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Witnesses

May 13, 2010 Series: Lectionary

Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 24:44–24:53

The Ascension of Our Lord
St. John's
Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11; Eph. 1:15-23

“Witnesses”

Most of you have probably played a game of “Telephone” at some point along the way.  One person starts off with a message, and then they whisper that message to the person next to them, who does the same to the person next to them, who does the same to the person next to them, etc., until the message comes back around to the person to initiated it.  More often than not, the message returns to its sender garbled – maybe even unrecognizable – as the players in the chain have changed the contents of the message between receiving it and passing it on.  I think it can be especially hard to keep the message straight if the message itself doesn’t make all that much sense, or if it doesn’t mean anything to the people who are passing it on.  A phrase like “Molly walked around the yard through the apple-green fence” is probably going to get jumbled.  If you’ve got a message to pass along, it helps if you’re somehow connected to that message.

Christians have a message.  We are witnesses.  There’s a funny thing about that, though: in order for anyone to truly be a witness, they must both hear and tell.  They would have to see and show.  Being a witness requires both input and output.  If someone only hears or sees but doesn’t share, then they’re merely an observer, a spectator.  Conversely, if someone else were to just go, telling and showing without having anything to give, they’d be a con artist, a false witness with no connection to the message they claim to convey.  A witness has a message, and a witness passes that message along.  And as you and I gather together in the Lord’s temple, we are made witnesses once again.

Today on the church calendar, we observe the Ascension of Our Lord.  Forty days after his resurrection, forty days after Easter Sunday, Jesus was taken up into heaven in the sight of his disciples.  They were witnesses of that and many other astounding things.  But what about us?  Our eyes didn’t see Jesus’ ascension take place.  Our ears didn’t hear Jesus speak as he spent time teaching the disciples during those forty days after he left his tomb empty.  So what have we seen?  What have we heard?  To what are we witnesses?

In our Gospel text from St. Luke, Jesus pronounces his apostles to be “witnesses,” witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection.  These men have received the message of the whole of what we know as the Old Testament from Jesus himself: he opened their eyes and ears as he revealed to them how the whole of the sacred writings pointed to him as one who would save all people from the burden of their sins.  That message of the promise of salvation through God’s chosen one, the Messiah, has been fulfilled in Jesus, and the disciples were there as it happened.  They have seen.  They have heard.  And Jesus sends them out to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all the earth.  So if we use our definition of a witness as someone who has a message and then passes it on, these apostles are definitely witnesses.  And how do we know that?  Luke wasn’t there.  He didn’t see Jesus being carried up into heaven.  He was not present as Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”  But Luke would be a witness, too.  He received the message from those who heard Jesus teach about the Father’s love for his creation.  He recorded the astounding things that the apostles and other disciples saw with their own eyes.  And inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke passed along that firsthand report to us today.  Through those first witnesses, we are there at Jesus’ ascension.  The Gospel accounts connect us with those early Christians, sharing the message that they first carried into the world.  We, too, are made witnesses of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

But the message that’s been given to us doesn’t just connect us to things that have happened in the past.  God is still at work.  The Holy Spirit, who would come in power on the disciples at Pentecost, continues the work that Jesus began: His message, you see, changes the messenger.  He is still opening hearts and minds to know the hope that comes through Christ.  When God calls you to be a witness, He’s not looking for you to be some telephone line or fiber-optic cable that’ll just pass His message along.  You’re more than that to Him.  God the Father has gone to great lengths and greater expense to make you His own: the message is for you, too.  Even as you pass the message along as a witness, it stays with you.  God’s power is working through the message, the whole of the Scriptures, to open your heart and mind to know Him better every day.  Today, as we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven, we may know him as St. Paul described him in our reading from Ephesians 1:  Jesus the victor.  God the Father has placed His Son “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”  He is the champion, my friends, and through his cross, he has won your freedom.  You and I can cast the burden of our faults and failings at his feet, because he has defeated sin, death, and the devil.  This is the message that we bear, the message of which we are witnesses.

In the opening verses of the book of Acts, St. Luke gives us a bridge from what he’d written at the close of his Gospel account, retelling what happened when Jesus was taken up into heaven.  When Jesus sent the apostles – apostle means “sent one” – they were to be witnesses to all the world.  As modern-day witnesses to the hope which comes through Christ, you and I might not have access to all the world.  But we are still sent to share the message of what we have heard and seen through the witnesses who came before us.  You and I know people who need the message that we’ve been given.  They might be coworkers, or friends, or even members of our families.  We might pray for them.  We might invite them to come to worship with us.  But we’re often reluctant to share the apostles’ message, to be a witness.  Rest assured, though, that you go out into the world in the power of the victorious, ascended Christ, the one who will come again in the same way he went into heaven, as the angels said.

We are witnesses.  We hear and tell; we see and show.  This isn’t quite like a game of Telephone – there’s no garbled signal or loss of content here, because the promise of the Father has kept the message going strong for 2,000 years.  As people who bear God’s message of hope in Jesus, we are connected to the message.  We’re not just observers and spectators, because this message is meant for us.  Luke’s Gospel account begins in the temple with Zechariah.  It concludes with Jesus’ disciples – his witnesses – in the temple, worshipping and praising God.  As people in God’s house this Ascension Day, we worship and praise Him, too; but we are not meant to stay here forever.  We, like those early witnesses, go back out into the world.  Until Jesus comes again, we share this message that we’ve been given:  “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Amen.

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