The piece of Scripture we’re about to hear from the gospel according to Luke will sound familiar to some of you—we heard part of it a few weeks ago in worship, just after Easter. But today, we’re going to get the rest of the story and flesh out just how we get from Easter, six weeks ago, to Pentecost next Sunday.
A bit of background before we dive in: I have a small bone to pick with whichever church council decided the order of the gospels in our canon, because Luke is actually connected to the book of Acts—they were both written by the same person, and Acts picks up where Luke leaves off. But it’s hard to make that connection in our bibles, because the gospel of John is thrown in between the two. So keep in mind, as we listen, that Luke is trying to set us up for the life and witness of the early church, which he describes in more fully Acts.
Scripture: Luke 24:43-55
Then he 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, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his 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.’
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples (and, depending on which gospel you’re reading, to some large crowds, too) over the course of 40 days. He spends much of that time explaining what he was trying to teach the disciples—reminding them of what he said and watching as they finally begin to understand all of the things that only make sense in light of the resurrection.
After those 40 days, he leads them out of Jerusalem to the suburb of Bethany—and he says “okay, your turn.” He promises to send them power from on high, he blesses them continually as he is lifted into heaven, and he disappears.
Later, the early church would fill in that blank and say more explicitly that Jesus didn’t just disappear—he ascended to sit at the right hand of God, where he looks out for us and intercedes on our behalf.
But our celebration of the ascension is not just about where in the world Jesus is—it’s about this pivot between a focus on the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and what’s next for the disciples.
Jesus’ physical absence leaves room for the Eleven to begin their mission, which Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms for them: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
(Some minor Pentecost spoilers there.)
This charge—these instructions—would form the whole mission and purpose of the earliest churches, and their commitment to that mission would determine how they organized themselves around it.
In Acts, we see the disciples replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias, set up a home base of sorts in Jerusalem, then spread out to the ends of the known world to tell this story of a man named Jesus, who offers new life and forgiveness to any and all who seek him.
And as they go, they set up more communities—house churches, small gatherings of people who exchange letters and pray together and tell one another the stories of Jesus.
This is why, I think, this story of Jesus blessing and empowering his disciples is so important for us to hear year after year.
As Jan Richardson, the poet theologian and artist, says: “…the blessing is part of the leaving. And, somehow, the leaving is part of the blessing. His departure—and the way he enters into it—is part of Jesus’ final gift to his friends. In much the same way that Jesus tells Mary Magdalene on Easter morning not to hold onto him, Jesus at the table and in his Ascension urges his disciples—his friends—to grow up. He invites them to enter into a new relationship with him that will no longer depend on his physical presence but will rely instead on trusting in his love and growing into the people and the community that Christ has called them to become. It is time for them to become his body, to continue his transforming work in the world that he has physically left but has not abandoned.
Joyful, sorrowful, bittersweet; planned or unexpected; welcomed or resisted or grieved: no matter how a leave-taking happens, it always brings an invitation, and it makes a space for the Spirit to come.”
And that, friends, is why the disciples leave that place—a place of change and in some ways, a place of loss—rejoicing and singing and blessing God.
I don’t think the disciples quite know what’s coming next for all of them, but they rejoice nonetheless, because they know that this new promise, this new invitation, is something that God’s doing—and God will not abandon them to it.
Very suddenly, the students will become the teachers.
There’s a myth embedded in our culture of ‘arrival.’ That when we have certain things, when we know certain things, when we reach a certain point in our lives, then we will have ‘arrived.’ We won’t have to worry about ourselves anymore and we can focus on giving to others–and when we reach that point, then we can be teachers and disciplers–but not before.
But as each milestone comes, as each ‘arrival’ point passes, we realize that we still have so much further to go. We don’t arrive. And we say to ourselves: “I don’t have anything worth teaching anyone! I still have so much more to learn!”
Maybe you felt that way on your first day in a new job, or after living on your own for the first time, or even as a parent or spouse. You might wonder: “who thought giving me this responsibility was a good idea?”
But every one of those moments is an invitation to grow deeper into the person, the disciple, the parent/spouse/friend you’re becoming.
That’s also why I love the word “adulting.” I know, the English teachers in the room are cringing at the ways nouns get turned into verbs. But this grammar nightmare highlights the ways that we’ve begun to acknowledge that adulthood is not something that happens overnight. We don’t wake up one morning and suddenly know exactly when to put salt in the water softener and which weed killer to buy and how to calculate our taxes. It’s a process of learning and failing and growing and becoming an adult. Sometimes, rather slowly.
It’s the same with discipleship. We don’t wake up one morning and become perfect Jesus-followers who can spout off Bible verses from memory and know exactly how and where to follow God. But every time we show up here in this community of faith, or study the Bible or pray or meditate on Scripture on our own, we are discipling—being discipled and discipling one another.
What this ascension narrative teaches us is that when we are following God somewhere, beginnings and endings are often mixed up together—and in each one is an invitation to become.
And each invitation is cause to rejoice, because in the economy of God’s gracious love, nothing—not even failure—is wasted. So as you think on the beginnings and endings in your own life, what is it that God’s inviting you to become?
I want to leave you with a blessing for the ascension from Jan Richardson, whom we heard from earlier:
In the leaving
in the letting go
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:
the enduring of love
the persisting of hope
the remembering of joy
the offering of gratitude
the receiving of grace
the blessing of peace.
Thanks be to God!