Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Acts 1:1-11 (focus on vv. 6-8)
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Ascension Sunday; School Graduation Service
Sunday, June 5, 2011
This is the week every elementary school student longs for from September. This is the week that school students have sight their sights on ever since Easter vacation finished and they entered into the home stretch of the school year. Every student longs for the day when summer is out, the school routine is off for three months, and summer vacation begins. And among other reasons why students long for the days of summer is because they don’t want to deal with anymore lessons and anymore homework for a while! That is an attitude that will probably change as you get older. I have one bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees under my belt, but I still wouldn’t mind getting further education. But that’s not how you think when you’re in elementary school. When you’re in elementary school, summer vacation cannot come soon enough.
That means I have bad news for you students. Your last day of school may have been Friday, but since you are stuck listening to me for the next fifteen minutes or so, I’m going to give you one more lesson—actually, two more lessons. Your school graduation service coincides with our celebration of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven forty days after he rose from the dead. That event is the fourth of five major festivals that we celebrate in the Christian church year. And that event offers several lessons for us to learn from. We’re going to look at two lessons that Ascension teaches us in this sermon. Your Ascension lessons for graduation day will remind you how quickly we forget the lessons Jesus taught us, but how glorious the work is that Jesus has given us.
The First Lesson for this service records Luke’s second account of Jesus’ Ascension. Luke’s first book is his Gospel, which starts with the birth of Jesus and ends with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Luke wrote his Gospel for a man named Theophilus, a man who was probably a Roman government official or in a position of high standing. Based on the way Luke addresses him, it appears that Theophilus was an unbeliever when Luke wrote his Gospel for him, but that Theophilus came to believe in Jesus by the time Luke wrote the book of Acts.
Luke starts Acts where he ends his Gospel. He offers a very short summary of the forty days of activity between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension into heaven. At the time Luke wrote Acts, there was already a well-established record of Jesus’ resurrection in his Gospel and especially in 1 Corinthians, one of Paul’s New Testament letters. But Luke does mention one incident during those 40 days when Jesus ate with his disciples—surely proof of a physical resurrection—and gave them some specific instructions. “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” In the one post-Easter incident that Luke cites, Jesus reminds the disciples that they would receive a special gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Just as baptismal waters are literally poured out on a new Christian, so the Holy Spirit would be metaphorically poured out on the disciples very soon to equip them for their work of bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Now we move forward to the day of Christ’s Ascension. The disciples hadn’t forgotten Jesus’ words from the previous mealtime gathering Luke cited. But they did forget what Jesus’ words meant. “They asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” We ought not pass over this question too quickly. How many times hadn’t Jesus corrected the faulty thinking of the disciples? They weren’t going to let him die. They weren’t going to let his enemies condemn and crucify him. They weren’t going to let him wind up on the cross. Time after time over three years of public ministry, Jesus had to teach and reteach his disciples the oft-forgotten truth that his kingdom was a spiritual kingdom and his mission was a heavenly mission. Their old sinful flesh wanted earthly glory, but Jesus kept them directed toward his heavenly purpose. Surely, now that his work was complete, now that he had risen from the dead, now that he was hours away from turning over the mission of the church entirely to this band of disciples—surely now they had it right. Except they didn’t. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It is a testimony to the patience and love of a merciful God that Jesus did not immediately ream them out for their never ceasing lack of attention to his repeated words. Seriously, who could be that dense?
We better not ask that question about the disciples too critically. We better not be too critical of Jesus’ first disciples and their apparent inability to remember what Jesus had taught them, because the current disciples of Jesus gathered here today aren’t much better. How many times didn’t the teachers have to tell the students to show more love and respect for one another, and still we fought in the lunchroom and played favorites on the playground! How many times have we bought the lie of the televangelist who says that the Christian life means success and glory, when Jesus specifically promised us a cross and persecution? How many times have we convinced ourselves that our sin isn’t all that serious and our need for repentance isn’t that strong, when God’s Word says that even one sin breaks the entire law of God and puts us eye to eye with God’s just judgment? How quickly we stop talking about Jesus first and foremost as our Savior, and instead we turn him into our teacher, our life coach, our advisor, our inspiration, our example—anything but our Savior, for that would imply that we need to be saved from our sinfulness in the first place. No, we are no different than the disciples on the doorstep of Ascension. They forgot Jesus’ words despite his repeated teaching, and we forget his Word despite the fact that we have heard it time and time again.
If I were Jesus, I would have lost it. “I’m about to put you guys in charge of the whole Christian Church on earth, and you can’t remember what I’ve told you for three years? This isn’t good, fellows!” But Jesus shows divine patience. He doesn’t even entertain the question; he just redirects their thinking. “He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
I’ve often said that if you ask the wrong question, you’re going to get the wrong answer. The disciples asked the wrong question when they said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus tells them that they have no business getting a copy of God’s eternal calendar or finding out which days on that calendar are circled because something special is going to happen. (Someone, please tell that to our “friend” in the East Bay, Harold Camping). The only special event they should be concerned about was the fast-approaching day when the Holy Spirit would come on them in a miraculous way and equip them for carrying out the church’s ministry. Jesus’ statement sounds like an outline of the book of Acts. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts chapters 1-7 cover the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem; chapters 8-9 discuss the gospel message reaching all Judea and Samaria; the rest of Acts describes the gospel message being taken out further to more and more cities and nations of the first-century world. Rather than focusing on their own faulty ideas, Jesus focused his disciples on the glorious work of spreading the gospel that would begin on Pentecost Day—an event that we will celebrate next Sunday.
I wonder if we view church work as glorious. I’m not referring to when we have a work day or when your name shows up on the church cleaning schedule. We know that’s not “glorious!” Gathering for worship and listening to the Word may not seem all that glorious. Pouring water over the head of an infant may not seem all that glorious. A bite of wafer-shaped bread and a sip of Mogan David does not seem glorious. Sitting down with your unchurched friend or agnostic neighbor and explaining why you believe the resurrection of Jesus is real feels confrontational, not glorious. Paying tuition dollars to a small school that cannot offer the bells and whistles of the large public school or prestigious private school is neither popular nor glorious. Placing your offering check in the plate week after week during a tough economy would be called “foolish” by some, not glorious.
But Jesus’ Ascension lesson to us changes our perspective. What seems mundane on the outside is in reality the most glorious work our Lord could have ever given us! For when you gather in this house and hear God’s Word proclaimed, you are not merely taking a trip down memory lane; behind the voice of the pastor or lector is the voice of Jesus, telling you of his life-giving sacrifice and death-conquering resurrection which has erased your sin and taken the bite out of death. When you see that infant brought to the font, you are not watching some old church ceremony; you are viewing the hand of the Holy Spirit adopting another soul into the family of God. When you gather at this altar, you are not taking part in an empty church ritual; you are receiving the very body and blood of Jesus once given and shed on the cross and now given to you personally for a personal and real assurance of your forgiveness and salvation. When you sit down with your unchurched friend or family member, you aren’t proposing that they join the local religious club; you are offering them the lifeline of God’s grace that has the power to pull them out of hell and into heaven’s mansions. When you send your children to our school, you are not using the services of a reasonably priced alternative to public schools; you are ensuring that the precious souls God entrusted to you are learning more and more about their Savior and growing more and more in their faith. When you place your offering in the plate week by week, you are not creating another tax write-off; you are investing in the work of the church that alone has eternal dividends!
Perhaps we don’t always appreciate it, but you know just how glorious is the work that Jesus has given his church to do. You know because you are the beneficiaries. You have heard the voice of Jesus call you to repentance and comfort you with his unconditional forgiveness. You have felt the waters of baptism cleanse you from sin’s stain, and you have tasted the Lord’s grace in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Hearing God’s Word and receiving his Sacraments might not seem all that glorious, but it is through these tools—and these tools alone—that God accomplishes his most glorious work as he brings the saving work of Jesus from the first century and applies it straight to our souls today in the twenty-first century. What a blessing to be blessed by the church’s work! What a blessing to be a partner in the church’s work!
At the beginning of this sermon, I said that we had two Ascension lessons to learn for graduation day. The students will be relieved to know that there won’t be any quizzes arriving in the mail to test them on these lessons. That’s because these aren’t lessons for the mind; these are lessons for the soul. Don’t let your old sinful nature win the day and forget the important truths Jesus taught you all year long. Instead—students and parents, young and old alike—may the Holy Spirit always help us to cherish this outwardly simple yet spiritually glorious work that Jesus gave his church to do on the day of his Ascension—the work of proclaiming God’s grace and Christ’s forgiveness both to his people and to the ends of the earth. Amen.