This passage from Acts inspires a great many ideas images in me, but for some reason, the first one that came to mind was the song for which this sermon was named. Intrepid hearers may recognize it: it’s the theme song to the TV show “The Jeffersons.”
A show about an African American couple achieving “The American Dream,” the theme song reflected it magnificently:
“Well we’re movin’ on up! To the East Side! To that Deluxe Apartment in the sky! Yeah, we’re movin’ on up! To the East Side! We finally got a piece of the pie!”
It’s a song about success that has long been looked forward to, when a new chapter of life starts and it seems good times are around the corner.
Success is wonderful–everyone likes it when something they invest time and energy into pays off. But perhaps we get less excited when that success appears in a way different than we intended it to be. We expect things to follow the script we envision in our heads. But what if it ends up in a different way?
Today is Ascension Sunday–which explains why we have jumped back to the beginning of Acts and are talking about Jesus’s final words to his disciples.
What he leaves with us is an interesting look at success, and what it looks like in actuality. Next week being Pentecost, we see what it looks like when things really get cooking. But what sets up Pentecost? The answer is the Ascension, which, as we keep seeing, is always more than it appears to be.
A Long Time Coming
It’s a well-known truth that half the joy of achieving success is in the anticipation, the work leading up to it. As it’s that time of year for graduation, achievement of success is very much at the forefront of the culture at the moment.
Graduation’s always an exciting time, for students, parents, and even teachers. It’s the culmination of years and years of hard work. Long hours, endless nights of studying, grueling tests, and arduous projects, all leading up to beautiful and long-awaited day, when the students get to walk across a stage, the teachers get to bestow hard-won accolades upon the graduates, and the parents get to bear witness to the most universal coming-of-age moment in a young person’s life.
However, that diploma, that degree, that certificate, means nothing on its own. What it signifies is the work that went into it, and the anticipation of the day is half the reason for the joy itself.
When we talk about the Ascension, it’s an easy impulse to relate it to graduation in a way. But graduation for whom?
Jesus of course achieved his glory on the cross, and in the resurrection that glory was reclaimed for all mortals everywhere. In a way it’s a celebration of Jesus not dying, but simply leaving to be at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive, and alive eternally. However, the accolades are for us in the end– he did die for us after all. So it’s not for him.
The graduation could really be said to be for the disciples. After all, this is the turning point between the Gospel and the Acts, as Luke defines it. Everything in the Gospel is Jesus’s work on earth; the Acts are the works of the church he left us. But did the disciples earn this graduation? Not hardly. All they did was witness. But that’s all that was really required of them, and that’s all Jesus calls them to be: be witnesses to the world. So it’s not really a graduation for us either, because we didn’t do the work.
So really, that’s kind of the paradox of the Ascension. It’s a celebration–but to what end? Because in the end, it feels like Jesus left us to do the work he started.
Is it Here Yet?
Perhaps the best and most central question of the Ascension is the one given voice by the disciples. “Are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now?”
In many ways, it’s a reasonable question to ask of Jesus. I mean, Jesus defeated death itself! He suffered, died, and conquered the grave! This is absolutely the kind of time that would be perfect for the kingdom to be established. He’d proved he’s alive, time and time again. Jesus seemed unstoppable–why not end the fight?
On the other hand, it’s a ridiculous question, because at this point, haven’t the disciples figured out that there’s more to Jesus’s mission than just Israel? And that’s just the point. Hey hadn’t figured it out yet. Israel was still at the forefront of their brains. So no; it wasn’t the right time, and that wasn’t even the right question to ask.
So Jesus replied in an absolutely appropriate way: It’s not for you to know the times and seasons God has set into motion. However, what it is for you to know is these 2 things:
Wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit to come to you and give you power. Wait for the right time, and you will know exactly when that is when it happens. You’ve been baptized by water, now wait for the Spirit to do the work in your life.
Secondly, when that’s done, I want you to go. Go and be witnesses. Tell the people of my work. And not just here in Jerusalem, but throughout Israel. And then don’t stop. Tell the people of Samaria too. Yes, that Samaria. The ones that are your sworn enemies. They get the good news too. And then, once you’ve given the good news to your enemies, give it to the rest of the world.
Why? Because the news is too good for just one country, one group of people. The good news is for everyone. It is healing, and liberating, and saving, and it’s for everyone. So no, I’m not going to Restore Israel. That’s not what I’m about doing. I’m going to restore Everything. All of Creation. I’m going to restore the whole world to the way it ought to be. You’re going to finally see the kingdom of heaven, and it’s going to be on earth, and it will be so that you won’t be able to tell the difference between Earth and heaven.
What Are you Waiting for?
At that point, Jesus left. Ascended. Gone. And now we are left here, here to do the work of the Gospel.
It can be a bit of a letdown honestly; here we were, expecting the end-game to happen and the Kingdom of God to be made known on earth, and then the switcheroo happens, and we’re expected to do the work of the Kingdom here and now, before the end. Because that’s the secret. The Kingdom is Coming, yes, but it’s also here now. It is among us. Such is a mystery worth pondering.
IN the meantime, we do the work. I love the end of this story; the disciples gaping upwards as they watch Jesus Ascend to the heavens. Dumbstruck. And out of nowhere, beside them, out of view, shows up two angels saying “Hey! Disciples! What are you doing? Don’t you have somewhere to be? He said to wait for the Spirit! And then he said to get to work! SO DO THAT!
I love it when Angels do stuff like that. We get all caught up in the miracle, and they come alongside and smack us upside the head to remind us to get to work! And what work it is! Wonderful work. Miraculous work in its own right. Beautiful, healing work. But first, we need to be patient for the right moment.
So we wait for the kingdom, but we also work for the kingdom now. What a wonderful way to move on up in the world? Amen.