Sermon text: Acts 1: 1-11
On the fortieth day of Easter, which for us is celebrated on Thursday, May 13th, Jesus blesses his disciples one last time and is taken up into heaven. He ascends. Just like the resurrection, the disciples have never witnessed anything quite like this, so they stand still, their necks bent back, and they are gawking at the disappearing Jesus as he goes into the sky like a space shuttle launching into orbit.
Two men in white robes appear to the group, the same men in white you appeared during the Transfiguration and at the Resurrection Tomb, and they question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s not everyday that the savior of the world and bringer of life and peace and wholeness floats into the atmosphere like a helium balloon escaping the hand of a five-year-old. The disciples are in awe and they are caught flat footed.
As I read this Ascension Day passage, I could not help but think of other images in the skies that have been unfolding before our eyes. This week the residents of the Holy Land have been gazing upward, not in awe but in fear, as they watch rockets and defense systems and fighter jets populate the skies. Hostilities have erupted, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds in the worst violence this region has seen in years. The violent saga of Israel and Palestine continues, and I feel like the disciples, gawking at what I see, unsure of what to do next.
It’s a mystery how such a small strip of land and how one city in particular could be critically important to all three of the Abrahamic religious traditions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lay religious claim to this holy land. But these tensions go beyond religion to basic questions of land rights and human rights. When violence erupts it is natural for us to want to pick sides, backing one cause, feeling a kindred and sense of connection with one side or another in this conflict. What is right in this age-old battle: Israel or Palestine?
In 2012 I took a wonderful trip to Israel as part of a seminary class. During the voyage I had the pleasure to hear Bishop Munib Younan, who, at the time, was the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. As a Palestinian Christian born in Jerusalem he lived his life in the minority of the minority and he had many wise things to say about the land we were visiting, its significance in our faith and world, and the modern-day conflicts that have plagued the area for decades…or for centuries if you go all the way back to the crusades. The hour flew by as we listened to his words.
Quite specifically, there was one lesson that he taught that day, a lesson he emphasized, that I still remember quite clearly. With regards to the Israel/Palestine power struggle he told his American audience to not choose sides. Do not favor Israel. Do not favor Palestine. Instead, pray and lobby for a joint effort of reconciliation and peace. This problem is complicated and multifaceted, and it will take both parties to find a solution. The issue cannot be solved if we unilaterally support one side or the other.
Every time this conflict reignites, I think of his words. As I see the Iron Dome intercepting rockets and residential buildings collapsing into heaps of rubble, I think of his advice to not choose sides. But, let’s be clear—not choosing sides is not the same as inaction. No, inaction is precisely what God is warning us against.
“While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
God sent those messengers to poke and prod the disciples. God is nudging them into action, saying “Alright, you lazy bums. You’ve been standing here watching the sky for far too long. You have work to do, so let’s get a move on.” It would be easy for them to ponder and debate the mysteries of faith or to sit in fear of the very same forces that hung Jesus on the cross. It would be easy to not do anything…but God has other plans.
Jesus’ last words to the disciples were filled with both instruction and promise. They are the words that will shape the entire Book of Acts. Indeed, these words shape the course of our church history and mission. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus may be going heavenward to be with God the Father, but that doesn’t mean his disciples are done with their work. In fact, this is only the beginning. They will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and then it’s game on. They will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and then they are on an evangelical manifest destiny to share the Gospel promise to the ends of the earth.
The same promise and the same directions have been handed down through the generations. We have the power to the Holy Spirit. We have a mission field that needs the story of Jesus. They are our children, our neighbors, our coworkers, our family, and the stranger. We have been to the ends of the earth as the human race, but there is a lot of witnessing and sharing that needs to happen right in our own backyard.
Newton’s First Law of Physics applies to the church just as much as it applies to matter: A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. The heavenly messengers at the Ascension keep the disciples moving before evangelical inertia sets in. As disciples gifted with the same power and the same Spirit will we be at rest, or will we be in motion? Will we gawk at our surroundings or will we move on to what’s next?
The world is our mission field. The Holy Spirit is our power and our passport.
Where will we be witnesses? How will we be empowered to continue the work of Jesus? AMEN