Scripture: Acts 1: 6-11
Date: May 17, 2015
I am hesitant to say this in front of this crowd because we have so many wonderful health care professionals at St. Luke, but, true confession, I really hate going to the doctor. So I try to make it as hard on the doctor as I can, subconsciously, of course. So I volunteer as little information about my condition as I can. They need to find it out for themselves. Work for it. Now the last time I saw my heart doctor, he walked into the examining room and he was looking at my chart and he said, “Well, how have you been feeling?” without even looking up from the chart. Now I was already pretty peeved because I had had to wait a long time in the waiting room and then the exam room. So I decided I needed to get his full attention. And I said, “Except for the chest pains and shortness of breath and alternating pain and numbness in my left arm, I’ve been feeling pretty good.” Well, I could see by the way he looked at me, that he didn’t appreciate my humor. (It was the same look that you often give me on Sunday morning after I tell one of my stories.) But at least he looked up from the chart. And so I knew I had to hurry to reassure him that I was just kidding. Once we got past that, he told me he was worried about my bad cholesterol. And you know what my first thought was. Oh great, he’s going to tell me to stay away from Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts. And I was going to have to explain to him that if God didn’t want me to go to Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts, he wouldn’t have placed them right there where I pass them every day on my way to the church. “So I said, ‘Oh is my bad cholesterol too high?” And he said, “No, I’m worried that it might be too low.” You see, this is why I have trouble with doctors. He’s got me on diet and exercise and a pill once a day to lower my cholesterol and now he tells me it might be too low. Well that’s on him because I have certainly done all I can do to to keep it high. And then he moved on to his second favorite subject and said, “I notice that your blood pressure is pretty high. Have you been under any stress lately?” Now I had to think about that for a moment because I don’t usually think in those terms. And so I said, “Well, I’m a pastor and supposedly that’s one of the most stressful occupations there is.” I think he doubled my blood pressure medicine on the spot. Obviously ministry, no matter who is doing it, is perceived to be a high stress endeavor.
And so I was thinking about that when I read this passage from Acts. Consider the stress level of Peter as he and the other disciples gathered on the mountaintop on that day when Jesus ascended into heaven. All the things he had gone through in the past two months. The events of Holy Week. The parade of triumph. The cleansing of the Temple. The last supper. Betrayal. Denial. Crucifixion. Finding himself on the most wanted list of both the Jews and the Romans. Dealing with the guilt of his failure. And then all of those post resurrection appearances. He just never knew where Jesus would pop up next. If you could have gotten a blood pressure cuff on Peter, it probably would have popped right off his arm. And in essence Peter and the others say to Jesus, “You’ve brought us here on this mountain overlooking Judea to tell us that now is the time to establish your kingdom. Haven’t you Jesus?” But once again Peter was wrong. A writer by the name of Joretta Marshall describes this moment in faith in this way:
Here we find the group of faithful followers, women and men who believed in a vision and an ideal, struggling to live in —between the reality of the Christ they knew on earth and the Christ who now commissions them to become witnesses in God’s name. Living in the Christ who ascends into the presence of God in a new way, they must have been wondering where to go, what to do, and how to live in-between their memories of the past and their visions for the future.
You know it occurs to me, that we live most of our lives in that “in between” time. As Christians, we often are caught up “in between” the teachings of Jesus and Scripture and the ways of the world. We want to live a Christ-like life, but there are so many things in our world that pull us another way. Temptations dwell in that “in between” realm. One writer has said:
We live our lives in the in-betweeness of birth and death. Around us is a broken and hurting physical world. Here persons exist in- between the sickness of a heart that does not work and the healing of surgeries, or between the brokenness of a family caught in despair and the healing of an addiction that can make life meaningful. We know the in-between chaos in which we live as we seek to recover from disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, neighborhood violence, or national crises.
In many ways, our lives of faith dwell somewhere between our understanding of Jesus as Savior and knowing Him as Lord.
And that’s where Peter and the Disciples were as they watched Jesus ascend into Heaven.
I believe that the Book Of Revelation paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the Disciples in the in between times. At the end of the book Jesus speaks these words to His followers who have survived all of the persecution that is laid out in John’s vision, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the last, the beginning and the end.” It is one of the more familiar and oft quoted passages from the Book of Revelation. But to understand what Jesus meant by those words (and remember this is the resurrected Jesus) there are some things we need to consider. First of all, these words come near the end of the Book, but what we sometimes fail to understand is that Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of the book. Look what John says in Revelation 1: 8: I am the Alpha and Omega,” says the Lord God, “Who is and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty. In fact, there are three times in Revelation when Jesus essentially says the same thing. Now in ancient Hebrew writing, something repeated three times meant it was truth telling. There was no disputing it. So, when Jesus says it for the third time, He is essentially saying this is the absolute truth, you can count on what I am about to say. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” Now most scholars say that Jesus is referring to the fact that before all time, he was and when all time is over He still will be. But I like Pastor Frederick Buechner’s explanation of the phrase the best. He points out that John begins His Gospel by identifying Jesus as the Word. Remember what he says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, Buechner contends that the Alpha and Omega is also referring to Jesus’ identity as The Word. And so what He is saying is that He is the first word and the last word. And, Buechner goes on to say that the first word and the last word of Revelation is really one word. And that word is “Grace”. Now watch this because I believe this is the key to understanding the Ascension. John, he says, begins the Revelation with a word of Grace: To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and Peace to you from who is, and who was, and who is to come. In other words from the Alpha and Omega. And then John ends the Revelation the way he begins it: I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The Grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. And so here’s the point: since the phrase is at the beginning and the end of John’s Revelation, the rest of the events that are described in the Book take place in the time In between the first word and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. And in that time, it is the church that is to be the Word, and that word is Grace. One writer in commenting on this says: Perhaps this is our greatest hope: that God will be both our source and our destination. Through the grace of Christ our king, we trust that the God who gave us birth will complete and finish our lives. Daily problems can blur our vision. (and) we think, “What’s this world coming to?” Listen: every day is full of enough hassles and horrors to shake up the strongest soul. Each one of us needs a place to stand and a promise to cling to. Some days all we can do is hang on by our fingernails, and trust the One “who is, who was, who is to come.” We hope for God, and remember God. We remember God’s saving history and hope for God’s final victory. And the church exists for the time in – between.
The Ascension of Jesus places the church squarely in that time in between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and the fulfillment of His promise that He is coming again. The disciples feared that in between time, just as many today fear the times described in the Book of Revelation, because that in between time is their time, our time, and they weren’t sure they were ready for it, and I suspect neither are most of us. But here we are 2000 years later and so many times the church has found itself in that same position, caught between who Jesus was and who He will be, the Alpha and the Omega. Christ established His church for a time such as this, for the in-between times for as long as they may last. It was the in- between times that John Newton had in mind when he wrote:
Through many dangers toil and snares, I have already come; tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
You know it would have been so much easier on the disciples if Jesus would have stayed. Continued to teach them and lead them. If they could have remained Disciples, rather than become apostles. Receivers of the faith, rather than conveyors of the faith. People of the resurrection moment, not people for the in-between times. Just as it would be so much easier for us as a church, if we could just gather and worship, revel in Jesus’ presence and not worry about all of those who are in sight and sound of this church who do not know that presence. Not have to reach out. Not have to worry about mission. Not have to worry about sharing our faith. Not be disciples for the in-between times. Our world is a mess. What can we do about it? This is no time to leave us Jesus. But He had to go. Because if the church was going to go into all the world, the disciples could not be content just to follow Jesus there. They would need to spread out to all the corners of the world. He had to go, so He could come– to all. And likewise, if we keep Him just in the Church, just let Him be savior for those who gather here on Sunday morning – then what happens to the rest of the people who are caught in between God and Satan, who may never come to the church, but who still need Him all the same. You see, as our nation and our world becomes more secular, even hostile towards God, there are billions of people still living in the in-between times. I believe that the church is called for a time such as this. The in-between time.. .
Retired Bishop Will Willimon, in commenting on this passage writes:
The one who came and stood beside us, who suffered because of us and for us, who felt the heel of Caesar, the fickleness of the mob, and the cowardice of the disciples, this one has gone up. He is God, not just for the church, not just within my heart, but for the whole world. Nothing shall be beyond His Lordship. It is time to stop gazing up into heaven and start looking on earth for evidence of his rule because no matter who is in the White House or what the newspapers say, Christ. . holds the whole expansive cosmos in His embrace. Because God has gone up, we have something to say to life in the valley.
In these in-between times. You see, for the disciples, the ascension was the turning point of their faith. More than crucifixion, more than resurrection, even more than Pentecost which we celebrate next week, the ascension of Jesus into heaven shaped the future of the church on earth. It transformed the disciples from students to teachers, from disciples of Jesus, to apostles for the world. And it must continue to transform us today.
I think that happens in at least three ways.
First of all, the ascension of Jesus, continues to invite us into the unknown. Faith that exists only within the framework of the familiar and the safe will not have much impact on our in-between world because much of our world is neither familiar nor safe. Faith sharing, the Great Commission, is intended to take us into unknown realms. One of our values that we hold sacred at St. Luke is taking risks. Trying bold new things to serve our God in these in between times. Every time we reach out to another, every time we approach a hospital bed, every time we pray for a soul, every time we comfort those who mourn, every time we share our faith, we step into unknown realms. We take a risk. Take a chance. How much easier it would be if we could just follow Jesus into familiar places, but instead, because of the ascension we must be the ones to take Him into unfamiliar realms. We must be the presence of God in all the world. If God is to be present in the in-between times where relationships struggle, and diseases kill, and wars rage, and children go to bed hungry, and men kill men, and earthquakes and tornados strike, He must be present in and through us. The ascension calls us to be His witnesses, his servants, His disciples, in the in-between times.
And then secondly, the Ascension calls us to claim the power of God’s Spirit. Before Jesus ascended all power was in Him. He was the teacher. He was the one who made the lame walk and the blind see. He was the one who forgave sins. And the disciples were content with that. Content to follow and to watch. Content to sit in the pews and let Him do the ministry. But the ascension compelled the disciples to become emboldened with the power and authority of the Holy Spirit, so that by their touch the blind could see and the lame could walk. The church in-between Alpha and Omega must claim the power of God’s spirit. We must be the hope and light of the world in-between, which groans under the weight of war and disease and poverty and sin, because we know, that no matter how bad things become, there will be a happy ending. That Christ is coming again. That the victory has already been won. That these are the in-between times. At the ascension, Jesus is essentially telling us, okay I have won the war against evil, now you go out and recruit the army that will fight it. We witness to the glory of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then, finally, the Ascension tells us that Jesus is confident that the church will be up to the task of the in-between times. We read a great deal about the decline of the church in the 21st Century. The church has lost it’s authority and it’s influence. It will be gone in a couple of generations. But these types of criticisms are not unique to our times. And to those critics, and to those doomsayers, I would remind them of Jesus’ words: I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
When everything else has passed away, the Church of Jesus Christ will stand.
The theologian Karl Barth once wrote with respect to the ascension:
Poor church that failed to know its Lord as the coming Lord of glory! And poor world, if the Church, which has so much fighting to do in it and often enough against it, were not a place.. ., with it’s Lord in view, a place of hope.
A place of Grace for all.
But the point of the ascension is that we are not a poor church, impotent to stand in and sometimes against the tides of society. No, God intended for us to be a church of great power. The power to transform this in-between world where evil and death has been defeated but not subdued. The power to touch and heal and bring salvation. And it is time for us to get our heads out of the clouds, staring into heaven wondering when Jesus will come again. Because though He will. He said He would. Our task until that time is to make as many hearts ready to receive Him as we possibly can, to witness to His Grace and love, through the power of His spirit in Lexington and America and Judea and all of the world. I believe that the church of Jesus Christ has the power to transform and redeem these in-between times. Those disciples left that mountain of Ascension and set about the task of transforming the world. It is said that the church of Jesus Christ turned the world upside down. It was the church in-between Alpha and Omega. And friends we too have the power to transform our world because we are the Church In Between.
With the ascension, God has begun in heaven what is yet to be accomplished on earth. Christ is gone, not to forsake us, but to continue to redeem us. He has gone to take charge, to rule, to put all things under his feet.
Even in in-between times like these.
The late New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias once wrote about growing up as a child of German missionaries in Israel. But when Hitler came to power in Germany, the relationship between the German people and the Jewish people became hostile and painful. And so Jeremias’ family left. Then came the second world war and the Holocaust. After the war, Jeremias wished to return to Israel. He said he wanted to see if anybody remembered him as a young person, and would forgive him for the sins of his people. And so he wrote, “I returned to Israel after the war. I knocked on door after door. But I couldn’t find anybody. Finally I came to one house and thought surely someone is here, and they will let me in. I knocked and a man answered. I remembered him from the days before the war and I said “I’m Joachim Jeremias.” Apparently the man remembered him and said, “Please come in. It is good you came at this time,” said the Jewish host. “We are celebrating the feast of the tabernacles. Come into our back yard.” And when they entered the back yard, Jeremias saw that the family had erected a traditional booth or tabernacle for the feast. It was made of brush and sticks and vines and there was fruit hanging from the vines. There was a little door where the family would enter and enjoy the feast and recall the story of Israel’s life in the wilderness after the Exodus and how God had provided for their every need. As Professor Jeremias entered the Tabernacle he noticed a little piece of paper clipped to one side of the doorway, and then another piece of paper clipped to the other side of the doorway. There was one word written on each piece of paper. The words were in Hebrew and so Jeremias asked his host, “What are those words?” and the man replied, “That is a summary of Psalm 139: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast'” (Psalm 139:7-10). Jeremias said, “I don’t understand. What does it mean?’ The man said, “Well, that word on the left side of the door means ‘from God.’ This word on the right side means ‘to God.’ And we in between are meant to live from God … to God.” The feast reminds us that our final destination is to arrive at the Source of our life. The aim of every life is to return to the God from whom all things were made, and in whose purposes all creation shall be completed. In between new creation and final consummation, we have a place to stand and a promise to claim. We belong to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Ascension identifies us as disciples for the in-between times. And so the question for us today, as we think about the Ascension of Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the Word of Grace, the resurrected Lord, is how will we choose to live our life in between.