As we read this Gospel reading today we celebrate ascension Sunday. So what is ascension Sunday? Where did it start and what does it mean. Well as with everything else it means different things to different people.
According to timedate.com;
Ascension Day is one of the earliest Christian festivals dating back to the year 68. According to the New Testament in the Bible, Jesus Christ met several times with his disciples during the 40 days after his resurrection to instruct them on how to carry out his teachings. It is believed that on the 40th day he took them to the Mount of Olives, where they watched as he ascended to heaven.
Ascension Day marks the end of the Easter season and occurs ten days before Pentecost. Depending upon the phases of the Moon in a particular year, Ascension Day is celebrated on a Thursday. However, some churches, particularly in the United States, celebrate it on the following Sunday.
Many Eastern Orthodox churches calculate the date of Pascha (Easter) according to the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar used by many western churches, so their Ascension Day usually occurs after the western observance.
Ascension Day celebrations include processions symbolizing Christ’s entry into heaven and, in some countries, chasing a “devil” through the streets and dunking it in a pond or burning it in effigy – symbolic of the Messiah’s triumph over the devil when he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
In England, eggs laid on Ascension Day are said to never go bad and will guarantee good luck for a household if placed in the roof. In Devon, it was an ancient belief that the clouds always formed into the familiar Christian image of a lamb on Ascension Day. If the weather is sunny on Ascension Day, the summer will be long and hot. If it rains on the day, crops will do badly and livestock will suffer from disease. According to Welsh superstition, it is unlucky to do any work on Ascension Day.
In Portugal, Ascension Day is associated with wishes for peace and prosperity. Traditionally, in rural communities, people make bouquets from olive branches and sheaves of wheat with poppies and daisies. The olive and wheat are symbolic of abundant harvest; the poppy stands for peace and the daisy for money. Wheat is kept in the house throughout the coming year as a symbol of prosperity.
For many of us we have an image of Christ arising through the clouds where he is crowned the king of heaven. Martha Spong shares a story of the problem with this image we have of Christ on ascension Sunday. This is from the Abingdon press creative preaching annual;
“Who is that?” she asked, looking up at the stained-glass window. My eleven-year-old daughter and I were standing in the sanctuary of a church I had just come to serve. Over the altar hung a white-robed Jesus with his feet on top of the Earth, an orb and scepter in his hands, and a crown on his head.
“It’s Jesus,” I answered.
“Yes.” I thought a moment. “It’s Jesus after he ascends into heaven.”
“So he’s a king?” She continued to struggle with the image. “But in the windows in our other church he was holding a lamb in his arms and sitting with the children all around him.” She knew Jesus in particular ways. Her Jesus prayed in the wilderness for forty days, got some fishermen to be his disciples by telling them to try putting the net on the other side of the boat, told stories runaway sons and lost coins, and made sure the children got to talk to him even though the disciples tried to keep them away.
The disciples knew the same Jesus. He drove unclean spirits out of the suffering. He fed thousands of people with only five loaves and two fish. He straightened the back of a woman bent over for eighteen years. He had flesh on his bones and a back strong enough to carry his own cross to the hill where soldiers crucified him.
They knew the Jesus who lived and breathed and touched them in gestures of healing and love.
“I miss the Jesus from our other church,” declared my daughter. So did the disciples. They couldn’t see yet what later generations would make of him, clothing him in stained glass regalia. They could only watch him go…
In today’s Gospel there is nothing of exotic rituals. There is no talk about what is the plan. We know the Disciples stayed in Jerusalem and worshipped in the temple. We are told the disciples minds were opened so that they understood all that was said of Jesus in the scriptures, it was all made clear.
This understanding is kind of important. Remember time and time again Jesus is trying to explain things to show truth to the disciples but they don’t get it. Not all of it anyway. They may get glimpses or pieces or say something that is true but yet do not completely understand its meaning. So Jesus opens their minds. This is beyond simple comprehension. Jesus opens their minds so that they can see fully and clearly in a way that none of us can. In a way that scholars and theologians are still trying to discern, learn and figure out all that Christ’s teachings imply and how they can be applied today in our daily lives.
But I can’t help but wonder about this confusing in between time. We learned of Jesus death and resurrection three days later. There was no time for a true grieving process. Jesus appeared and says look I am dead but not really for I am glorified and resurrected. I am sorry but for us mere humans this would seem, at least to me, to be a very confusing time.
“Many unclear good byes in everyday family life also fall outside of traditional categories of loss but nonetheless cause distress.” So can you imagine what the disciples must have gone through first believing Jesus died, a few even witnessed his horrific death. Then hearing the body is gone. Then seeing the Lord.
Jesus actually appears about ten times in different accounts over a 40 day period. I can only imagine this left more questions than answers and knowing how we grieve as humans this must have left many happy and yet sad and wanting to mourn yet not sure they should. Perhaps they should mourn and yet rejoice at the same time.
I am sure we can all relate to this confusion of emotions. Maybe a good friend moved for a better job or for love. We are happy for their lives being better but sad and mourn the loss of them being nearby. Or perhaps we can recall someone we knew who was truly suffering from illness. We are glad they are feeling no more pain or suffering yet we still mourn their loss even though in our hearts we know they are whole again in heaven.
So this is the confusing ambiguous state we find the disciples in when they are happy to be in Christ’s presence for this final time. Now Jesus Could have just said good-bye and left them for good leaving them to their own devices and manners of coping. But he decided to give them this great gift. A Gift of complete comprehension.
This new comprehension must have been overwhelming. So everything in all the Old Testament that points to Jesus, the messiah, to God can now be understood in its entirety by these disciples. That is everything from genesis through the Maccabees. That’s is all the funky laws and the deeply coded psalms. That must have been amazing and overwhelming and exciting all at once.
Suddenly they had no need to grieve or fear. They now have more than faith, they have complete and total comprehension. All that was leading up to Jesus’ Birth and ministry, all that he had been teaching and everything that had been taught about him, they understood it all. They knew what this conquering of death meant. They knew! This is a gift not often given for this is beyond faith. They no longer had any need to grieve Jesus’ death or death at all.
They knew all that had happened and understood why it had to happen in such a way. They knew what Jewish scholars and sects had been arguing over for years. They understood each and every reference to Christ and how it was meant to be applied. Then they were told they must proclaim forgiveness in Jesus’ name starting with Jerusalem and then everywhere else. Then they were told that they must stay in Jerusalem until … until you have been furnished with heavenly power….Until you have been clothed with power from on high… wait …what???
Jesus final recorded words in Luke are really no surprise. We have often seen Jesus give the orders that require a blind trust. Go to the village you will find a colt tell the owner the master has need of it …okay I’ll go get it and hope I am not arrested and or clobbered…..Take the pitcher of water and pour it for the master of the feast…go wash your eyes in the river…stand up and walk. Jesus stories are full of bold statements and his followers and the people he encounters do what he says. He had that charisma.
So after you been following this guy around for three years, you have seen all that he has done, you have been a part of this fantastic life for three years and he tells you hang around the city you do it. You go to the temple praising God for all that you have seen and all that you now understand and know. The world you had known three years ago is gone there is no going back to the way things were. You hang around the city waiting for what’s next. They may have had no issue with this as what was to come next they may have already understood due to this divine comprehension.
But what is next? What is going to happen now? Well I can tell you what isn’t happening there is no vision of a white robed king hovering over the earth judging us all. The disciples weren’t taught that. There is no vision of toppling over Rome…Jesus himself squashed that vision. This is a time of in between. This is a time of change, and opportunity. You see while the disciples waited for what was next they continued to do what they knew. Isn’t that the best thing to do in the midst of transition? The best advice in the midst of radical change is not to do anything but to wait, pray, weigh things out carefully.
Again today’s reading is what we call “the great commission” and it is found in all the Synoptic Gospels. It is the emphatic call from Jesus to the church that would be created by apostles that the gospel is to be preached among all nations for the salvation of all who will receive it. This is the call that later becomes communities of love and support. The model of the early church where, yes they shared the Christ story, but more importantly, they practiced the Christ story.
The apostles had this gift of complete and full knowledge during this in between time they did what they needed to do. They attended temple. They prayed and cared for each other and the community around them that had been touched by Christ. They probably reminisced and shared what they now understood amongst themselves and perhaps a few others. They had time to process all of this for a time until the day they were all gathered again in that room and things would change once more.
See I may be repeating myself but to have suddenly been gifted with all this understanding of the scriptures. It is a staggering thought, it had to be a rush like neo in the matrix when they plug a computer into his brain and he suddenly knows Kung Fu. His eyes are closed as all this information is dumped into his brain he opens his eyes lets out a very heavy sigh and states I know Kung Fu. Morpheus says show me and well that doesn’t quite go as Neo expected.
Again a reason for the time between the commissioning and the gift of the spirit. To know something is one thing and actually apply it is another. The apostles had all this knowledge but they needed time to figure out how it may all apply. How they were to use it, where they were to go.
here is a brief summary.
– Andrew – missionary to modern day Georgia/Bulgaria (area adjacent to the Black Sea near Turkey); martyred/crucified in town of Achaia (Greece)
He was a fisherman from Galilee; was Peter’s brother; brought Peter to Jesus; preached to the Scythians and Thracians; was crucified and buried at Patrae (Greece).
3 – Bartholomew – missionary to India; martyred/crucified upside down in Armenia (Georgia)
Eusebius, in his Church History, confirms the ministry of Bartholomew in India.
4 – James, Son of Alphaeus – local missionary in Jerusalem; martyred/stoned in Jerusalem and was buried there beside the temple.
5 – James, Son of Zebedee – local missionary in Judea; martyred/beheaded in Judea
6 – John, brother of James and son of Zebedee – banished to Patmos; died of old age
John was one of the few disciples that did not die a cruel death, but of old age.
7 – Matthew/Levi – missionary to Parthia (Iran); died of old age
8 – Simon/Peter – missionary to Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Betania, Italy, Asia; martyred/crucified upside down in Rome
9 – Philip – missionary to Phrygia (Turkey); martyred/crucified upside down in Hierapolis (Turkey)
10 – Simon the Zealot – bishop of Jerusalem after James; died of old age
11 – Thaddaeus/Judas son of James – missionary to Edessa and to the surrounding Mesopotamian region (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran); died of old age
He may have taken the name Thaddaeus (“warm-hearted”) because of the infamy that came to be attached to the name Judas;
12 – Thomas: Also called Didymus; possibly a fisherman; often remembered as “Doubting Thomas”; preached to the Parthians (Iran), Medes (Iran), Persians (Iran), Hyrcanians (Iran), Bactrians (Afghanistan), and Margians; was killed and buried in Calamene, a city of India.
13 – Matthias – local missionary in Jerusalem; died of old age
After Jesus’ ascension the 11 Apostles met in the upper room where they were staying and cast lots to decide between two disciples, Matthias and Joseph called Barsabus, who was surnamed Justus.
Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot to bring the Apostles number back to 12; was one of the 72 and preached in Jerusalem; died and was buried there.
14 – Paul – missionary to Illyricum (Croatia), Italy, Spain; martyred/beheaded in Rome
Paul became an apostle a year after the ascension of Christ and beginning at Jerusalem, he advanced as far as Illyricum (Croatia), Italy and Spain, preaching the Gospel for 35-years. In the time of Nero he was beheaded and buried at Rome.
12 disciples + Matthias (replacement to Judas) + Paul = 14 disciples
Out of 14, 1 was lost forever, 9 were martyrs. 4 were local missionaries in Jerusalem/Judea. The rest were foreign missionaries who left their local surroundings–9 of them out of the 14 were foreign missionaries and church planters.
Often we fear change or in the midst of it make rash decisions. Though the fate of the disciples is hard they made their choices with clear heads and full hearts because they took the time to live in the present of the between time. May we have the grace to do the same as we grow and live into who we are called to be as a church and as individuals. amen.
 Time and date AS, Acension, accessed April 25, 2016, http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/ascension-day.
 Jenee Woodard, The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2016 (nashville: abingdon press, 2015), 97.
 Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), Digital eBook.
 Ray Choi, What happened to the 12 disciples after the resurrection and ascension?, June 1, 2012, accessed May 7, 2016, http://raychoi.org/2012/06/01/what-happened-to-the-12-disciples-after-the-resurrection-and-ascension/.