Text: Acts 1:1-14
Years ago, we bought a new used car, and we needed to unload our old vehicle: a 1988 Plymouth Colt. About this time, a young friend of ours was looking for a car. We told Philip about it and he was interested, mainly because we would give him a good deal and he didn’t have a lot of cash. So we rode with Philip while he took it for a test ride.
The problem was, the Colt was a 5-speed manual and Philip had never driven a car with a clutch before. So he wasn’t just taking a test drive, he was learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission. It was quite an event. He killed the engine several times. He also peeled out when he gave it a bunch of gas and popped the clutch. There were a lot of jerky starts and rough shifts, but it apparently went well enough because Philip bought the car.
Learning to shift is not easy. And now, I’m not just talking about vehicles.
Our reading today begins, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus said and did from the beginning until he was taken up into heaven.” Right away, this raises two questions: what is the first book and who in the world is Theophilus?
The first book is the gospel of Luke. Luke and Acts are a two volume set. Like Luke, Acts is addressed to Theophilus. This may have been a prominent Greek-speaking believer, perhaps a patron of Luke. But Theophilus literally means “One who loves God,” and this may have been a designation that the book is written for all who love God, for all believers. Either way, in the end it is written for all of us.
The setting is Jerusalem. It is forty days after the resurrection. Jesus has appeared to the disciples on several occasions and he is with them again. Before his death, they had believed that Jesus was going to initiate his kingdom – which they thought meant overthrowing Rome. You would think that after the resurrection they would finally figure it out, but here they are, asking yet again, “Is now the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus deflects by telling his followers that they don’t need to be concerned over that which is known only to God, and then he says to them, “You will receive power and you will be my witnesses.” And as he says this, Jesus ascends on a cloud into heaven.
Throughout scripture, clouds are associated with God. In the book of Daniel we read about the Son of Man coming on the clouds. In Exodus, after the Israelites escape Egypt, God is present with them in the cloud. For Jesus, this is kind of the ultimate mic drop, as God takes him away in a cloud.
The cosmology of the Ascension comes from an earlier time – we no longer believe in a flat earth with hell below and heaven the other side of that cloud up there. But we can nevertheless grasp the truth of it. Jesus’ ministry on this earth was completed. He had come from God and was now returning to God, and we, his disciples, are left to continue his ministry as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Now you may have noticed that the 12 who had previously been called disciples are now called apostles. Disciples are students, learners, apprentices. Apostles are those who are sent – ambassadors, messengers, witnesses. It is a change, a shift, and a big one.
This weekend we have had virtual commencement ceremonies at Iowa State. It is a huge change from being a student to being a graduate. It’s the difference between preparation and action. This is what Jesus had been preparing the disciples for. To go. To serve. To share.
Jesus tells the disciples-now-apostles that they are to be witnesses, and then he is gone. And they are left looking up at the sky, as of course anybody would. But then two guys in white robes show up. By now, we know that this means angels, right? They said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
There is a shift from heaven to earth. We don’t just follow Jesus by looking towards heaven; we follow Jesus in day-to-day living. And we can find God speaking to us in our day-to-day lives.
Anne LaMott was an alcoholic and in really bad shape when she started wandering in on Sunday mornings to St. Andrews Presbyterian, a kind of funky little church right by the farmer’s market she went to on Sunday mornings in San Francisco. Slowly she started getting her life on track, and the people there patiently cared for her.
One Sunday at the end of the service, she got up the courage to tell the congregation she was pregnant. The people cheered. She was not married and did not expect this reaction. Even people raised in Bible-thumping homes in the Deep South clapped and clapped.
The church more or less adopted her. They brought over casseroles that she could freeze and use later. And they started to slip her money. A bent-over woman on Social Security would sidle up to her and slip a 10 or 20 in her pocket. And Mary Williams always sat in the back and brought her baggies filled with dimes. Every week.
Sam was brought to the church when he was 5 days old. People oohed and aahed and everybody called him “our baby.” People in that little church kept Anne LaMott going. They cared, prayed, and reached out to her and saw her through some hard days.
Writing several years later, LaMott said that Mary Williams still brought her baggies filled with dimes. By then she was an accomplished writer and doing much better financially. She said she gave the bags of dimes to homeless people. But she wrote, “Why do I make Sam go to church? I make him go because everybody brings me dimes.” When Anne looked around her, she saw the face of God.
It is a shift, from thinking of God up there in heaven to seeing God at work all around us.
There is another shift. Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “You shall be my witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The disciples had asked if Jesus was now going to restore the kingdom. They were thinking about Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria – the original geography of Israel. And out of those regions, they weren’t so keen on the Samaritans. But Jesus has an entirely different kind of kingdom in mind. It’s not just for Israel; he adds “the ends of the earth.”
It is a big shift – from us and them to simply, us. Jesus calls us to be concerned not only for ourselves and people like us, but for everyone. For the whole world. This is an expansive and inclusive vision.
The rest of the book of Acts can be seen as living out these shifts in focus and understanding as Jesus’ followers take the gospel far beyond Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria.
Now, when we read the Bible, the question is always, what does this mean for us? Well, I wonder. Are there any kinds of changes we have had to make in recent days? Are there any shifts we have had to make – in our thinking, in our actions, in our practices?
Here we are, in our homes, scattered not just around Ames but around the country. There is anxiety around our health and that of loved ones. There is anxiety around employment and finances. There is anxiety around the future. We have had to change the way we work, the way we go to school, the way we shop, the way we seek medical care. We have had to change our social lives, the way we interact with friends, the way we visit family. We have had to change the way we worship. Is there anything that hasn’t shifted?
What I notice in this text is that first, it is OK to take a breath. The disciples were to wait. Wait for the Holy Spirit. They returned to Jerusalem and they waited and prayed. We don’t have to know everything right now and we don’t have to have it all figured out right now. In a time of uncertainty, God will show us the next step to take.
Another thing I noticed is that while Jesus had left the building, God was still there. And Christ was still present, though not in the flesh.
On Easter, we sang Brian Wren’s great hymn, “Christ Is Alive.” We will sing it again in a few minutes. It is not only a great resurrection hymn; it is a great Ascension hymn. The second verse says: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” Through times of tumult and change and learning to shift, Christ is there.
Now one more thing. You might be saying, “Dave – did you forget that today is Mother’s Day? What kind of Mother’s Day sermon is this?”
No, I did not forget. We usually don’t make Mother’s Day the central focus of worship, for a lot of reasons, and our scripture for today was chosen completely without regard for Mother’s Day. But did you notice that there is a mother mentioned in the text? Many of those present are listed by name, including Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Of all the shifts in focus and direction and understanding that Jesus’ followers had to make, Mary had made the most. She was there from the beginning, when an angel told her that she would bear the messiah, and she said “Let it be.” She gave birth to Jesus, took him to Egypt to escape Herod, and was frantic with worry when at age 12 he was lost and then found in the temple. She saw him come of age and embark on his ministry. And she was there at the cross. She experienced the amazing joy of his resurrection and now she was there at the ascension. But she didn’t stop there; here she was praying with the others, awaiting God’s leading, moving on to the next step.
Many mothers could tell similar tales, not of resurrection and ascension, but of the many shifts that must be made in life, so many relating to children.
Life is full of changes, full of transitions. Shifts in the way we live our lives, shifts in the way we relate to God and others. We are in one of those times of transition right now. Through it all, Christ is with us. And Jesus’ mother, Mary, shows us the way. Amen.
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