St. James the Less #93
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
First Century Romans
Imagine with me for a moment that we are Roman citizens in the first century, living somewhere in modern-day Turkey. The place really isn’t important, but what is important is that we are members of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Roman citizens, just like you and me, can be found as far west as Portugal and as far east as Iraq. We are everywhere.
Information travels faster than it ever has because of the road system created by us Romans. Now we may hear of news from the other side of the empire within six or eight months instead of it taking over a year. It’s practically instantaneous!
And nothing gets the people more excited than when an official herald from the Roman government rides into town with news. In fact, a herald just came to our town with some of the most shocking news we’ve heard in a long time.
The emperor, who we sometimes call Caesar, has died, and just as the wailing begins, the herald tells us that his son will be the new emperor. The herald who seems young, in his early twenties, looks tired. He’s been on the road for months now, telling this same bit of news to each town he comes across.
And then the herald remembers there is one other bit of information he needs to tell the people before he leaves. He tells us townspeople to quiet down, and then he says, “Let it be known that those who were beside the late emperor on his deathbed, witnessed his soul escape into heaven after he drew his last breath.”
We know what that means, the cult of the emperor will live on because now it’s clear that the late emperor was a god; the people around him witnessed his soul ascend into heaven where the gods dwell.
He is now like the great gods Jupiter and Mars, and he is worthy of our worship, and his son is worthy of being the next emperor since he is the son of a god.
Okay, you can now change out of your imaginary toga if you’d like. The reason I told you this story is because there are a lot of similarities between this story and the one we heard in our lesson from Acts today.
We see Jesus’ last moments before departing this world, and Jesus uses this last precious moment with his disciples to give them some final instructions.
His disciples want to know when he will set up his earthly kingdom and restore Israel. Jesus brushes that question aside, saying that it is not for them to know these things. Instead he will send the Holy Spirit to them, and they will be his witnesses.
Even after everything they’ve seen, including all his post-resurrection appearances, the disciples are still thinking about an earthly kingdom that Jesus will establish, and their role in that kind of kingdom.
It still hasn’t sunk in that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has been enthroned as the world’s rightful king, but his kingdom will be unlike any other they’ve seen.
Now Jesus does say their mission will be similar to those Roman heralds who go from town to town telling the people of news, really good news in fact. Just like those heralds, they will use the same Roman roads to go from Jerusalem to the outlying countryside and then to the ends of the empire and beyond, bearing the news of Jesus the Messiah.
They will announce that a new kingdom has been established, one that supersedes all the earthly kingdoms, and because of this, Caesar is no longer Lord: Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth.
And to prove that point Jesus himself ascends to heaven. The reports of those Roman heralds always say that the emperor’s soul goes to heaven and thus he is god, but here in Acts, Jesus shows he is greater than Caesar because it’s not only his soul but his entire body—this new resurrected body that still bears his scars—that ascends to his rightful throne.
With every sentence the writer Luke shows again and again why Jesus is greater than even the greatest human emperor. That’s two points for Jesus and zero for Caesar.
Jewish Understanding of Heaven
But to fully understand the ascension there is one other piece of background info that we need to understand. For us, the ascension may seem strange, and out of place. As a kid I always imagined Jesus was like an astronaut here. But though the Jewish witnesses who saw their Lord ascend into heaven were perplexed, it actually fit into how they saw the world.
They understood that heaven and earth were two halves of God’s created world: two different yet interlocking dimensions of the creation. The creation story in Genesis talks about God making the heavens and the earth—the dome of heaven touching, in some ways, the dome of the earthly sky.
The Jewish mind always saw a connection between these two worlds, the spiritual and the physical interacting from time to time. The Old Testament is filled with stories of angelic figures interacting with humans.
Think of the three visitors that Abraham welcomes into his tent, the Angel of the Lord who appears to countless people in the Old Testament pushing them in the right direction or giving them a warning, and prophets like Isaiah being taken into the heavenly throne room of God where he grasps for words, trying to describe what he sees. We even see it in our reading today, angels appear right as Jesus is taken up.
The physical and the spiritual world are inextricably connected, and to begin to grasp one realm you have to see its connection with the other.
And so, Jesus’ ascension not only shows that he is greater than Caesar, but that he is the one true King of both created realms: heaven and earth. He is the link between the two dimensions of creation. He has died, he has risen, and now he has ascended—let’s see the emperor try to do that.
We are the Heralds
Now, that may seem overly complicated, but if we can understand these few points, then we’ll have a better grasp of the apostles’ preaching throughout the New Testament.
Just think about last week. Paul in Athens didn’t talk that much about Jesus explicitly, instead, he talked about the one God who created the heavens and the earth, all the while he’s pointing to Jesus, the king of heaven and earth.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul makes this point even more clear when he says,
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, [not Caesar] to the glory of God the Father.”
Christ is king of the whole created order and we, along with those dumbfounded disciples who were looking up to the sky, are called to be heralds of this amazing news.
If heralding doesn’t seem to be your thing, I’m sorry to say that you can’t get out of it. Jesus’s last words are, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”
His last words are a command to share with the world what he has done for the world. Now there are plenty of ways to share that news, but no matter what, it must be proclaimed, and Jesus has made us his official heralds through baptism.
It’s is in the waters of baptism that we are not only welcomed into the household of God, but that we are sent out into the world. Christianity is not a static faith, the Spirit of God is always moving and is calling us in new and challenging ways, and not always for our sake, but for the sake of those who need to hear that Christ is king and not their addiction, or that Christ is king and not COVID-19 or their depression, anxiety, you name it. We are welcomed but we are also sent out.
And if you feel like you need to know more about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit before being sent out, lucky for you, Pentecost is next week.
Easter VII. Year A. Acts 1:6-14. Acts for Everyone Pt. I, Wright.