Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sermon: Ascension – 2017

25 May 2017

Text: Acts 1:1-11

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

One of the last things our Lord said to His disciples before His ascension into heaven was: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

And He wasn’t going to be with them in the same way after his impending ascension, to answer questions, to straighten them out, to strengthen them for the tasks at hand.  He was to be with them as He is with us: in Word and Sacrament.  But they were still going to be His witnesses in His returning to the Father.

A witness is one who sees, and then tells what he has seen.  A witness testifies, usually in some official way.  For testimony is a very serious thing, often a matter of life and death.

Some 30 years ago, I worked for a county sheriff in Ohio.  He was a godly and honest man who liked police work but did not like politics.  One day he vanished.  He disappeared into thin air.  This is because he was in the Witness Protection Plan.  He was called upon to testify against some very powerful people, and in order to protect his life, he was given a new life: a new name, a new city, a new job, a new driver’s license, and a new made-up history.  For his protection, his former life had to be extinguished, and he could never again see the people he knew in that former life.

Being a witness, especially one who testifies, is indeed a life and death matter.  

The Greek word for witness is μάρτυς, which is where we get the word “martyr.”  A martyr is a witness who gives his testimony, and that testimony costs him his life.  The witness of a martyr is very powerful, for the martyr values the truth of what he has seen and heard, and the confession of that testimony, even more than he values his life.  The testimony of a witness is powerful, because if it weren’t true, it would be easy to avoid torture and death and walk away from the resultant suffering.

Our Lord Jesus Christ tells the eleven that they will be His witnesses, and that they would spread out from there to the city, to the region, and to the very ends of the globe.  And within a few decades, the entire Roman Empire would be flecked with Christian congregations, with bishops and deacons and adult converts and baptized babies.  The church would grow mightily through the preaching of the apostle-witnesses.  For Jesus also promised them something else to empower their testimony and proclamation, namely, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

The Holy Spirit was to be sent in a few days, at Pentecost, and the apostolic preaching would go forth from that Upper Room in Jerusalem literally into all the earth, in every language, to every tribe and tongue and people.  And within less than 300 years, less than the age of the City of New Orleans, the Holy Christian Church was to conquer the unholy Roman Empire itself, not with spears and swords, but with preaching and Holy Baptism.  

And the eleven would themselves suffer for their testimony.  All but one would die as tortured prisoners for their testimony of Christ, and the only one who was not killed, St. John, would suffer exile on the Island of Patmos.  

These apostles would also ordain other men into this preaching office.  They would baptize children and adults and administer the Lord’s Supper to people who would themselves become martyrs in many cases.  And though these preachers and these hearers would die, some in their beds, others at the stake or at the arena, the witnesses would never run out.  The work of the Holy Spirit continues anew.  The preaching goes forth with each succeeding generation.  The sacraments are administered and received.  Satan is defeated.  The grave is defanged.  Sin is cast aside.  Communion with God continues to go forth among the people gathered around the witnesses and their proclamation.

And after the eleven watched the Lord ascend back to the Father, as they gazed in wonder at the heavens, as they now had to lead the church without the familiar sight of the Lord Jesus Christ in their midst, two angels scold them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”  Indeed, there is work to do.  There is testimony to give.  There are disciples to be made through baptism.  There are sins to be forgiven through absolution.  There is communion with God to be had through the eucharist.  These apostles will write and they will preach.  They will teach, and they will serve as bishops of the Church.  But most of all, they will be our Lord’s witnesses, bearing the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, for as long as the Father gives them life and breath in this world.

And so we continue, dear friends, we continue to carry out our work here on earth, in this fallen world, being a lifeline to those who will hear and heed our testimony, those who are moved by the Holy Spirit to be redeemed and made new, even in this age of skepticism and martyrdom, even as the Church continues in the work her Lord has given us to do, spreading the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, until that day in which He “will come in the same way as [they] saw Him go into heaven,” the day of judgment and the day of the restoration of paradise.

This is our testimony, for we too are witnesses.  Amen!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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