Luke begins the Book of Acts with something that should have been preceded by a spoiler alert; Jesus will be taken up into heaven. Jesus will ascend bodily from the grounded earth into the heavens above.
Literarily, the Ascension serves as a doorway moving readers from Luke’s first volume, the Gospel According to Luke, to his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel of Luke focused on Jesus’ incarnate earthly ministry and his calling and teaching of his disciples. The Acts of the Apostles will focus on the disciples as they live into the calling Jesus has placed in their life. Theologically, the Ascension marks a transition from discipleship to apostleship. The twelve and others who have gathered around Jesus learning and listening, are no longer simply students. Now Jesus’ followers are sent ones called and expected to go out in Jesus’ name to live according to the ways of Jesus and to make new disciples who will in turn do the same.
There is an urgency in Luke’s account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11. After being resurrected from the dead, Jesus visited his disciples to encourage them in their faith and to assure them of two things: 1) yes, he really did die; and 2) yes, he really is alive. He would spend the forty days after his resurrection visiting his disciples and continuing his teaching about the Kingdom of God.
The content of Jesus’ teaching should not have come as a surprise to the disciples, from the very beginning Jesus has been teaching the disciples about the Kingdom of God. But as his forty days draws to a close, Jesus adds an additional item to his curriculum. On the fortieth day, the final day before he would ascend into the heavens, Jesus introduces a new teaching, that of the coming Holy Spirit.
Literarily, the introduction of the Holy Spirit serves as a change in main characters from Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke, to his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel of Luke, the hero of the story was Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God, God in flesh, the second person of the Trinity. Now, as we shift into the Book of Acts, Jesus of Nazareth will no longer feature in this story, instead the new hero and the one upon whose work the Book of Acts will focus, is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Often we think the Book of Acts is a book about the work of the apostles, but in reality the Book of Acts is a book about the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus indicates five things to the disciples about the Holy Spirit: 1) the Spirit will come to them in Jerusalem; 2) they must return to Jerusalem and make waiting on the Holy Spirit the priority for the next few days; 3) that the Holy Spirit will baptize the disciples by coming upon them; 4) the Holy Spirit will give them power. All four of these aspects are theologically significant.
First, they are to return to Jerusalem. Jerusalem represents Zion of God, the place in which God has promised to fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants the children of Israel. Jesus has come as the seed of Abraham, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and in Jerusalem was crucified and resurrected defeating death and sin and unleashing a new exodus from the spiritual forces of evil which separated all of humanity from God. In this same city of Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Triune God, will come upon them to dwell within them, empower them, and lead them in their missional participation in the Missio Dei.
Second, they are to be people whose primary action is waiting. How awful! Unfortunately, the Scriptures are clear that the primary action of the people of God is to be people who wait… people who wait on God for God to show up and glorify Godself and prove God faithful. The disciples were not to delude themselves into thinking they were minor deities themselves who possessed the power and the ability to accomplish their mission, instead, they were called to be people who submitted to the reign of Christ by waiting for the Spirit of God to show up and author power in and through their lives.
Third, the Holy Spirit’s coming upon them will be a baptism, or an initiating covenant. Baptism represents a new beginning. In baptism we receive new life, we die to sin and receive eternal life in being claimed by God in and through Christ’s faithfulness. To be baptized by the Spirit is a new beginning, a moment in which the believer in Jesus is ontologically changed – the very being of a follower of Jesus is changed because the Holy Spirit will literally set up camp within the heart and soul, mind and body, hands and feet of the disciple of Jesus. Today, it is our belief that a baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that accompanies every and any true profession of faith in Jesus as Messiah and Christ. To believe Jesus is God’s Son and to surrender your life to follow him is to invite the Holy Spirit to come within you baptize you with the Holy Spirit’s power and presence. In our faith tradition, we do not believe that only some receive a baptism of the Holy Spirit and others do not and those who have been baptized by the Spirit are the truly spiritual and saintly. Rather, all who are followers of Jesus have been baptized by the Spirit. The challenge then is not being baptized by the Spirit, the challenge is living with the awareness that you have already been baptized by the Holy Spirit of Christ and the latent power of the Holy Spirit lives in you. Yes, in you!
Fourth and finally, the Holy Spirit will give the disciples power. Generally, the Holy Spirit will empower the disciples to live into the call Jesus has placed in their lives. The torch now falls to them; soon (as in with the next few minutes) Jesus will be ascending into the heavens and will no longer be bodily on earth. The task of manifesting the Gospel (good news) of the Kingdom of God on earth will fall to the disciples. This is work that they cannot do alone. This is work that in order to accomplish they must receive help. The reason for this is simple, fundamentally the work is not their work. Fundamentally, the work is, always has been, and always will be Jesus’ work. It is Jesus who is the manifestation of the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and the manifestation of the Kingdom of God and so Jesus will now continue his work through his disciples and the Church they will establish. The Holy Spirit will empower them to remain connected to Christ for spiritual nourishment and empowered by Christ to participate in Jesus’ work of restoring and redeeming a broken world.
It is for this reason that Jesus explains to the disciples that their work is to be witnesses. A witness exists to bear testimony about that which they have seen, heard, or experienced. The disciples are called to bear witness to Jesus. And the most effective way to bear witness to Jesus, to share with others what they have seen, heard, or experience in and through Jesus, is to live according to the ways of Jesus. The disciples are to do this in Jerusalem and Judea- in their neighborhoods, communities, families – with those whom they are closely connected and related; Samaria – with those who are culturally, socially, and economically different; and to the Ends of the Earth – to places they do not even know exist but are to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide their steps.
And then as the disciples looked at Jesus his body began to levitate up off the ground, first a few feet above the ground, then six feet above the ground, then ten feet above the ground, then twenty feet above the ground, then 100 yards above the ground, then five yards above the ground. As Jesus continued to ascend his body grew smaller and smaller to the earth-bound eyes of the disciples and they continued to stare up and squint until, like a child watching an escaped helium balloon until it grows invisible due to its uninterrupted rise, the disciples are all standing staring into the blank and empty skies looking a little foolish.
Their staring prevented them from seeing the approach of two men dressed in white, most likely angels of God, who asked them the pointed question, “why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” But these angels know why they are staring, because they continue, “Jesus will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, the angels’ words served not as a question, but as a reminder. Why are standing looking up into the heavens? Don’t you have work to do? Didn’t Jesus ask you to do something? Perhaps you should be doing the thing Jesus has asked you to do. Perhaps we should be doing the thing Jesus has asked us to do.