The disciples’ joy at Jesus’ ascension comes from a foundation of trust in who Christ is and who they are in Christ. The light of Christ is not extinguished; it’s changed. Now, the disciples are tasked with carrying it out into the world.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Ascension of Our Lord
Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When Jesus ascends into heaven, right before their very eyes, the disciples are overjoyed!
I have to admit, this reaction surprises me. Joy? Confusion and fear seem to be more their style. Even if we consider only the weeks since Palm Sunday, when the disciples arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus, they have rarely reacted to events with joy. What they have done is misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, get into arguments about who’s the greatest, fall asleep while praying, and deny even knowing Jesus. Not to mention doubting the resurrection, locking themselves away in fear, and failing to recognize the risen Christ. The disciples aren’t especially known for their celebratory responses.
Even at the start of the last conversation before the ascension, the disciples “startled and terrified” when Jesus shows up. They think he’s a ghost! (Luke 24:37) How do they get from startled and terrified at the beginning of the conversation, to overjoyed by the end, especially considering this is their last conversation with Jesus? What does he tell them that causes such a change of heart?
Before his ascension, Jesus shares four things with the disciples: a teaching, a mission, a promise, and a blessing.
Jesus begins, as he did on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27), with teaching. He teaches the disciples about the law and the prophets. He “opens their minds to understand the scripture.” (Luke 24:44) Jesus wants them to be able to understand his life, death, and resurrection within the wider narrative of God’s relationship with people of faith. And he wants them to understand their own role within that narrative as well.
So he gives them a mission. “You are witnesses,” he tells them. They are being sent out in the world to tell the story of God’s love in Christ. The early church will come back to this mission again and again. Although the word “witness” is only used a handful of times in the Gospels, in the book of Acts, which describes the life of the early church, it’s used more than a dozen times. The leaders of the early church reminded themselves of this vocational calling many times. We are witnesses. We are the ones who tell the story of God’s grace. We are the ones who testify to the power of the Gospel.
To be a witness was not an easy task, and in truth, many of the early Christians suffered because of their witness. Many were killed because of it. The same word that means ‘witness’ becomes synonymous for one who is killed because of their faith: a martyr. To be a witness requires commitment, courage, even self-sacrifice.
So Jesus gives them a promise: the Holy Spirit will empower you for this work. Although this is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, the on-going presence of God will stay with them. Divine power will be poured out on them, Jesus says, it will clothe them. They will be surrounded, enfolded, covered by the mysterious and transformative power of God’s spirit.
And if those three gifts weren’t enough– the scriptural teaching, the call to be witnesses, the promise of the Holy Spirit– Jesus leaves them with a final blessing. The text says that while he is still speaking this blessing over them, that Jesus is drawn away into heaven (Luke 24:51). The very final words they heard him speak are ones of blessing and sending. There’s no more conversation; Jesus is gone, right before their very eyes.
And the disciples are overjoyed!
They leave eager to worship, committed to one another and to the Gospel. Perhaps Jesus’ parting gifts– teaching, calling, promise, and blessing– perhaps these helped the disciples bear the pain of this separation. It seems likely they still had questions, doubts, fears. They were still shocked and grieving. Likely they got into more arguments, made more mistakes, continued to be the same people who were masterful at missing the point. And yet, these disciples step into the next chapter of their lives with confidence and joy because they trust who Christ is and who Christ has called them to be.
They trust who Christ is. When Jesus told them that he would not leave them orphaned, they believed him. When Jesus told them that his body was given for them, they took him seriously. When Jesus told them that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be poured out on them, they knew it would be so.
And they trust who they are in Christ. Their identities are rooted in the truth and freedom of the Gospel. Jesus has made them witnesses, and they know that being called and sent by Christ changes everything. Their role is to go out and proclaim forgiveness in Chris’s name. Who wouldn’t be joyful at the task of inviting others into the life-giving, heart-opening, grace-filled way of Christ!
It’s not as powerful as having Jesus speak it to you, but I want you to know that this is your vocation as well.
And the gifts that Jesus gave the disciples are also yours: the teaching of scripture, that speaks the Word of God to you; the mission to witness to the redemptive love of God for the world; the promise that God’s powerful spirit is poured out on you; and the everlasting blessing of the holy and Triune God. These are also for you.
The Ascension story isn’t about Jesus absence it’s about Christ’s presence – in you!
It’s a story we tell our children every week in Godly Play. Every Godly Play classroom has a Christ candle that gets lit as children gather, a reminder that the light of Christ is with us. When it’s time to leave and put the candle out, we say, “Watch carefully, the light is going to change.” The light was all in one place, but it can be in many places at once. Like the smoke rising from the wick, God’s presence fills the room in a different way. We tell the children the Christ light still shines in each of you, and you will carry it out into the world. That’s what the story of Ascension is about, and that’s why it’s a story of joy.
After Jesus ascended to heaven, just in case the disciples missed that point (like I said, they did have a track record) some mysterious robed messengers show up to remind them (Acts 1:9-10). “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” they ask the disciples. In other words: What are you looking at? The light isn’t up there. The light has changed. You’re carrying it. You know who you are. You’re witnesses. So you’d better get going out into the world and shine that light.