May 21, 2023

Acts 1:6-11
Ephesians 1:15-23

“Called to Hope and Action”

Today we are celebrating Ascension Sunday. We read one of the stories about the final moments that Jesus spent with his disciples, heard the final words he shared with them, and then the description of how he was lifted up into the sky where a cloud took him out of their sight.

It’s a strange thing to imagine happening, and particularly odd because we don’t really think of heaven as “up”. We’ve travelled up in that sky among the clouds, and even sent rockets holding people well beyond it. The theological meaning of the story is not really about “where” Jesus went physically, but that the Resurrected Lord was not raised from death in order to die again. The author of Luke and Acts wants to convey the fact that the early Christians came to believe that Jesus did in fact live forever, and that he was with God.

The Apostle Paul proclaimed that belief to the Church at Ephesus when he wrote to them about God’s great power. He said, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

Eventually, the Church would put that belief into the Creeds – the faith statements of the Church – and Christians for millenia to come would stand and profess them together. In the Apostles’ Creed that we use most often, we say about Jesus the Christ:
“On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

A more contemporary statement of Christian belief, our denomination’s “Living Faith” says that Christ is “Risen and ascended, he is alive now, the living Lord.” And a little later it says:
“We worship our ascended Lord.
Reigning in glory and power
he is our High Priest and Advocate
interceding before the Father on our behalf.
Through him we offer our sacrifice of praise,
with prayer for all to the Father.”

A couple of things stand out in the story from the Book of Acts about Jesus’ ascension into heaven. First, there is the mission that Jesus gives to his disciples before he goes up. He tells them that they will receive power (the power of the Holy Spirit that will come to them soon) and they will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

And then there’s the fact that after he goes up into the sky and disappears, they just stand there gazing up towards heaven. I don’t know how long they just stood there being amazed, but it was long enough that a couple of angelic messengers show up to prompt them to get moving.

They have a mission, and Jesus has promised them the power they need to do it. And if the Apostle Paul and the Church leaders of the first few centuries are right, Christ has not abandoned them, but empowered them, and will continue to guide them and pray for them from the right hand of God.

That’s the message of encouragement that Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians, and it’s a good message for our congregation as well. Paul gives thanks for the congregation’s faith and love, and I give thanks for yours. Paul prays for the Ephesians, as I pray for you every day – that God will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.

I pray that God will fill you with hope – the kind of hope that makes you quite sure that God is still active in the world and that you can make a difference when you participate in God’s mission. And I pray that God will fill you with power – not power over other people or some kind of military might – but the power of the Holy Spirit to enact love and grace and generosity and care in the world.

A few weeks ago, we had a reading from John’s Gospel in which Jesus told his disciples that after he was gone (well, after he went to be with God) they would do even greater works than he had done. Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit that would come to help his followers, to fill us, inspire us, and empower us to multiply his wonders and fulfill his mission in the world.

May this Ascension Day remind us of Jesus’ ongoing presence and power, and prompt us to not just stand here looking up to heaven, but to get going on the mission where he is sending us.