jesus began.
Two men in white ask the disciples “why do you stand looking up toward heaven”. The disciples are awestruck…Jesus has literally been lifted up into heaven before their eyes. Of course they’re looking up! But they can’t stay that way; it’s time to get to work.
So what does this mean for all of us, 2000 years later?
I think we tell this story of the Ascension each year to remind us that even when we don’t always understand everything in scripture our minds have been opened to interpretation, learning and understanding. I believe this day reminds us that we too have been blessed by Jesus to serve as witnesses and continue his mission and ministry of bringing about the Kingdom. And that this blessing means we can’t stand around looking up, but rather it’s time to get busy.
At the beginning of the year, the vestry went on retreat to talk about our hopes and dreams for another year at St. Mark’s. We wrestled with questions about what it means to be and do “church” in this time and place that we find ourselves. And we prayerfully considered how St. Mark’s is living into the Five Marks of Mission set out by The Episcopal Church, as well as how we could explore new possibilities in these areas. In case you need a bit of a reminder about those five marks of mission, they are:
1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
3. To respond to human need by loving service
4. To seek to transform unjust structures, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
These mission goals are not impossible to work on. We have already been so blessed, and we have been gifted with the power and authority to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world. So how can we do this work? How can we move beyond looking up to heaven?
It begins in relationship. If you consider all the marks of mission, they are all based in relationship…how we are in relationship with ourselves, one another, creation and God. When we serve at FISH or the Warming Shelter, we are bearing witness to the Good News through loving service. When we celebrate baptisms and confirmations, we are sharing the blessings of our Christian heritage and tradition, as well as nurturing one another. When we raise awareness about issues which cause violence or harm to others, we are pursuing peace and justice to love one another as God loves us. And when we take our walks around the neighborhood, hike local trails, or even weed our gardens, we have a moment to recognize our connection to our environment, and our responsibility to care for and protect it. We are in relationship to everyone and everything around us.
So this morning, when we pass the peace, what if instead of just saying “peace” we said “you are blessed”? Perhaps it will open our minds to the work of Jesus in our midst. Perhaps it will help us to remember that we are indeed witnesses in the world. And perhaps it will help us to stop looking upward, waiting, and get to work. Get busy…we’ve been blessed!
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.