Preached by Rev. Dr. Stewart Folster on May 28, 2017.
Connected to God
It’s one of those stories that circulates around the internet. It seems that a woman came home to find her husband in the kitchen shaking frantically with what looked like a wire running from a place towards the electrical outlet in the wall. Intending to jolt him away from the deadly electricity she grabbed a piece of wood that was leaning by the back door and gave him a good whack, breaking his arm in two places. However, it was a real shame that he was not being electrocuted after all! He was merely listening to his new iPod.
But what would we have done? We walk into the kitchen and think that this fellow is being electrocuted. We can’t touch him for fear of being electrocuted ourselves. So this woman grabbed a board and hit him. How was she to know that he was just dancing to the music coming out of the tiny headset? She had to make an instant decision. And who knows, maybe he deserved a good whack anyhow.
Decisions. We’re all faced with them. And so were the disciples. Forty days had passed since the resurrection. The disciples of Jesus have finally come to believe that he is truly alive. The scriptures tell us that Jesus appeared to the disciples on numerous occasions. But it is now time for him to return to heaven.
And so once again Jesus appears to the disciples. He joins them in worship and announces to them that he will soon send the Holy Spirit to them. And when the Holy Spirit comes, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. And after he had spoken these words to them, after he has given them the assurance of his presence, he is lifted up before them into heaven.
What an exit! What a conclusion to his ministry on earth. Before their very eyes, Jesus ascends to heaven with the promise that the Holy Spirit will come upon them. Instead of Jesus being bodily present with them, they will become his body. Instead of his words to guide them, they will speak his word for him. Instead of his physical presence, they will have his Spirit. And be his presence in the world. And with that Spirit, they will truly experience Jesus’ promise in Matthew 28. Remember how that goes: we call it the Great Commission ( the great command Jesus gives ) – Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And lo, I am with you always even until the end of the age.
Luke, in his account of the ascension of Jesus, concludes the story by telling us what happened next. It was not long after he said this that Jesus was taken up into the sky while they were watching and he disappeared into a cloud. As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men, two angels, suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring up at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven and someday, just as you saw him go, he will return.”
And at this, the disciples returned to Jerusalem. Upon entering the city, they went back to where they had gathered and Luke tells us they were of one accord and devoted themselves to prayer. This is the first picture we have of the church of Jesus Christ. It is the first mention of what the disciples did when Jesus was no longer with them. There were of one accord and they devoted themselves to prayer. Imagine the effect the ascension must have had on those disciples. They had seen Jesus physically ascend into heaven. And they were told that they would be his witnesses. They would be his presence on earth.
Liz Curtis Higgs tells of an amusing story of when her young daughter was baptized. Like many, after getting married, Liz had drifted away from the church. Even the birth of her daughter had not brought them back. It wasn’t until her mother’s death and the ministry of the church at that time when Liz decided that it was time for them to reconnect with God. Because she had not been baptized as an infant, Liz’s daughter, Lillian, was 4 when she was baptized. The pastor met with them and spoke about baptism, telling the little girl that in baptism, Jesus enters into our heart and lives within us.
Everything went fine until after the baptism. As they gathered in the entry, Lillian seemed troubled and she refused to talk. “What’s wrong, honey?” her mother asked. With pursed lips, Lillian replied, “Nothing, I just have to keep my mouth closed, so Jesus won’t get out.” She was worried that if she opened her mouth too wide, Jesus might escape.
And yet, the opposite is true, isn’t it? In baptism we receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ presence comes within us and we become his witnesses. Like the disciples at the ascension, we are sent forth to be his voice. We are told to speak for him because we are connected to him. The disciples knew Jesus had ascended into heaven to be with God the Father and that was good news for them. Because they also knew that they were connected through Jesus. Through his appearences to them after the resurrection, popping in and out of their lives, the disciples knew they were connected to Jesus. And because they were connected to him, they were also connected to God. Not just to him physically as they had been to Jesus, but in spirit.
It must have been a scary time for them. Jesus had been crucified for preaching his message of God’s love. And now he leaves and tells them to finish the work he has begun. You would think they would be afraid. But the disciples knew they were connected to Jesus. And because they were connected to him, they were also connected to God. Not just to him physically as they had been to Jesus, but in Spirit.
The historical account tells us that just a few days later at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was indeed given to the disciples as they went forth into the world as his witnesses. Connected to Jesus, they were connected to God. And no matter what the future held for them, they were ok. For even though they did not know what the future held, they knew who held the future. And that was enough. That sense of being connected to Jesus, enabled them to face persecution and suffering, knowing that God was on their side. They could trust God because they knew Jesus.
It was said that the wife of Albert Einstein was once asked if she understood her husband’s theory of relativity. She replied, “No, but I know my husband and that’s enough.” The disciples knew Jesus. They knew that he could be trusted with their lives. And because they were connected to him, they were connected to God. When you and I face difficulties, and troubles in life, when life deals us a bum hand, where the future looks bleak and hopeless, we need something to hold on to. We need to be connected to God. And we are.
The same Lord Jesus who welcomed the little children into his arms, the same Lord Jesus who healed the lepers and opened the eyes of the blind, the same Lord Jesus who offered himself up on the cross for us for our salvation, now sits at the right hand of God the Father and rules over all things. He can be trusted with our days. We can depend upon him to care for us. For Jesus rules over all creation and he is the head of the church.
The disciples knew that. That’s why they responded the way they did. Remember: Luke tells us that when they returned to Jerusalem, they were all of one accord. When you think of all the diverse personalities that were part of that circle of disciples, that in itself is a minor miracle. The disciples’ hearts were bonded together by the resurrection. It’s almost as if the experience of the cross had shown them their own weaknesses. Their shared failure to stand with Jesus in his hour of need, the betrayal of one of them, and the outright denial of Jesus by another, had shown them where they all stood–each of them a weak simple human being. But more than that, Jesus’ forgiveness of them, his understanding and acceptance of them, and his willingness to receive them in spite of their failures and his promise to use them as his witnesses, that welded them together into a great unity. A unity that is a symbol of what the Church of Jesus Christ is called to be.
Connected to God. That’s what the ascension of Jesus tells us. We are all connected to God. In our baptism, we are made children of God. Jesus enters our hearts and lives and comes out in our words and deeds. And we are given a great commission—a great purpose for living—to share the caring love of Christ.
As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to welcome one another, to forgive, to love, and accept each other with the same forgiveness, love, and acceptance we have received from God. We are called to be those who speak of God’s love to others, who bring family and friends to worship with us, who speak of God’s love for him.
The disciples knew that. They returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives after the ascension of Jesus with joyful hearts of one accord devoted to prayer and to one another. That’s what the Bible tells us. That’s their example for us. They didn’t know what awaited them. They didn’t know of the persecutions and hardships that lay ahead. They didn’t know that of them, only the apostle John would live to old age. All the rest of them would meet a martyr’s death. As they returned to Jerusalem, there was much they did not know.
But what they did know, however, was that they would need each other. And the picture that we get of those disciples in the early days of the Christian church, is one of joy. They joyfully gathered in worship with each other. They joyfully devoted themselves to prayer and they joyfully accepted Jesus’ mission to take the news of his resurrection to all the world. It was a privilege for them to represent him in the world. Because they knew they were connected to God.
We focus this day on the ascension of Jesus to remind us that we are connected to God. We are connected to God through faith in Christ Jesus. And like those first disciples, we have the same mission ahead of us. Jesus has ascended to God the Father in heaven. He is no longer present in body form in this world, but before he left, he gave us the same promise—God will fill us with his Spirit and send us forth as witnesses of his love. We are now the presence of Jesus in this world. His word that is spoken and his love shared with others. May we be faithful in fulfilling this mission. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.