Right Hands, Chairs, and Footstools – Jennifer Hosler
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
This Sunday marks the Ascension of Christ. The Ascension is sort of like the stereotypical middle child in this part of the church calendar. As a middle child, the Ascension doesn’t quite get the same amount of attention as its older and younger siblings, Easter and Pentecost. The Ascension is quiet; it isn’t as showy as Jesus being resurrected back to life from the dead or as the Holy Spirit filling the Apostles, descending as tongues of fire. Like a middle child, the Ascension kind of gets passed over and, when you look at it closely, it is somewhat strange. I know a strange middle child or two.
I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, about middle children… but not about the Ascension. In my experience of church life and the church calendar, I haven’t heard much about the Ascension. It isn’t quite Easter (though technically this is the 7th Sunday of Easter in the church calendar) and it isn’t Pentecost. That’s next week, when the rushing of the Spirit comes to the Apostles in Jerusalem. The Ascension is also a bit of an enigma—the apostle Paul himself calls it a mystery in his first letter to Timothy. He says,
“Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16).
Why is the Ascension important? How is it different and yet related to Easter and Pentecost? What does it mean for followers of Jesus like us today? The Ascension matters because it brought us power, it commissioned us with purpose, and it completed Jesus’ victory as the Messiah. Power, purpose, and victory.
When a leader departs, followers often face an array of emotions: surprise, confusion, dismay, acceptance, hope, and expectation. This Sunday, our sisters and brothers at Manassas Church of the Brethren are close to the end of that series of emotions. Around this time last year, their pastor, Jeff Carter, announced that he was leaving and heading to Indiana to serve as the President of Bethany Theological Seminary. Today, the church’s top pastoral candidate is preaching a test sermon and the congregation will close the service with a vote on whether she or he will be the next pastor of Manassas Church of the Brethren. From what I have heard, hope and expectation will be the emotions of the day.
I imagine that the apostles felt a wide array of emotions when Jesus ascended. When we meet Jesus and the disciples in our passage, Jesus has risen from the dead and he has been appearing to them for the past forty days, teaching about the Kingdom of God. While eating together with the disciples, Jesus tells them not to leave Jerusalem but to stay and wait. The Holy Spirit would come and baptize them into this new age of ministry.
The disciples are confused about what all this means, what Jesus is doing, and where He is going. They ask, “Jesus, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus says, “The time isn’t something that I can tell you—but I can promise you this: you will receive power and you will be my witnesses…” Just after he says this, Jesus is “lifted up”, hidden by a cloud of God’s presence, and—just like that—he is gone. The disciples are left standing there, looking up with their mouths gaping open, in shock about what just happened.
Clearly, the disciples needed a little boost to get moving again. Two men in white robes appear (gleaming attire is typically an indicator of a messenger from God). They say, “Guys, why are you looking up at the clouds? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11, paraphrased).
This jars them back to reality (which, of course, is reality marked by things fantastical and miraculous and astounding) and also to what Jesus had instructed them. The disciples return to Jerusalem and they gather together to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit (v. 14). As we will see next week, the Holy Spirit comes with power upon Jesus’ disciples.
It is interesting how much the disciples don’t get it when Jesus is with them, but when the Holy Spirit comes and dwells within them, they change from fearful, at times selfish, dopey folks to people of God who preach boldly, cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead. With the Spirit of Resurrection within them, old lines of ethnic hatred are broken down, God’s Kingdom is opened up to the Gentiles, there is no longer any Jew or Greek, male or female, but humanity is made whole through the Cross, Resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s power. People from all backgrounds follow Jesus the Christ and bring praises to God, through the ministry of the disciples who receive power by the Holy Spirit.
God chooses to use his followers to bring light into darkness and proclaim God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus’ ascension is important because it enabled him to send us power through the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ ascension is also important because it gives us our purpose.
When Nate and I transitioned from Nigeria in early 2012, I was originally was aiming to pursue my doctorate. A job opportunity for Nate opened up in the Office of Public Witness and we knew that such a perfect position was God opening a door that we needed to enter. We chose to move to DC, which at the time limited my studying options to only a single school, down from 5 applications to 1. As I was waiting to hear if I was accepted, I started to feel that my purpose was not to study but to serve the church more directly. I wasn’t sure what that looked like (whether it was for the denomination, the local church, whatever) but I sensed that God was calling me to use my gifts to strengthen the Church of the Brethren in some way. There were quite a few months were I was in limbo, seeking to make my gifts available but not really knowing what my purpose was.
As most of you know, Washington City COB eventually called me as its first Community Outreach Coordinator. Shortly after I began in that role, Terry had a massive stroke and it appeared the recently-restarted soup kitchen would fall flat. Not knowing what I was doing or how long I would be in the role, I agreed to step in to start up BNP at least once a week. Little by little, it has grown stronger and is now open three days a week. We have a new fridge and freezer, a BVS position, and we will be interviewing this week to find a full time coordinator.
Looking back, I see that God prompted me to be available so that the Brethren Nutrition Program, our church’s main and most tangible ministry to the community, would not end. This has been my purpose so far in DC, though that is changing. I look forward to passing the role onto someone else and seeing BNP thrive beyond where I could lead it.
Jesus ascended to the Father in order to give us purpose. For some reason, God doesn’t want to snap His fingers and bring restoration. God’s plan involves the beauty and pain of calling us to be the agents of his Kingdom. Jesus ascended to the Father and physically this his ministry on this earth so that we could be witnesses to who He is, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. We are called to be his witnesses across the earth, making disciples and bringing people from all nations and languages into God’s family. Jesus ascended to the Father so that we might witness to the power of God in our lives and on this earth, reconciling us to God and reconciling people to each other.
Jesus ascended to the Father in order to give us power by sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascended to give us our purpose as his witnesses in word and deed. Not only that, Jesus’ ascension was essential to complete his victory as the Messiah.
In our Acts passage, the disciples (while still missing the point about what God’s Kingdom would really look like) express a heart-felt desire to see Jesus installed as King. This feeling came from years of living under Roman occupation and also from a deep theological hope rooted in their Scriptures.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a yearning and desire for God’s righteous ruler to be raised up, to rule in justice and righteousness, to rule with God Himself. As time went on, this yearning was recognized to be for a Messiah and people studying God’s word looked back and saw prophecies to David, to establish an “eternal kingship”, to extend the blessing of Abraham and the reign of Yahweh to all nations under the earth.
Jesus, in the line of David, as the Son of God, fulfilled Messianic prophecy throughout his incarnation, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. Finally, his ascension is one of the last pieces of this Messianic fulfillment. The promised one, the deliverer, would be exalted as king to “sit at the right hand” of God. Psalm 110:1 is one of the most quoted Old Testament scriptures in the New Testament: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” In discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus uses this scripture to point out who the Messiah is as the Son of David, not David’s physical son but the heir to his eternal throne.
Jesus ascends to the Father to give us power and purpose and also to complete his victory as the Messiah. By ascending to the Father, Jesus is exalted as King, as the suffering servant who fulfilled the divine plan.
Paul helps flesh out this theology in his letters. In Philippians 2, Paul shares an early Christian hymn which sang about Jesus:
…though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a [servant],
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The purpose of Jesus’ ascension was to exalt Jesus as the victorious King. He rules now on the throne of God, sitting “at God’s right hand”, which means with all of God’s divine power and authority.
With the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension, Christ has conquered hatred, death, and sin and He reigns as King in victory. We continue Jesus’ ministry on this earth and we await the complete realization of God’s Kingdom, which is why Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” Commentator William Willimon describes us as a “people ‘between the times’—between the end of an old age held by the power of death and evil and anew age where the future is still to be fully realized, still open-ended to the movements of the Spirit” (Willimon, 1988, p. 20). We proclaim God’s Kingdom at hand and yet we look around and see the many dark places in this world that the light of Christ has not yet transformed.
The ascension is important because in the midst of our pain and suffering, we know that we have a victorious Lord who has suffered and has been tempted in every way that we have, yet without sin. The ascension is important because we see that nonviolent suffering love wins out in the end, that the suffering servant is the One exalted to the highest place. We live in a world with pain and suffering and the world tempts us to say that violence is the answer to our problems or that evil can be answered with revenge. The ascension gives us the freedom not to fight, since the One who suffered in love has been exalted. Since Christ has been exalted, we trust that God will indeed bring justice to the righteous
Jesus ascended and sent us power through the Holy Spirit. He ascended to give us our purpose, instructing us to continue his work and witness to the Kingdom of God. Jesus ascended to be the victorious King and in his name we proclaim victory over sin and hatred and death. As we labor for Christ’s Kingdom, we await his 2nd coming when all things will finally be made new. Sisters and brothers, our ascended King has given us power through the Holy Spirit, purpose to proclaim His Kingdom, and victory over hatred, sin, and death.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” AMEN.