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When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Aidan’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. Thank you so much for having me – it is really great to be with you.
Once upon a time, in a land of fear and confusion, some exciting news began to circulate. It was the good news of the big race. This race had long been anticipated by the people’s ancient oracles, and the prophecies were clear -- anyone that persevered in running this race was promised restoration, support and strength (1 Pet 5:10).
Well, the day of the big race finally arrived, and when the opening gun sounded, everyone began running with all of their might. But then something happened. There was this guy who, after just taking a few steps, fell to his knees, and began to rejoice. “This is the happiest day of my life! I’ve crossed the starting line.” And then all the others, sure enough, followed suit – they too stopped running and began to celebrate. “I’m a race runner! I’m a race runner!” they all shouted in joy. And on and on went their celebration just feet from the starting line. Well, the joy of that opening gun eventually wore off and, before they could even explain what had happened, they were all back in the land of fear and confusion. And so as the story goes, they stared at the sky and said, “What now?”
I don’t know about you, but this story resonates with my own experience, and I think it’s a pretty accurate portrait of where many of us find ourselves. We remember the initial joy that came with first encountering Christ – when that opening gun sounded and we took those first steps with all that we had. But before we could even explain what happened, something put us back in that inner place of fear and confusion, leaving us staring at the sky and asking what now?
Jesus’ disciples, of course, felt the same way. According to Luke – the author of the Book of Acts – the forty days following Jesus’ resurrection left the disciples scared, confused and not quite sure of what they were supposed to do next. After all, that first Easter week was spent in an upper room with a deadbolt lock. According to the Gospel of John the disciples eventually left that Upper Room, but only to return to a life of fishing. Scared, confused and uncertain, Jesus’ resurrection left the disciples not with an answer but with a question –
Could you hear it in their voice in today’s reading from Acts? “Lord,” they say, “is this the time you’re going to restore the Kingdom?” “No? Okay, uhh, and you’re flying away? What are we supposed to do now?” But you see, Jesus did not intend his Ascension – that is, his resurrected body leaving this earth – Jesus did not intend his Ascension to spark that what now question. Jesus intended his physical leaving to answer that “what now” question. What now? “You,” Jesus said to his disciples – “you,” Jesus says to us – “You will be my witnesses.”
And so what exactly does that mean – to be a witness for Jesus? It’s an important word. In fact, Luke uses it 13 times to sum up the Christian life. Well, the Greek word translated “witness” is martus, which is where we get the word martyr, and a martyr, as you probably know, is someone that loses their life for Jesus.
One can’t help but see the irony of these words spoken to the first disciples. Peter was crucified upside down. James was stoned. Bartholomew was beheaded. Of the eleven listed in today’s reading, only John died a natural death. The other ten lost their life for Jesus. Could they have avoided such a death? Probably – but what better witness could they have given to our world that their Lord was still alive? That’s what a witness is – someone that loses their life for Jesus.
CS Lewis, who wrote the “Space Trilogy” novels, was once asked to comment on the morality of humans living on other planets, assuming such a thing we possible. Lewis thought carefully before giving this response: “Let’s pray that the human race never escapes the Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.” Here’s what I think Lewis was trying to say. This world that we live in is so desperate – so desperate – for witnesses who are willing to die to self to show the world that Christ is still alive. We live in a world of fear and confusion. War, famine, and violence are the realities that characterize life for many in our world. Now, we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families torn apart from the inside. We live in a world where the gentle art of being kind and thoughtful, sensitive and generous is going out of fashion, a world that believes that the secret to life is to get ahead, even at the expense of someone else. “You’ve got to look out for number one.” That’s the mantra of our world. And so in light of that, there’s something today’s reading from Acts raises for us. What is the nature of our presence in the midst of this world? In other words, if it’s true that our lives speak, what story do they tell? Because it’s never a question of whether or not we are a witness. The question is always what are we witnessing to?
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Phillip Yancey writes about the connection between the Ascension and the mission of the Church, and this is what he says. “Jesus knew that the world he left behind would include the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, and the sick. The decrepit state of the world did not surprise him, and he made plans to cope with it. The long-range plan involves his return, in power and great glory, to straighten out this planet, [but] the short-range plan means turning it over to [the church]. He ascended so that we would take his place.” He then said something that blew my mind. “Where is God when it hurts, I have often asked. The [Ascension] answers that question by asking another – where is the church when it hurts?” In other words, we ask God – “Will you? Will you change this? Will you restore this?” To which Jesus replies, Will you? Will you be my witnesses? Will you now do what I’ve already done? I lost my life for you. Will you now lose your life to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel?
Now, I don’t know what losing your life for Jesus’ sake will mean for you. I seriously doubt it’ll mean capital punishment, though we shouldn’t forget that for many in our world it still does. But our faith should cost us something. As Bonhoeffer once noted, “grace is free but it certainly is not cheap.” We should be able to look at our friendships and our calendar and our bank statement and our reputation and be able to see the cross. Our faith in Christ should cost us something, and when we start to sense that, it’s little wonder we stop running after only a few steps in the Christian life. We look ahead in the distance and see a cross and get scared. But here’s what I think we fail to see, what I always fail to see when my faith grows stagnant. Rather than being something we have to endure or “get over,” the sacrifices we make to bear witness to the Gospel are not something that diminish our joy. They’re the source of our joy. To put it differently, joy in the Christian life only grows as we move away from that starting line and run towards that cross as Jesus’ witness along the way. As our reading from 1 Peter put it, “Beloved,” he says, “don’t be surprised when you suffer but rejoice for you are sharing Christ’s sufferings. Cast all your anxiety on Him, because he cares for you. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”
The good news of the Christian Gospel is that there is a long-term plan to permanently end all fear and confusion. As the angels told the disciples, “this same Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will indeed come back in the same way that you saw Him leave.” When will that be? “It is not for us to know,” Jesus said, “that time set by the Father’s own authority.” Because there is after all a short term plan – and that plan involves us – not because Christ is now absent from the world, but because we are the ones in whom Jesus now chooses to be present to the world. We are Jesus’ witnesses. Understanding the privilege of that call – and joyfully accepting it – that’s what the good news of the race is all about.
And so here’s the question I leave us with this morning – what now? I suppose we can stand still and just stare at the sky, or, as the author of Hebrews writes, we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” You see it’s never a question of whether or not we are a witness. The question is always what are we witnessing to?