Scripture readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps. 47; Eph. 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53 Sermon by Lance McKinnon (from Acts 1:11)
When Jesus Goes Over Our Head
[Note to preacher: in some nations, including the USA, today is Mother’s Day. If you are in one of those nations, you will want to add material, perhaps in the introduction, that pays tribute to mothers.]
In the Christian calendar, last Thursday (May 10) was Ascension Day. That means that today (May 13) is Ascension Sunday on which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension. This celebration then leads nicely into the last day of the Easter celebration known as Pentecost, which occurs next Sunday, May 20.
The story of the Ascension begins the Book of Acts and serves as our passage for this sermon. It’s curious that Acts, written as a history of the early church, chooses to begin with the story of Jesus’ Ascension, but most churches today give the Ascension little attention. Maybe it’s an attempt to avoid what we think is a goodbye story. Or maybe our pride is insulted by its implications, namely that Jesus is King and we are not. But the Ascension is not a goodbye story. When Jesus ascends to the Father he is not leaving us here as orphans but rather takes us with him as adopted children.
Jesus, as the God-man, has ascended back to the Father, seating us with him at the Father’s right-hand side. Jesus the superhero has accomplished our salvation for us. Thus there is not need for us to put on a superhero cape of our own and try to fly to heaven on our own power.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I typically don’t like it when someone “goes over my head” to accomplish something behind my back, even if it’s for my own good. But then, pride is a cape we wear that says we can fly on our own power, but in the end, it just chokes the life out of us.
The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were both written by Luke as one connected story. When we look at them together, we see the story of the temptations of Christ and the Ascension as bookends to his whole ministry. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he spends 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan to live his life on the devil’s terms and timetable. Satan wants Jesus to use some divine power, turning stones to bread, cheating death and taking a shortcut to authority over all nations. Satan is tempting Jesus to put on a superhero cape. Jesus says no, and continues his life and ministry in his humanity, following the Spirit and obeying the Father’s will. After his resurrection and before the Ascension, Jesus spends another 40 days appearing to his disciples and followers and teaching about the kingdom of God. Right before he ascends, he is once again asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection we see the people wanting Jesus to continue his ministry on their terms and on their timetable. Jesus dismisses their question and tells them to wait to receive power from the Holy Spirit. After this, he just ups and disappears.
This abrupt departure may be too anticlimactic for us. Maybe we want to have a say in how Jesus wraps up his ministry. The Ascension is the final climax and ultimate completion of what Jesus came to do. There is nothing left for us to do to that end. We don’t get to flex our muscles or use any power to accomplish our terms on our timetable. Like the witnesses to the Ascension, we may be looking into the clouds, scratching our heads wondering what just happened. Jesus not only literally went over our heads but from start to finish, his ministry just doesn’t make any sense to us. We think in terms of power as a force to control others and circumstances to get what we want when we want it. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit, where we can receive the same power that fueled his ministry. This power is the power of grace. It’s the power to lay down our lives in obedience to the Father. It’s the power to forgive, sacrifice and love others with the same love Jesus has for us. It’s the power to lay down our capes and follow Jesus in the Spirit in the same trust he has in his Father.
Two angels dressed in white appear and tell the disciples to get their heads out of the clouds. They tell them that Jesus is going to come to them in the same way that he left. We see in our lives that Jesus comes to us “right before our eyes.” He is present in every task we take up and every relationship we engage in. But he also works in hidden ways. He works in mystery and we are to live in faith. He may be right before our eyes, yet hidden in clouds working out a far greater end than we could ever imagine. The Lord is ascended and has all authority given to him. He continues his ministry through us, as we live in the Spirit trusting the Father.
I pray that we recapture the story of Ascension Day and be filled with the renewing and empowering hope that comes from the message that Jesus is our ascended King, reigning in the Spirit with the authority of his loving Father.