May 24th, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Easter 7, Ascension (RCL - year ‘C )
1:1-11 Jesus has gone up on high
Luke 24:44-53 Jesus goes home to heaven
Psalm 47 Sing praise to God our King
Ephesians 1:15-23 Open your mind and see his light
The tales of Sue Barton. Presumably, the series could go on indefinately. Sue Barton - Hospital administrator, Sue Barton - Trust Manager, Sue Barton - Prime Minister, Sue Barton - Pope, and so on. A series of books that follow the life and work of one person in particular and the people and events around her. St Luke was not as prolific as Helen Dore Boylston, but he did write essentially in the same way.
The different books in the Sue Barton series are dedicated to various people. Sue Barton - Student Nurse is dedicated to Ella P. Locke. Sue Barton - Rural Nurse is dedicated to the author's mother Mabel. If you look at the beginning of Luke's gospel you will find that it is dedicated to a man called Theophilus. Likewise the second volume in Luke's series - the book of Acts. It too is dedicated by Luke to Theophilus. But Luke differs from Helen Boylston in that he has much more scope for his writing. Helen's series will have to end with Sue Barton - retired nurse, there will not be much scope for a book called Sue Barton - Deceased Nurse. Luke appears at first to have made an error, broken the first rule of serial writing, his central character dies in the first book !
But that turns out to be the very foundation of his next book. The beginning of book two, the book of Acts starts like this - "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up..."
That was just the start of it ! In this next book he is going to describe the life and work of the risen and ascended Lord in the world through his followers - a story that is full of power and excitement. The ascension of Jesus is a new departure point in this ongoing story. Yet, it is an event that is shrouded in mystery. Other mysterious events in Jesus' life we are more clear about, they are described for us in greater detail. The incarnation - Jesus, son of God, being born into the world; the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the river Jordan; the transfiguration, when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on a clouded mountain top, and his face is aglow with divine light; and the resurrection, when Jesus defeats death itself, leaves an empty tomb, and appears to his startled followers.
There are many mysterious moments in Jesus' life, moments that we will never fully understand because they represent the intersection of man and God, and reveal truths that are too grand for our minds to grasp. This is a moment like that. And it is harder for us because Luke is the only one who tries to describe it for us. He describes it at he end of his first book and again at the beginning of his second book as a reminder. At the end of his first book he describes how Jesus took the disciples out to Bethany, and how he lifted his hands and blessed them. Then Luke says simply that Jesus parted from them, or was taken up into heaven. At the beginning of Acts, his second book, Luke describes the same mysterious event, but adds a little more detail.
He describes a cloud engulfing Jesus, and the presence of angels. The cloud and the angels both signify the presence of God. You will remember that God was present with Moses on top of Mount Sinai in a cloud. You will remember the cloud as Jesus met Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration. Angels were present at Jesus birth, and at his resurrection. Clouds and angels tell us that we are dealing with an event that is indescribable, an event that is a mystery, an event where the divine and the human have come together in a visible and concrete way. It is an experience that Luke had, but not one that he can explain.
My guess is that we have all had experiences like that. Common experiences like falling in love or the birth of a child are experiences that we can never fully describe - words and songs are not quite enough. Many here will also have had experiences of God's presence in other situations that are equally impossible to convey in words or pictures to another person. But that doesn't mean that Luke has nothing to say. His book is about the consequences of that experience, that is what he had to share with Theophilus, that is what he has to share with you and me.
Luke has three things to say, which become the basis for this second book. First, that there is a close connection between the events recorded in his first book, and what he describes in his second book. The Jesus who was active during those three years of teaching and preaching, travelling and healing, is the same Jesus who is active in the lives of his followers after the resurrection. That's why Luke writes that in his first book he had described all that Jesus BEGAN to do. Now he will describe all that Jesus CONTINUED to do through his followers. One book, in two parts, but which describes the work of the one Person, Jesus.
Second, Jesus gave commands to his disciples. They were to wait patiently in Jerusalem, they were to be witnesses to Jesus, and they were to carry on witnessing across national boundaries. The book of Acts is about the first followers carrying out these commands.
Third, Jesus made promises to them. He promised that as they had been commanded to be witness to him, so too they would be given the power to do it. He gave them the promise of the Holy Spirit, God's very presence within them. The book of Acts describes how all of this came true for them in the real world in which they lived. They knew that the same Jesus who had walked with them, talked with them, eaten with them for those three exciting years STILL walked and talked and ate with them. They met him in a very real way not only as they broke bread together and worshipped, but as they carried out his commands. They carried out his command first to wait patiently, and then to witness to him where they were and across all boundaries. They found that his promises were rock-solid. They found that he did give them strength and courage to face whatever and whoever they had to as they served him.
The story of how this happened is all there for Theophilus to read. But Luke's second book is not only dedicated and addressed to Theophilus, it is addressed to you and me and to all who wish to follow Jesus. We are called to recognise that the same Jesus whom we read about in the gospels is alive and active in our world and in our lives. We are not called to serve and worship an honoured, but dead leader, we are called to worship and serve the risen Lord, who teaches and guides and heals and challenges, just as he did then.
We too are called to wait. The disciples knew that God was calling them to something awesome and exciting, something challenging and probably dangerous, but they did not really know what ! They returned to Jerusalem and spent their time in worship and fellowship, preparing themselves for whatever was to come. God has an urgent and challenging task for each one of us, as individuals and as a church. We must wait and be ready, we must prepare ourselves so that we do not miss his call.
We are called to witness. Each one of us is called to witness to him. That is the task of every christian. We cannot be christians incognito. If we know God then that is surely something worth sharing worth others around us. But not only those around us. we are called, as were the first christians, to cross boundaries, to reach people that we don't know, people with whom we might not have much in common, holding on tight to the truth that there is no one who is not made in the image of God, there is no one who does not have God's presence as their natural home.
And we are promised the same promises, that for all the tasks he calls us to, he will give us the strength and the words. If we try to carry out God's work with our own strength and our own skill, we will fail. It is God's power we are promised and it is God's power that will work through us.
What about part three of Luke's series ? It's subject is already decided. Part on described the beginnings of Jesus work. Part two described the continuing of His work through the first followers and the early church. Part three will describe His work through you and me and through the church of today. The contents are yet to be decided. It's in our hands. May God help us and guide us as we seek to make it a long and exciting sequel. Amen.