Now is the turning of the tide. In our readings for this Ascension Day, we encounter an important shift for those who follow Jesus from being turned inward, focusing on their common life and learning at Jesus’ feet, to that same group looking outward to the needs of the world. In this way, the Gospel of Luke completes the incoming tide of Jesus’ life and ministry and the Acts of the Apostles begins the outgoing tide which has the Gospel flowing forth to the ends of the earth.
The Evangelist Luke is the beloved physician who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This two-volume set is fully a quarter of the entire New Testament. Our readings for today are at the seam where these two texts overlap to recount the last moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the genesis of the Christian Church. Through these readings we encounter a dynamic that is important not simply to understanding that point in history, but is vital to our own journey as followers of Jesus.
The Book of Luke begins in the temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel begins the Good News of Jesus with the priest, Zechariah, serving in the Holy of Holies. There the angel Gabriel appears with the news that Elizabeth, Zechariah’s aged wife who was thought to be barren, will give birth. The son born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is the forerunner, John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke will then continually return to the temple, for Jesus’ naming, his teaching the elders when on a trip with his family at the age of twelve. Then through his ministry, Jesus will return to the temple. Finally the Gospel ends, with the final line verses, “They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”
The temple has a gravitational pull in Luke’s Gospel, everything is always pulled back to that center. Then in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke opens in Jerusalem, but then goes outward to Judea, Samaria, and while not to the ends of the earth, he will reach to Rome and beyond. Along with the journeys of Peter and the other apostles, we get Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the Apostle.
In Luke, everything was focused inwardly on building up the group. In Acts, that group is shot out from the center point. Pentecost will come like a bomb going off, which sends out a creative rather than destructive force. Ascension Day is the seam that holds those two narratives together. This is where the inward focused turned and after a ten-day wait for the tide to turn at Pentecost, the outward focus began.
It is worth pausing for a moment to acknowledge that Ascension Day is a stumbling block for some. They will remark rightly that we know better than to conceive of a three-storied universe with heaven above, hell beneath, and earth sandwiched in the middle. We have pierced the sky, traveled to the moon and are even now being watched over by astronauts working at the international space station. What sense does it make to talk of Jesus disappearing off into the sky, a vanishing point of distance from earth ending his earthly ministry?
This knowledge need not distract us as we know through our own faith journeys that God has a knack for giving us not just what we need, but what we are ready to receive. The disciples, or followers, were becoming apostles, or ones sent out, and they needed Jesus to leave in such a way that they would stop hanging around and get about the work of the Gospel. Ascension Day accomplished that essential purpose.
On all the days leading up to that one, the disciples looked for their Lord. Their lives were centered on Jesus. Knowing more about the heavens, doesn’t change the truth of Jesus’ leaving his earthly ministry to become once more the second person of the Trinity, no longer limited by the incarnation to being in one place at a time. After the ascension, the apostles began to pray and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then with Pentecost, they were empowered to go out in ministry.
The truth is that Ascension Day worked. With Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples became apostles. They stopped looking for Jesus here and there, and began to pray for the Holy Spirit who would be with them always. On that day, Jesus’ followers were given what they needed to begin to change their focus.
What would it take for us to change our focus? After all, it is easy for a church to go from being about the mission of sharing the love of God found in Jesus with a lost and hurting world, to turn our mission stations into clubs. A church does not exist for its own sake, but as preparation for those who gather to take part in Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. The word member should probably not even be used of aligning oneself with a given congregation. We are not to be members of a club, exclusive or otherwise, as if Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection were for the purpose of starting a new institution. The institution of the church exists to further the mission which is God’s mission—reconciling the world to God. We are missionaries working on the front lines of the mission of the church, which is what we each encounter every where we go.
This need to turn outward is so crucial, that it is a good idea to have someone at the end of Eucharist to step up and take the role of the two men robed in white who said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” These words were the push the apostles needed to stop focusing on the spot where they last saw Jesus. The words of the angels turned the disciples gaze outward to a lost and hurting world and so made them into apostles, ones sent forth on a mission. After that push, the apostles would be prepared when the Holy Spirit came ten days later on Pentecost to begin the work of taking the Good News of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
In the dismissal, we have such a moment. The deacon or priest says, “Alleluia. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” or similar words that focus us outwardly. This is no idle moment. This is an active moment, a push to tell us to stop looking toward the altar—that point where we last saw the Lord. The dismissal is a reminder as our worship service is ending that while the worship is finished for now, the service is just beginning. We are sent out from every service to love and serve the Lord through loving and serving others in his name.
Most of us do not go out loving and serving the Lord right away. It is more likely that we go out to get something to eat rather than going to serve in a soup kitchen, or to console a grieving friend. That is fine. But we should not leave worshipped untransformed. We should look at our server differently, knowing that this is a person who we depend on not being in church, so that we can enjoy a meal after we worship. Treat that server as you would treat Christ if he were serving your table. For having seen Christ in worship, we should become better at seeing Christ in others. Then loving and serving the Lord will be much simpler as we will find Jesus everywhere we look.
This is the transformation of Ascension Day. The tide is turning. Before many minutes pass, we will have been spiritually fed and empowered to act. Flow forth from this place to begin to fulfill that mission anew. This is the day for turning our eyes outward. This is the day for changing our focus to see Christ in the world anew. And having seen, we can begin anew to love and serve.