Psalm 47; Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-14
Last Saturday, Nate and I celebrated eleven years of marriage. Eleven seems crazy, sounds like a long time, but when I think about it, it has indeed been long since the days when we needed to part for summer vacations in college. Before we were married, Nate would return to Pennsylvania to work with his dad, while I would return to Ontario. One summer, I worked for my congregation as an intern and another summer led to work in an auto parts factory.
This week, I was talking with a college student who had just finished her first year. She remarked how strange it was not to be able to hang out with her friends at a moment’s notice. I tried to empathize, saying I remember that strangeness and how hard it was—heading from Chicago to Ontario and leaving behind friends and a certain bearded gentleman.
Transitioning between academic years or, especially, at college graduation, can be tough. Transitions don’t end with college. Friends and coworkers can leave, we change jobs, or move out of neighborhoods, states, or countries. Recently, we said goodbye to Bob and will say goodbye to Dale soon. Goodbyes can be hard at any time, but especially when you’ve spent years with people and are not sure when or how you will see them again.
Accounts from Both Luke and Acts
In both our gospel passage and our passage in The Acts of the Apostles (as its full name reads), Jesus and the disciples are parting. It’s a big goodbye. It’s been forty days since Jesus was resurrected, when Jesus came back to life and appeared, first to the women at the tomb, then to the disciples huddled in a room, and to the two on the road to Emmaus. And more.
You probably noticed that we read the same ascension story in two different books of the bible. Each version is different but also similar. In Luke’s gospel, it seems to be almost the same day as the resurrection, but doesn’t say so explicitly. In Acts, also authored by Luke, he explicitly writes that it’s been 40 days. Scholars debate how to explain this, but the consensus is that Luke wanted it to be a theologically complete gospel account.
In the ancient world, the historical timeline of certain writings was less important than the events and the meaning attached to them. One commentator says that “Theology, not chronology, is [Luke’s] point, and… he is perfectly aware of [what he’s including]” (Boring & Craddock, p. 282). We can look at both accounts as complementing each other and serving different purposes—one to close out the gospel and another to set the stage for the coming of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work through the group of Jesus followers. I’m going to focus on the Acts passage this morning, but discuss the gospel version here and there, since they complement each other.
40 Days with Jesus
As I was preparing for this sermon and reading through the Acts passage, I realized that the last time I preached was Easter Sunday. We’re now at 43 days from Easter, since Ascension was on Thursday. Easter feels like a while ago. 40 days is a long time. It struck me to think that, after the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing during those 40 days, being with the disciples, teaching them, eating with them, even cooking them fish (John 21:1-14), and walking with them. 40 extra days with Jesus! I imagine that the disciples were comforted by Jesus being with them but they probably tried to avoid thinking about when Jesus would leave again.
In Acts, Luke says that Jesus “presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. [Jesus] appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (v. 3). Then one day, Jesus was eating with them. The NRSV translates this “staying with them” but the NIV translates it better here as “eating with them” (v. 4). It literally reads as “sharing the salt” with the disciples, so eating with them adds the relational intimacy this implies.
One day, while Jesus is eating with them, Jesus gives the disciples what would be one of his final instructions. Jesus says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. While John baptized with water, in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).
Even though the disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days and several years before that, they still weren’t always tracking with Jesus. The disciples come closer to Jesus and crowd around him, asking, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus doesn’t exactly say no, but basically. He responds, saying, “the timing isn’t for you to know. God the Father is working out that end. But you—you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.” And at that, Jesus goes up.
Jesus reorients the disciples away from speculation about the culmination of history, reminds them that it isn’t about empires rising or falling but about continuing Jesus’ work, witnessing to Jesus’ work. Jesus tells them they won’t be alone, tells them to wait, and leaves mysteriously. The disciples are left gaping, jaws hanging open. The book of Acts says, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (v. 9).
I’m not about to try to explain the weird trans-dimensional process that occurs here or the physics of it. I trust that Jesus actually ascended and went to the Father, though that place isn’t a literal “behind the clouds” in our earthly sky. Luke wasn’t trying to be scientifically accurate, but using words to indicate Jesus’ ascension and connecting it to the presence of God’s dwelling place. In the Hebrew scriptures, clouds often symbolize the presence and power of God (Boring & Craddock, p. 367; cf. Exodus 13:21; 19:16; 40:34; Ps. 68:4; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13).
The ascension also echoes how the prophet Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire at the end of his ministry. But here, Jesus, not just a prophet but God incarnate, returns to where he came from, to the dwelling place of God. Paul writes in Philippians that Jesus was exalted (Phil 2:6-11). The ascension is part of the vindication, confirmation, or stamp of God’s approval of Jesus as Messiah. As our call to worship from Psalm 47 said, “God has gone up, ascended amid shouts of joy.”
Snap Out of It and Wait
Well, at first, the disciples aren’t shouting but staring. The disciples stand agape and reasonably so. They’ve just seen something miraculous, marvelous, and other worldly. I’d stare too. Beyond the natural shock at one’s teacher and messiah finally saying goodbye and leaving, the exit itself is pretty jaw dropping. The gaping jaws of the disciples come shut when two messengers in bright white clothing snap them out of it. “Hey, Galileans! Why do you keep looking up? Stop gawking. Jesus, who was taken up to heaven from among you, will surely return again—in a manner just as mysterious” (v. 11).
Somehow, the combination of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ ascension, and shiny bright messengers (clearly from God—pay attention to those folks in shiny bright clothing), this combination helps the disciples finally put it all together. The disciples then worship Jesus and return to Jerusalem, rejoicing. They were outside of the main city, on the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, and they quickly head back to the main part of the city to wait for the Spirit to come. Men and women disciples are there. They head up to a room where they had been meeting and the group gathers to pray.
The NRSV translates it this way: “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (v. 14). The Message says, “They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer.” Luke’s gospel version has the disciples heading to the temple continually, praising God. It is poignant that the last time, some of the disciples went back to fishing. This time, they are all in.
The disciples get on task right away—and start waiting. This is not a passive waiting, by any means, but a fervent waiting. They are busy waiting—praying, praising, meeting together. One commentator notes that in this passage, “Gathering to wait and to pray are depicted as two primary activities of a faithful church” (Willimon, p. 21). This fervent waiting is joyful, trusting, prayerful.
The disciples were probably asking, “What’s next?” Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come, but what exactly would that look like? How would things pan out for this ragtag group of Galilean Jews following a crucified, raised, and ascended Messiah? They certainly couldn’t guess what laid ahead in the next few chapters of Acts, but in their fervent waiting, they trusted that whatever laid ahead, the power and resources would be provided by God.
Waiting is not an easy thing. We typically feel the need to distract ourselves from waiting. One could say waiting requires that we occupy ourselves with something productive, utilize the time. It depends both on how you look at waiting, as space to breathe, as an opportunity to do or as “time to kill.” Distracting ourselves prevents us from thinking about the unknowns or the what-ifs. Waiting can also lead to creativity. Boredom can lead you down a rabbit hole of thoughts, or lead to a sketch of something beautiful, into a poem, or provide an idea. Letting your mind wander or “wakeful resting,” provides mental downtime that improves your memory and creativity (NPR; BBC). Waiting has been scientifically proven to do good.
Waiting was crucial and positive for the early church. The early disciples embarked on fervent waiting and it ended up changing their community and providing them with power they couldn’t have imagined—the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them, all over the world.
At Washington City Church of the Brethren, I think it would be good to practice the waiting that we see in Acts 1. We’ve come a long way in the five years that I’ve been here—and it is marvelous to see how God has provided in unexpected and startling ways, better than I could have possibly asked or imagined (Ephesians 3:20). We’ve been moving, slowly but surely, out of crisis and into a place of stability—a place where we can grow together and discern how to “seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.”
Waiting and praying are part of what have brought us here. Waiting and praying, seeking if we could do a new ministry model. Waiting and praying, searching for a new BNP Coordinator. Twice. Waiting and praying in 2014, I submitted a prayer request at a church planting conference for five new attendees. We were so small—it seemed like a few more people could tip us over the edge into a healthier community. Within a year, we had them. Waiting and praying for God to bring people to commit to our community and join ministry, in word or song or other ways. God has provided abundantly.
In Acts, the disciples are unable to embark on a world-changing mission without the prayerful waiting, singing, and meeting, without the presence of the Holy Spirit coming like a roaring wind and with tongues of fire (which Micah will get to next week). Fervent waiting is key to seeing what God has in store for the ragtag group of Jesus-followers.
What I hear from this passage today is that we, sisters and brothers, are also called to wait and pray. We cannot do and be the church on our own. We are wrestling with how to move forward in many ways: how do we reach out to our neighbors? How do we get the church more closely connected with our BNP guests? How do we envision what God is calling us to for this neighborhood and for our city and region at large? How can we hear what God is doing and wants to do in us and through us? Through the fervent waiting. Praying. Praising. Together.
Sisters and brothers, next Sunday is Pentecost—the day when we mark the Spirit’s coming, when the Spirit fills and empowers. Can you wait with me, in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to come and fill us abundantly, to guide us and give us vision for God’s work in our city? Can you commit this week to 10 minutes a day of prayer—for our church and how we can “seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus?”
Let’s start now—by praying together. We will close with a prayer song, that asks the Holy Spirit to come down, break upon us, and fill us anew.