Some years ago I was leading a small group Bible study in a rural parish. The folks at the Bible study were mainly older ladies, and we were talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it really is. At one point in the study I asked them this question: “If you had to sum up the Christian message in no more than two sentences, how would you do it?” There was a long silence while everyone looked at the floor with frowns on their faces, and then one of them said, “You ask such difficult questions!”
But why did they find it a difficult question? After all, a good number of them were members of what was then called ‘The Reform Party’, and I suspect if I’d asked them to sum up in one or two sentences what the message of Reform really was, they’d have had no difficulty! So it was a real damning indictment against the work of the Anglican Church that after belonging to it for their whole lives, those folks found it next to impossible to sum up its central message in one or two sentences. I include myself in that, because I’d been their rector for several years at this point. What on earth had I been doing wrong, if after several years of my ministry they still couldn’t articulate the central gospel message in a couple of sentences?
So let me ask you this: in the face of all the pain and suffering in the world, do we have a message from God to share - a message that will make a difference, and bring hope to people’s lives? Because if we don’t, we really have no reason to exist, except to be a kind of spiritual country club for our members. A strong church needs a strong message to share with the world.
What is our strong message? As I listen to people in the Anglican Church talking, I sometimes get a sinking feeling about this. I sometimes get the sense that our message is ‘We have beautiful worship that dates back to the time of Henry VIII, and a nice loving community where you can get a sense of acceptance and belonging’. Well, I’m sorry, but have you noticed that not too many people are interested in Henry VIII these days? And if all you have to offer is a sense of community, there are lots of alternatives on the market that don’t require you to volunteer and tithe! So we’re going to have to do better than that!
The story of the Ascension can help us with this. What is the message of the Ascension? It’s simple and provocative: Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That’s what Ascension Day means.
We sometimes think of the Ascension as the day Jesus left the church: one minute he was with the disciples, the next minute a cloud took him out of their sight, and he was gone. But nothing could be further from the truth. Peter gives the true meaning of the Ascension in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, where he says that Jesus has been ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). The right hand of God is the place of authority and power.
Do you know which Old Testament passage the New Testament writers quote most often? It’s Psalm 110:1:
‘The LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.
The New Testament writers believed that this is what God the Father had done for his Son Jesus Christ: he had raised him from the dead and given him ‘the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11). They believed this to be objectively true: whether we acknowledge it or not, God the Father has made his Son Jesus Christ ‘Lord of all’. At the moment his rule is hidden, but one day it will be revealed to all people, on the day when ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.
This message is ‘good news’ because it gives us hope. So often, in the world as we know it, the forces of evil seem to have the last word. The tyrant tells us ‘resistance is futile’ – sooner or later, his death squads are going to get you. The chairman of the multinational corporation plants his business beside your small town, and within a few years all the little ‘mom and pop’ businesses go belly-up. The people of good will are working hard on a peace plan, but the terrorists on either side plant their bombs, and off we go again for another round of ‘you kill one of ours and we’ll kill ten of yours’. And so it goes on.
Ascension Day tells us that one day this endless cycle is in fact going to end, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and one day his lordship will be revealed to all. And this means the last word in the universe will not go to the ones who think that profit justifies walking all over the little people, or the ones who kill and murder and oppress. The last word will go to the one who taught us the way of love and compassion, the one who loved us and gave his life for us – Jesus Christ our Lord. This gives us hope for the future – and it also gives us strength for the present, as we choose to be faithful to the way of life he taught us, even though much of the world around us doesn’t think it’s such a good idea.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all; this is what the Ascension tells us. This is the message of hope that we are called to ‘declare’. Which leads us to our role in God’s plan: this passage tells us that we are Jesus’ witnesses.
How is Jesus’ kingdom spread? The apostles had a plan for this; in verse 6 we read: ‘So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ In other words, ‘Lord, if you will just make Israel into a superpower, then our armies will be able to enforce your authority everywhere!’ And we can understand their perspective, can’t we? If you’re going to end genocide and fight against tyranny, you need a powerful army to do it. That’s been the standard way of changing the world since day one: meet the sword with the sword.
But our reading from Acts tells us that Jesus has a different plan to change the world – the coming of the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at verse 8: ‘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’.
‘You will be my witnesses’ – this is Jesus’ simple plan. He calls disciples and he takes them out with him in mission. He trains them in the new way of life of the Kingdom of God, and then he sends them out to tell other people what they have seen and heard.
Do you remember right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus starts calling people to follow him?
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-17).
A lot of people would like it if the quote ended there, but of course it doesn’t. What comes next?
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.
You see, ‘fishing for people’ wasn’t an added extra: it was the purpose of discipleship. We become Christians, we are trained in the art of following Jesus, for the very purpose that we can pass it on to others. This isn’t a luxury; this is the very purpose for which the Church exists. If we’re not doing this, we’re not doing the thing Jesus had in mind when he called us to follow him in the first place. This is how the kingdom of God spreads: through the work of faithful witnesses.
In fact, the work of passing it on to others doesn’t wait until the training is over. The training takes place as Jesus is spreading the message to others; he takes the disciples along with him, and while they’re doing the work with him, he trains them to follow him. In the Gospels you don’t grow as a disciple of Jesus by sitting listening to sermons; you grow by going along with Jesus as he lives and shares God’s love with others.
And that’s still true today. In the western world we still tend to see churchgoing as the non-negotiable bare minimum of the Christian life, but Jesus didn’t say ‘Go into all the world and make all nations into churchgoers’. He said ‘make all nations my disciples’ – and we’ve seen that discipleship includes joining him in the work of spreading the message. Churchgoing may be one of the things disciples do, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing. It barely gets a mention in the New Testament. Being witnesses, on the other hand – spreading the gospel to others – is mentioned many times.
So – what do witnesses do? Witnesses share the story of what they have experienced. Witnesses for Jesus tell others what they know about him, the things that are real to them, the good news about him that they have experienced in their daily lives.
One of the first recorded Christian witnesses in the New Testament is Andrew. Andrew apparently used to hang around with John the Baptist, but one day Jesus passed by, and John pointed him out. “Look”, he said, “here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Andrew and another follower of John heard him say this, and they took off after Jesus. Here’s what happened next:
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter) (John 1:38-42).
So Andrew gets to spend the day with Jesus, and he’s so excited about Jesus that he immediately goes and finds someone he loves – his brother Simon – and tells him about it. He’s so persuasive that his brother’s curiosity is aroused, and so he goes to meet Jesus too. And the rest, as they say, is history. On the Day of Pentecost Simon, now commonly called Peter, preached a powerful sermon and three thousand people became Christians. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t preach a sermon – he was just a faithful witness, and the result was that one person became a Christian. But the sermon would never have been preached without that one word of witness.
How can I be like Andrew? Well, the simple question for us is, what good news about Jesus have I experienced, that I want to share with others? And if the only honest answer is ‘nothing’, then we need to earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us and open our eyes and make the risen Christ real to us. And we should not be satisfied with just praying this once and then giving up in despair. We need to keep on praying until we receive the gift the Father promised, as Jesus told us in our gospel for today.
This leads us to the third thing this passage shows us: we can’t be Jesus’ witnesses without the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:4-5 we read:
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’.
They are to ‘wait’. Only the Holy Spirit can make Christians witnesses, as we already saw in verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…’. So they need to be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘to sink’, like a ship sunk under the ocean – they need to be immersed, surrounded, and totally filled, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, like sponges soaking him up! And when this happens, it has an amazing effect on people’s lives, as we see in Acts where a group of scared disciples is transformed into a band of bold missionaries who preach and heal without fear in the name of Jesus.
The Church has always remembered that the Holy Spirit is essential to our task. In the service of Confirmation the bishop lays hands on the head of the person being confirmed, and prays, ‘Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him or her for your service…’ The Church has always known that without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is impossible.
But the Church has often forgotten the little word Jesus uses here: ‘Wait’. We pray the prayer, and then we move on to the next part of the liturgy, because our Sunday lunch is calling us, and we’ve got other commitments to go to! But might God be saying to us “Wait! Do you really mean it? Do you really want it? How badly? Are you willing to stop for a while? Are you willing to fast, and pray, and not to let go until you get what you’re looking for?”
So let me leave you with this challenge. The Christian Church really does have a message to share, something really good: the great news that Jesus our Saviour has defeated the power of evil, and one day in God’s good time he will bring in his kingdom in all its fulness. The world needs this good news, shared by people whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus at work among us even now.
So: Has the Holy Spirit filled you and made you one of Jesus’ witnesses? And if not, are you willing to ‘wait’ until he does? Are you willing to pray persistently, without giving up, until you experience what those early Christians experienced on the Day of Pentecost – a baptism, a drenching, a complete immersion, in the power of the Holy Spirit?