“Be My Witnesses”

Lessons from the Feast of the Ascension (transferred): Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

I have a friend, Paolo, whose grandfather Nicola had a stroke in 1997. I went with Paolo to his hometown, to the hospital the day of the stroke.

Paolo and I sat together in the hospital room with Nicola. Nicola had been sleeping and recovering when someone brought lunch for him. As if on cue, Nicola woke. He said with slightly slurred speech that he was hungry.

Announcing that he would start with the pudding, Paolo watched, visibly moved as his grandfather tried to eat the pudding with a plastic spoon. Nicola’s hands, though, were too unsteady! The stroke had caused damage to his muscle control. This once strong and vibrant man who loved to eat simply could not get the pudding to his mouth.

He looked at his grandson, with watery eyes, and said, “Paolo, you’re going to have to feed me now.”

Nicola would die some months later. After the funeral, Paolo shared with me how his grandparents basically raised him. He shared stories and pictures of how his grandfather, Nicola, fed him as a baby.

Think, if you can, of those images of feeding. Think of the times that you have fed others, or been fed by them.

Now is the turning of the tide.

Today’s lessons describe the experience we call the Ascension. In the Ascension scene, in both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus speaks to his disciples just before he returns to his place at the Father’s right hand. While the disciples might not fully understand what is happening or what is about to happen, Christ is keenly aware that within moments he will be taken from their earthly sight in a definitive way. They will no longer encounter him in precisely this form, the form they have known since the resurrection. This is Jesus’ last chance to teach his disciples, a final opportunity to remind them of the heart of his Gospel. And what does the risen Lord say to them?

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

What does the risen Lord say to them just before his ascension? He says:

“…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:47-48)

In our readings for this Ascension Day, we encounter an important turn for those who follow Jesus – from being turned inward, focusing on their common life and learning at Jesus’ feet, to 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, with the gospel flowing forth to the ends of the earth.

Now, as I listen to these words, I am reminded of Paolo and Nicola.

It sounds to me as if Jesus is saying to the disciples and to us: “I took care of you. I watched out for your needs. I taught you. I cared for you. I fed the hungry. I preached the truth. I cast out evil. I challenged the hypocrites. I demanded justice. I called people to live godly lives. I forgave sinners. I reached out to everyone. I embraced the outcast. I worked tirelessly to convince people that God loves them passionately.”

And just before his ascension, it sounds like Jesus is saying: “Now, it’s your turn too. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21).” Just as the Father’s love enabled Christ to proclaim the good news, now the disciples – the witnesses – are sent forth in the power of the Spirit to love the people that God puts before them.

Do you hear the message that, frankly, I so often need to be reminded of. Religion, Church, the Spiritual Journey – these are not just about what I can get out of them, what I might receive. Faith is the life long call to experience the generosity of the creator God and to heed the call to give generously in return.

Faith is not simply a formula to guarantee what you will receive on a daily basis, your daily bread. Faith is the relationship which enables you to live and to share generously. A Christian who only goes to Church only so that he or she can feel warmly loved by Christ has understood maybe half of the point. It is true, Jesus loves us wildly. Jesus cares for us tenderly. Jesus watches over us carefully. Jesus died and rose in love for you and me.

But, remember that just before he ascended into glory, in parting those words to his disciples, he said that they (and we) are the spirit filled witnesses sent forth to proclaim his good news to the ends of the earth. And notice, please, that it is a definitive statement. It is our vocation not merely a nice suggestion.

It is a shift outward to the world. It is a turn so so crucial, so vital in and for the life of the Church, that we actually have someone remind us every week at the end of Eucharist. “Men of Galilee,” the two men robed in white said, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This was just the reminder, just the push that the disciples needed. 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. Similarly, at the end of our Eucharist, in the dismissal, there is a like moment as deacon (or priest) say these or similar words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

This is no idle moment. This is no invitation to go for breakfast. This is an active moment. As we leave our Eucharist we are reminded to make an outward turn; we are reminded to stop looking upward or inward and to look outward. It is a reminder 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.

We are sent to “be his witnesses.” So, be Christ’s witnesses by being like Christ. Proclaim his message in word and deed, by doing what he indeed did. In other words, love each other as Jesus loved. Forgive each other as Jesus forgave. Feed each other as Jesus fed. Speak the truth as Jesus spoke. Work for justice as Jesus worked. Heal the sick as Jesus healed. Challenge the hypocrite as Jesus challenged. Defend life as Jesus did. Live with integrity as Jesus did. Embrace the stranger and seek out the lost. Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, as Jesus did.

Just before his ascension, Jesus said, you are my witnesses. Proclaim the Gospel to every creature in every place.

The Lessons used were from the Feast of the Ascension: Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23

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