The Mission, the Promise, and the Blessing
Luke 24:44-53, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 13, 2018, Ascension
I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about the whole process of going away. And here we are at Ascension Sunday, which wraps up the Easter season with a picture of the risen Jesus departing—not in sadness, but in joy. Traditionally Ascension is celebrated forty days after Easter, based on the timetable given in the book of Acts, but in Luke’s first book it seems to happen much sooner, on the night of Easter. I won’t try to solve that problem, but rather focus on the text from Luke’s gospel. What does Jesus leave us when he goes away? He leaves three things in Luke: a mission, a promise, and a blessing.
Jesus explains to his disciples that the things that have happened to him are the things predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to his reading of them, the Messiah was destined to suffer; it was no accident, or something unexpected; it was necessary. Then the Messiah was also destined to be raised from the dead on the third day. But that is not the end of what the Scriptures said. What else they said is still in the future: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
Who’s going to do that proclaiming? In the first instance, it’s the disciples who are hearing these words. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to announce that it is possible for people to change the direction of their lives and have their sins forgiven by the authority of Jesus himself. But these are words for us, too. This is the mission given to us—not just to preachers, but to all who have become followers of Jesus. Luke is not writing these words of Jesus in order to create a historical record. He is saying to his readers: “Church, this is your mission!”
The job is not simply to proclaim repentance, like those New Yorker cartoon figures with the sign saying “Repent! The End is Near!” It’s not pointing to others and saying, “You bad! Get right!” No, repentance-and-forgiveness are one message. It’s a package deal. Change direction because the age of forgiveness has arrived. Jesus has come bringing forgiveness—a message he proclaimed at great cost—and he has done everything necessary to reconcile you to God, with the record of your sins wiped clean. Therefore, do not despair that this is the way you have to be. Therefore, turn toward Jesus and start walking in the opposite direction. That is our message.
Then there is the scope of the mission: this gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. “Beginning in Jerusalem” is what will happen next week, on Pentecost Sunday; it’s what starts out Luke’s sequel to his gospel. God knows Jerusalem needs to be forgiven—the city that kills the prophets—but Jerusalem and the Jewish people are only the beginning. If you read Acts, you’ll see that it takes fifteen chapters for the church to accept the fact that their mission is to all nations. The natural tendency of humans is to think that God is for people like us, and to think that our mission is to help people like us. America First, as they say, or Israel First, as the Jerusalem church said.
The God of Israel said centuries earlier in Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles (a light for the nations), that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” That was always God’s ultimate purpose, although ethnocentrism and nationalism narrowed the mission statement of his people. In Acts, the stories make clear that salvation was not just for Jews, but for Samaritans, Ethiopians, Roman soldiers, Ephesians, everybody. The impetus for most American denominations, including the Baptists, to organize in the 19th century was an awakening to our mission to the nations. It was on us to take the message of forgiveness through Jesus to the world; we could no longer assume that the ignorance of those who never heard the gospel was their fault or God’s plan.
I was born in Japan because my parents were convinced that the forgiveness available through Jesus had to be conveyed to our bitterest enemies. There were no limits on God’s love, or the love of Americans who truly followed Jesus. Nowadays, most mainline Protestants have abandoned the mission Jesus gave us. You would think Jesus said, “Help the nations, but don’t proclaim repentance-and-forgiveness to anyone who already has a religion.” You know perfectly well that in Jesus’ world virtually everyone already had a religion—at least one. Jesus did not limit the church’s mission to his own kind, and he did not dream that his message would not be proclaimed to his own kind, the Jews. He understood that the Father’s purpose included every ethnic group (which was the meaning of the word “nation” in those days).
It may be true that in America and Europe Jesus’ mission was used as an excuse for enslavement and colonization, but that does not excuse us from the obligation to proclaim forgiveness to all nations. At Harbor Church, our mission begins with Block Island, our Jerusalem, but it extends to the whole world, especially those nations where the Christian witness is very weak.
Jesus says to his disciples that they are witnesses to these things, in a very literal way. They have been eyewitnesses to his crucifixion and resurrection, and to Jesus’ preaching of repentance and forgiveness. We are not eyewitnesses, but we have been entrusted with the message. And we are eyewitnesses to our own lives, to what Christ has done for us and how he has changed us. To be a witness is not to give a canned speech, but simply to report what you have seen and heard.
We may feel that carrying out the mission we’ve been given is beyond us. It is. That is why Jesus gives us a promise. He says that he is sending to his disciples what the Father promised—what he calls in John’s gospel the Advocate or Comforter—the Spirit we will celebrate next Sunday. What comes with the Spirit is “power from on high.” Like Powdermilk Biscuits, the Spirit “gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” The promise is that God’s own strength will work in us to give us the ability to speak, to heal, and to persevere.
The promise is not made simply to the Eleven or to those gathered around Jesus. Luke intends for us to hear it as a promise to us, too. We don’t have the power to do what needs to be done. The dynamic that we need (the Greek word here is dynamos) has to come from God. Harbor Church can recite a mission statement, and we can call a new pastor to lead us in accomplishing that mission, but he will tell you that’s not enough. If the promise of the Spirit were not true, nothing would happen. Are we patient enough to wait for the power? Are we willing to set aside our feelings of self-reliance long enough to see if God will do something new?
Jesus does not end with a challenge but with blessing. I love the way Luke chose to close the gospel. Three times in the last four verses he uses the word “bless.” “To bless” is the opposite of “to curse.” It occurs in the Old Testament more than 600 times, and the word is barak, the name of our last President. The word here in Luke is eulogia, like our word “eulogy,” and it means to say a good word. To say “bless you” means I want good for you, I am with you in spirit, and in Jesus’ case, I will empower you for good.
Jesus’ last act on earth, according to Luke, is to bless. How great is that? He lifts his hand in the traditional gesture of blessing going back to the priest Aaron. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jesus used the very words of Aaron’s benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Luke says that “while he was blessing them”—in the very act—he withdrew from them. I think that means that he disappeared. If I was making the movie, Jesus would be speaking the blessing then become shimmering light and be transported to another dimension. We don’t believe in up or down when it comes to the universe anymore, so it doesn’t mean much to say that Jesus went “up” to heaven. He went to the dimension where God’s reign is already complete. Some say that Jesus went to the future where his kingdom is. But Christians have proclaimed from the first (the first record we have is in Paul’s letters) that Jesus was raised to the “highest” place in rank to reign along with God his Father.
Do you believe that? Sometimes you seem so discouraged about the world that I doubt it. It’s the greatest news in the world that the person in charge—the guiding force in the universe—is the one who loved us so much that he gave himself for us. The one who reigns is the Son of Man who understands what our lives are like. He is the embodiment of compassion and courage, justice and mercy, the one who is faithful and true—unlike the human leaders who so disappoint us. Jesus never disappoints. Jesus never fails. His purpose and his way of being is to bless you.
The response of the disciples in that closing scene is the response Luke wants us to have as readers. When Jesus withdraws while blessing, no one says, “What are we going to do without him?” No, their reaction is to worship him. They give thanks to him, they praise him, they bow down in awe of him. And they are filled, Luke says, with “great joy.” That great joy that the angels promised to the shepherds at the beginning of the gospel has finally become a reality. Joy is the response of people who have been blessed. In that joy the disciples return to the temple—that place where Jesus had conflicts with its leaders—and they bless God. Jesus has blessed them, and now they reciprocate by blessing God. Then the screen goes black and the credits roll.
Can that be our ending too? We have been given a mission. We have been given the promise of power through the Spirit. And Jesus has given us his blessing, put his good juju on us and called us his friends, his siblings, and his co-conspirators. Our response to that is joy, and openness, and courage.