1st Scripture Reading: Acts 1:6-14 and Psalm 68
There are only two places in our Bible where the ascension of the Christ is explicitly mentioned: In our reading from Acts this morning, and in the reading from the gospel of Mark.
The “lifting up” of the great ones was a rare occurrence in the Hebrew scriptures. We think of Enoch, who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” (Gen. 5:24) And Elijah, the prophet, “who ascended in a whirlwind into heaven,”(2 Kings 2:11) as well, in the non-canonical writings, the ascensions of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Ezra.
Other spiritual traditions also record ascension type experiences; it was a well-known motif signaling the divine status of the one so lifted up to be with God. Ganymede, for example, became immortal when Zeus lifted him into heaven to serve as cupbearer to the gods.
In the Christian tradition, we know only of Jesus being lifted up after the resurrection to continue to serve God and humanity until God’s kingdom is fully come.
“As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” But before he left the disciples, these words: “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.”
And before that, a reminder: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things.”
A call to action, to witness what they have seen to all nations, to embody the teachings and experiences that Jesus has poured into them. To go forth now and proclaim the good news that there is a better way than violence and revenge and retaliation and more violence.
There is repentance and compassion and forgiveness, and the promise that he will be with us always till the end of time, no matter what. He taught us a better way, folks, and he has given us the power to proclaim and to live that better way.
Hymn #559 VU “Come O Fount of Every Blessing”
2nd Scripture Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14 and John 17:1-11
A man named Gordon MacDonald wrote a book titled, The Life God Blesses. In his book, Mr. MacDonald speaks of visiting his grandfather in a nursing home. The old man’s mind was gone. He couldn’t remember Gordon’s name – he didn’t even seem to know who Gordon was. Every time he would visit he would introduce himself: “Grandfather, I’m Gordon.” The grandfather would try to remember but he never could. Gordon would say, “I’m Gordon, Donald’s son.” Still the old man could not remember.
Then one day, Gordon told his grandfather that he had entered the ministry. He told him, “I’m a pastor now of a wonderful congregation of people in Massachusetts. I preach the bible to them every week. Your prayers for me were answered.” His grandfather said, “Oh that’s good,” but it was pretty clear that he didn’t really understand.
Before he left that day, Gordon said, “Grandfather, I’d like to pray for you.” The old man was pleased. Prayer had been an important part of his life. Gordon began to pray for his grandfather – for his health – for his grandfather to know that his family still loved him. When he had finished his prayer, Gordon looked up to say goodbye to his grandfather. But his grandfather wasn’t ready to say goodbye. His grandfather wanted to pray.
As he began to pray, the old man’s mind began to clear. Though he couldn’t remember names and probably didn’t know where he was, the grandfather knew God, and knew how to talk to God. Gordon listened, in awe, as his grandfather prayed with great biblical cadences. He thanked God for his love shown us through Jesus Christ. He recounted the great biblical promises. He challenged God to show mercy to a broken world. And then he said, “And now, O God, I pray for…” He paused and asked Gordon his name. Gordon responded by saying his name. And the prayer continued, “…for Gordon that You would bring upon him a heavy anointing of the prophet’s power when he preaches the gospel. And , O God, would You give…” Again he paused to ask Gordon’s name. The prayer went on with several pauses to ask Gordon’s name. It was a mighty prayer – a towering prayer – a great prayer of blessing of an old man for his grandson.
Gordon came away deeply moved by that visit. His grandfather had lost his faculties. He did not know where he was – and he could not remember anyone’s name – but he knew one thing. He knew God, and that was all that mattered. His body and his mind were failing, but his soul was healthy – full of grace and peace.
Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning is sometimes called “The High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. Much is revealed in this prayer about the relationship of Jesus with God as he prepares to face the cross and his death. There is a sense of completion in this prayer – a feeling of satisfaction of a job well done. Jesus has completed his mission and prepared the disciples for his leaving. He has demonstrated by the washing of their feet the kind of servant ministry he expects of them. He gave them new commandments of love: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He has spent much time reviewing and reinforcing the teachings. And now he prays for them.
The prayer has three parts. In the first part Jesus asks God to glorify him, so that the Son might glorify God. He is very clear about what he has accomplished. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” He goes on, “I have made your name known to those who you gave me from the world.” The disciples know who Jesus is and that he came from God.
The second part of the prayer is for the disciples. Jesus is leaving them. His feelings must be like a good high school teacher feels when he or she watches the graduates receive their diplomas, and go out into the world. Jesus asks God to protect his disciples.
The third part of the prayer is not in our reading this morning, but includes a prayer for all future believers. Verse 20 in chapter 17 of John says: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus is talking to God about “mission accomplished”. A big part of that mission involved giving “eternal life” to all those who God has given him. And hear what Jesus says about eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Jesus addresses God with reverence and gratitude. There is also a suggestion of joy, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” “I am coming to you Holy Father…” Jesus is not sorry to be returning to God – and if we know God, and Jesus Christ who God sent to us – then we need have no fear of physical death.
Gordon’s grandfather was living in a failing body – but some part of himself was deeply connected to God – was certainly experiencing what Jesus called “eternal life”.
This morning is known as “Ascension Sunday”. This Sunday we celebrate the ascension or rising of Jesus Christ to be with God. After forty days of appearing at various times to various groups of his followers, and teaching them as he made himself known to them – and then disappearing in ways that he did not do when alive – he gathered the disciples together on Mount Olivet.
They questioned him about what they still thought was his primary mission on earth – the restoration of the glory of the kingdom of Israel. “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
We have had a good example of the folly of us humans trying to anticipate what God will do quite recently, haven’t we? The end of the world was predicted for May 21, and didn’t happen. The same group had predicted a similar apocalypse some years ago that also failed to materialize. There have been many such predictions, and we are all still here. It is not for us to know.
Firmly, Jesus brushed aside this line of questioning and brought his followers back to his own agenda. You are to stay together in Jerusalem until you receive power from the Holy Spirit – and then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Having said all this, and as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Whew! What are we to make of this? After his very physical death by crucifixion, Jesus appears to his disciples at different times over a period of forty days, and continues to teach them. We know he doesn’t quite look the same, because they fail to recognize him at first – even Mary. Some writers say he appeared in a “resurrection body”.
In any case, he gives them a commission – tells the disciples what will now happen, and tells them what they are to do – what is their mission.
Jesus came to us from God with a mission to teach us, to save us from the self-destruction of our evil ways, to lead us back to God.
As Jesus leaves the disciples, he leaves them with a mission – to carry on – as one body, in loving unity – to spread his teachings to all the world. He wants us all to be glorified as he is glorified – to be with God as he is with God.
As Jesus prayed to God – as Gordon prayed to God – and as Gordon’s grandfather prayed to God – let us all pray to God who so loves us that he sent Jesus – that whoever of us believes in him and follows his teachings, shall not perish but have eternal life with God.
Let us pray:
O Holy One, may the prayers of Jesus be fulfilled in us. May we be blessed with the power that flows thru him to witness to the truth of his teachings to a world so much in need of his message. May the Spirit of Truth inform our thoughts, our words and our actions today, that we might be of service to those who need our love. Amen.
Hymn #402 VU “We are One”