Summit Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018 Ascension Sunday
Acts 2: 1-11
The Power to Witness
They thought he was gone. Dead and buried and gone. That after he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breathed his last, they would never speak to him again. Or eat with him, or hear his teaching or witness his healings. When the women returned from the tomb on that first day of the week and told them what the other disciples what they had seen and heard - the stone rolled away, two men in dazzling clothes who told them Jesus had risen — the other disciples thought they were telling an idle tale. After all, grief can really mess with your mind.
But then he was back: not as a ghost, to haunt them, but alive! In the flesh, talking with them, walking with them, opening the scriptures to them, as he always had. Holding out his hands and feet, in all their fleshiness and bony-ness. Breaking bread with them. Asking for fish, and eating it. And that was just the first day! For thirty-nine more days he was among them, teaching them about the kingdom of God, showing them, with convincing proofs, (Luke doesn’t tell us what they were) that he was alive.
Naturally, the disciples were overjoyed, but they also must have been confused. Was this an encore, like you have at a concert? A chance for them to hear Jesus one last time, a chance to show their love and appreciation, before he walked off stage for good, maybe peacefully this time? Or was his return the herald of a new age? The new age that the scriptures promised, when God would gather in God’s people, and all the nations would come to God’s Holy mountain, carrying their plowshares and pruning forks. “Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer. It’s kind of a no and a yes. He tells them it’s not theirs to know the times or periods that God has set. But then he says they will receive power: power to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Now, they must have had more questions, but too bad! For he was immediately lifted up, and a cloud came and took him out of their sight. Although two men in white — there they were again — said Jesus would come back from heaven in the same way he left for it.
So he was gone again. Perhaps for good; it was not theirs to know the time he might return. But he had given them instructions. So they waited, gathering in the temple and praying constantly, including the women, including Mary the mother of Jesus. They found a replacement for Judas, as we heard in the children’s sermon. And ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon them in a most dramatic way. We’ll hear about it next week: the great wind and the tongues of fire, the remarkable ability of the people gathered from every nation under heaven to hear or speak in different languages. But it’s not just on that first day the disciples experienced the power that Jesus promised. They shared in that power as they went out to preach and teach - telling the story of Jesus, calling people to repent, assuring them of God’s forgiveness. Thousands joined their number. They also shared in that power through acts of healing, and in the transformed life they led together: sharing their possessions, tending to orphans and widows, breaking bread and praying. The flesh and blood Jesus was gone: but his deeds of power were not, as his followers proclaimed the good news of repentance and performed acts of mercy and love.
We, too, as followers of Jesus, share in that power, 2000 years after the flesh and blood Jesus was taken up in a cloud. It may not always feel that way: much of the time we may feel power-less, as we think about the struggles in our lives, look at brokenness of the world, and wonder where the church is headed. Thinking about mothers, since it’s mother’s day, we may feel powerless when we see, maybe in our own families, despite our prayers and protests, children taken away from mothers or mothers taken away from children: through drug use, gun violence, incarceration, war, immigration policy. We may feel powerless when we hear of children abused by parents — or maybe we’ve been such a child, and know how powerless one can be. We may feel powerless when we see fewer families coming to church. And then there’s that every-day lack of power we feel when we tell our daughter, or son, or student, or niece, to take their coat off the floor and put it in the closet: and it seems they don’t even hear our voice. Where is that promised power of the Holy Spirit?
But don’t be fooled. The power is there, even if we don’t yet see the fruits. We share in the power of Jesus in humble acts of care and parenting: when we call our children to the dinner table, or welcome mothers to Elder Diner. We share in the power of Jesus when we teach Sunday School, when we invite families to church, when we buy presents for the Angel Tree or bring food for the Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry or call our congresspeople. And it’s not just in acts of parenting that we share in the power of Jesus: we share in the power of Jesus when we repent from sin in our own lives, whatever that may mean, testifying to the grace of God and the possibility of new life. We don’t have the power of Jesus to raise folks from the dead, multiply loaves and fishes, or expel demons with a word. But that’s OK — we need only to witness. And trust that the Spirit will do the rest.
For Jesus is not gone. He lives through us, and through all who show the Christ-like graces of kindness, justice, and mercy. His presence is not a showy one; it’s not violent, he never forces. We don’t see it in the military parades, the palaces, or in the wealth that signify wordly power. But his power is greater than all of these, working slowly and steadily, like that mustard seed that grows into the biggest tree, with signs for those with ears to hear. And we have been given a double portion through the Holy Spirit. A power to witness until that day when Christ shall return from heaven in the way that he went. At a time that it’s not ours to know, when he will gather in all peoples, redeeming all of creation in the power of God’s love. In the meantime, take heart! Believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of Jesus with us still.