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Acts 1:1-11

Acts 1:1-11 The church in which I currently serve tells the stories of scripture through grand, beautiful stained glass windows. These silent story tellers share stories of creation, fall, and redemption. They convey the stories of Jesus and the forming of the church. One of the windows tells the story of the ascension by depicting Jesus’ feet poking through the clouds as “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of [the apostles’] sight” (Acts 1:9). While feet dangling from a cloud—as if Jesus had been rocket propelled into the sky, becoming lodged in dense cloud matter—might inspire a chuckle, the importance of this story as conveyed in Luke and Acts is critical to the life of the church. While I cannot remember a sermon dedicated to the ascension in all my years attending churches in the Wesleyan tradition, this is a theological subject matter and a biblical story that aids those called to preach and teach that Jesus is Savior and Lord. The first chapter of Acts briefly directs readers back to the Gospel of Luke, “in the first book,” to remember the stories of Jesus post resurrection appearances by which he gave his disciples “many convincing proofs” that he was alive. In his time with the apostles, Jesus reminded them of the promise of the Holy Spirit and spoke about the kingdom of God. Then, in his final words to the apostles, Jesus reminds them that though it is not for them to know what “the Father has set by his own authority,” they will receive power (dynamis) from the Spirit to be witnesses (martys) to the ends of the earth. After saying these things, Jesus is taken up and transported from sight by a cloud. As the apostles stand gazing into the sky, two men in white robes—surely meant to remind us of the men in dazzling robes who appeared at the tomb (Luke 24:4)—ask why they stand looking where Jesus had been—that is, to the past—when Jesus will come in the same way as they saw him go in the future. Preaching this Acts text to convey the theological significance of the ascension requires paying close attention to the details of this story. A preacher in the Wesleyan tradition might emphasize Jesus’ role in salvation history (past, present, and future) as conveyed by Acts 1. The significance of Jerusalem as the place to await being empowered for mission (1:4), the disciples question to Jesus about Israel (1:7), and the role of the cloud as the historical indicator of God’s presence with the people of Israel (e.g., Exodus 13 and Exodus 40:34-38) point toward Jesus being Israel’s messiah as the one who fulfills both God’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s covenant with God. Attending to the text’s emphasis on the convincing proofs of Jesus’ bodily resurrection reality and the proclamation of the kingdom of God through witness directs readers toward the present calling of those who follow Jesus as Lord. Finally, drawing out the words of the white robed men and, especially, the text’s emphasis on observing (“watching,” “gazing,” “looking,” and “saw”) Jesus ascend allows for an emphasis on the eschatological, future oriented nature of the final consummation of God’s work in space and time. God’s future does not include abandoning creation and our bodily reality for some Platonic spiritual existence to which we must escape out of the created, material world. The story of the ascension given to us in Acts assists Christians in understanding how the reign and rule of Jesus is an already and not yet reality—one that is past, present, and future. Lest we forget that Jesus was raised as a body and remains a body even as he is “up in heaven”—think promoted to place of authority more than physical location somewhere really high in the sky—at the right hand of the Father and lest we forget that our hope is for Jesus to intercede on our behalf with the Father that our bodies too might be resurrected, it is crucial to emphasize the physicality of Jesus ascension and the role of the Holy Spirit in connecting us with Jesus. In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright emphasizes the critical role the ascension plays in our understanding of the church and our calling as Christians. He writes, “Only when we have grasped firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp the truth, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.”[1] As preachers inviting our churches into an existence oriented always toward Christ’s Kingdom—this, I believe, is what holiness is about—we will be wise to emphasize Christ’s lordship over us and the empowerment Christ gives us through the Spirit to live already into Christ’s reign and rule. As Wright says, this is the truth of the ascension. If preaching the ascension through Acts 1 in this way seems to make Jesus feel too far away and disconnected from the challenges of our daily lives, use the words of Jesus in this passage as comfort and assurance in the role of the Spirit in the life of individuals and the church. Jesus replied, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:1-11 will not let us make Jesus a spirit omnipresent and materially disconnected but neither will it leave us without access to Christ through the Spirit.As laughable as stained glass windows of Jesus’ feet popping out of the clouds may seem, they remind us that Jesus kept his nail scarred feet even as he took his seat at the Father’s right hand. Our sermons on Ascension Sunday would do well to remind our people of the same. [1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 113. 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