Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Ascension and Holy Spirit Power

Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11

It makes sense to read the two stories of Jesus’ ascension with the Gospel first, and Acts second because that is the way things happened. The same author wrote both books, so we often say Luke-Acts. I think Luke’s story of the ascension is a shorter version of the same event, told with more detail in Acts. In Acts, it’s clear that there was a time lapse between the resurrection appearances and the ascension. This timing is not so clear in Luke. Today, we’re going to look at the stories together.
Luke’s Gospel reading takes us back to the evening of Easter day. Jesus has surprised the disciples who walked with him on the Emmaus Road, appeared to Peter, and spent time with the rest of the disciples in the house in Jerusalem. By now, the Emmaus Road companions have arrived back in Jerusalem as well.
Jesus spends time with the disciples this evening, eating fish with them to prove he really is alive again. As he did with the Emmaus companions, he connects the Scriptures they already know with his own life, ministry, death and resurrection. You have witnessed all this, he says, and I want you to tell others about it. Go and tell others about God’s forgiveness. But don’t go yet. Wait until God gives you the power of the Holy Spirit.
According to Acts, during the forty days from Easter to his ascension, Jesus appears numerous times, to the disciples and others, teaching them what his resurrection means for the kingdom/reign of God. The disciples worship in the temple, praising God for Jesus’ resurrection.
Luke says Jesus took the disciples out to Bethany. To get from Jerusalem to Bethany means going down the mountain into the Kidron Valley, and then up the next mountain to the village. This puts Jesus and the disciples in a less crowded and very familiar place. Martha and Mary and Lazarus live here. The road to the cross began here.
 On this day they are gathered together, and have one last conversation. The disciples ask Jesus if now is the time when the reign of God will begin. Jesus says, Only God knows those kinds of things. And then he quickly changes the subject. In a few days, he goes on, God is going to give you the power of the Holy Spirit, and then you will have work to do, here in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
After this last conversation ends, the disciples watch as Jesus goes up into the clouds. They watch him ascend until they can’t see him any longer, the way we watch shuttle launches until we can no longer see the trail of smoke.
Suddenly two men in white robes – perhaps the same two men who were at the tomb on Easter morning – appear. The men ask the disciples why they are looking into the heavens for Jesus. They will see him again coming just as he left them. A mysterious comment. In Acts Chapter 2, a rush of wind and tongues of fire appeared suddenly, out of nowhere. Perhaps this is what the two men meant. Or perhaps, they meant that Jesus’ presence among them – and us – would be just as mysterious as his ascension.
After Jesus’ death and ascension came the Holy Spirit’s power. Next week is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has recently given new meaning to Passover. He is about to give new meaning to the festival of Pentecost.
But, in these 10 days after the ascension, the disciples are waiting, and praying, and waiting, and worshiping. As they wait for the Holy Spirit Jesus promised them, their confidence grows. The repeated appearances of Jesus have given them the assurance that they are not seeing things, they are not crazy. Jesus really has been raised from the dead, just as he promised. They are beginning to figure out what they will be doing next. But they are not sure they will be able to actually do what Jesus wants without his physical presence.
Jesus’ answer to this concern is to give the disciples the POWER of the Holy Spirit. The word power appears about a dozen times in Luke and Acts.  Jesus heals with power; Jesus gives the disciples power and authority when he sends them out two by two on their mission trip; after Pentecost, the disciples heal and preach with power.
So, with the coming of the Holy Spirit comes divine power to fulfill God’s purposes. One of God’s purposes right after Pentecost is to tell others about Jesus. After Jesus died and was buried, the disciples were cowering in fear in a locked room. In the weeks since then, they have stopped hiding, and dared to appear in public, worshiping in the temple, and so forth. Perhaps they have even told a few others about Jesus’ resurrection. They are already feeling Jesus’ power.
The power of the Holy Spirit will complete their transformation. Even though their lives will be at risk – in just a few weeks or months Stephen will die for his faith in Jesus – they are no longer afraid of that consequence. If they die, it simply proves their faith and trust in God.
Because of this faith, they feel equipped, empowered, to share their belief wherever they are sent. Do you remember where Jesus said they will be going? He said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Do you remember that Samaria is enemy territory for the Jews? Jesus is sending the disciples not just to their friends but to the enemies of their people!
Believe it or not, we have that same power from the Holy Spirit. We usually fail to access that power. We forget that we do ministry in Jesus’ name and with the power of the Holy Spirit behind and within us. We forget that we have been baptized, called and sent to be witnesses to Jesus wherever and whenever he sends us.
If we pay attention, we can see Holy Spirit power in small ways every day. If we pay attention we can hear gentle or powerful nudges to speak, to act, to pray. Give someone a hug and tell them Jesus loves them. Invite someone to a pot luck meal. Offer to pray for someone in distress, and then do pray for them.
We can sometimes see Holy Spirit power in larger ways, too. I am convinced it was Holy Spirit power that gave us such generous gifts from Bea and John, from Otto, and from Irma.
Let us trust in God’s power to go forward in faith, witnessing to Jesus each and every day, in small and large ways.
Please pray with me. Jesus, you sent the Holy Spirit into the disciples and empowered them to do amazing ministry in your name. Remind us that we have access to that same power, and send us forth to do amazing ministry in our time and place. Amen