When I was reading through today’s gospel I found myself thinking of a few sayings we have in the English language, all of which seem to cluster around the same set of meanings. I’m thinking of sayings like, “We seem to be losing sight of the big picture here”, or ‘I can’t seem to see the wood for the trees”. Sometimes we shake our heads and say of someone else, “He seems to have lost the plot!”
Well, there are times when churches can lose the plot, too. We can get caught up in doing ‘the things we’ve always done’ – holding worship services on Sundays, running a Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it – and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find an answer to that question that goes any further than “Because it’s always existed and we like it that way”, we probably won’t have very much motivation for making sure that our church does the work Jesus called us to do.
So we need to recover the plot - and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us.
Actually, in today’s gospel we’ve come full circle. This is where we started the Easter season six weeks ago – in the upper room, with the risen Jesus and his astonished disciples. You see, Luke’s not too worried about chronology. If all we had was the Gospel according to Luke, we’d assume that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! He begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.
Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then – on the evening of the same day he rose from the dead – he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. You see: the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!
Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us quite clearly that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3). So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period, so that we don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees.
Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:
Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day”.
We’re used to the idea that there are all sorts of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so it’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that until Jesus came along, no one had put two and two together quite like that before. What I mean is that Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. The one strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah – a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and then set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, with its throne in Jerusalem. These prophecies are expressed in passages like Psalm 110:1: ‘Yahweh says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”’. God would give his chosen king the victory over Israel’s enemies, and Israel would be free and safe again, as it was in the days of King David.
The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah, where we run into a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God – but in some strange way, God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,
‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).
Jewish people today don’t read that text as referring to the Messiah. They never have. They’ve always understood it as referring to the nation of Israel as a whole: somehow the nation has a vocation to be faithful to the Lord through suffering and to help bring healing to the world. But Jesus seems to have initiated a startling new way of reading this passage – a way that led to the entirely unprecedented conclusion that the Messiah would not defeat the Lord’s enemies, but be killed by them. But somehow, through his death, God would win an even greater victory.
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer…” (v.46). Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. This whole world that God created and that God loves is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases, and natural disasters like this massive forest fire that’s afflicted the folks from Fort McMurray this past week.
How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and who have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.
Luke loves the idea of Jesus reaching out to suffering people, especially the victims of prejudice and injustice. Luke’s gospel stories especially focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, the Gentile soldiers and the tax collectors, the shepherds and children and women – people who were seen as being somehow on a lower level in the society of his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief’. Jesus enters into their suffering; like them, he is despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he is faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
And God is faithful to Jesus; he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. He isn’t ‘going away and leaving us’; he is being honoured by the Father and assuming the title that Peter gives him in Acts 10:36: “He is Lord of all”. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death; the love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.
So what’s the church called to do? Surely we’re called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you who some of those people are today! We’re called to suffer with them, even to die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to believe that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; that he will not abandon us, but one day will raise us up with Jesus.
So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about – what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we intentionally getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?
But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. Look at verses 47-49, where he says,
“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.
They are witnesses. They’ve seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story.
Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin. We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.
Some people think God is like that, too, but Jesus wants them to know that he’s actually not. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. As we’ve seen, he even goes so far as to forgive those who murder him – demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.
We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that the people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not?
Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (v.47). Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. And this is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated, but that it is to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!
So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?
Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong”. Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.
The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth; you don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners and preach sermons through bullhorns, if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!
The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (vv.48-49). You know what that promise is about, don’t you? It’s our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.
First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and to long to know and love the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.
Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to go across the Bosporus to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.
So, brothers and sisters, we don’t need to lose the plot. We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so that they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No – God wants to pour out his Spirit on al flesh, and that includes us.
That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.