In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know exactly what the Apostles were doing, staring into the sky. Maybe they were just trying to figure out where Jesus was going. But neither they nor we have any way of getting from here to there; the Cloud that took Jesus from the earth simply hid Him from their eyes. He apparently didn’t just keep going up and up and up until He was past Earth’s atmosphere, as if the realm where God dwells is somewhere in outer space. He was simply hidden, and removed from the normal dimensions of human sight and experience. Nor should we think of this as a regular cloud, covering the sun’s light or bringing rain. This was the Cloud of God’s own glory, the Cloud that appeared at Jesus’ Transfiguration, from which the Father spoke; the Cloud that covered Sinai; the Cloud that hides God’s full glory from sinners, and sinners from God’s wrath. And it is in this Cloud that Jesus will come back. Jesus Himself promised it, by His prophet Daniel, and then with His own mouth: “…the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:26b-28, ESV). A Cloud. Glory. Heads lifted up. Your Redemption drawing near. What the Apostles experienced 40 days after that first Easter, except in reverse.
Now here we are, centuries later, on this 40th day after Easter, and we’re still waiting. And you know, sometimes I wouldn’t mind sitting and staring into the sky, waiting for Jesus to come back. It would be a lot easier than a lot of the stuff we have to deal with down here. I think I can understand the appeal of selling everything, stockpiling food and water, and setting up a tent on a mountain to watch and wait. The only problem is that those two men in white clothes standing next to the Apostles never told them when this Coming would happen. Just like their Lord. It is not for you to know times and especially not the Time. No, it’s no good staking out some prime roof-top territory, with a good view of the eastern sky. No matter what comes, this is the life we’ve been given. Jesus has given us what we must do, no less than to those Apostles. You, Apostles, cannot know the times of the Father, but you can know this: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). That’s not a general mission agenda which we can fill in with our own times and spaces, except insofar as we live at the end of the earth! That was a very specific order given to the Apostles, and they did exactly that: they were witnesses of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, from Pentecost in Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to Spain, Asia, and beyond.
Though they did not write it, it’s no coincidence that we still call their witness the Apostles’ Creed. It contains exactly what they saw and heard; no speculation, no opinion, no personal emotion; it is simply and precisely the very Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to those who believe it. And this Gospel has been delivered to you, likely first at your baptism. There the Faith of the Apostles was delivered to you, and you began to live in all the things that Jesus began to do and teach. But notice Luke says began to do and teach. Because He did not stop doing and teaching when He ascended into heaven. And that’s the point; it was the point for those Apostles, and it is the point for you: Jesus has not stopped working. It’s not a modalistic procession of first the Father, then the Son, now the Holy Spirit. It is God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—working together for the life of the world. And life in this world can often be too much. Paul speaks of salvation, and says, who is sufficient for these things? I think the same about the things of this life. Who is sufficient for all the exhausting episodes of a life lived in God and against the devil, as saint in Christ and sinner in myself, according to the Spirit and against the flesh? Not me, that’s for sure. But Jesus is. This is no dualism, some eternal battle between yin and yang, material and spiritual, good and evil. Jesus, who is body and soul, Man and God, the one who died and who now lives—this Jesus, and no other, is both ascended and present here and now. Or, I should say, He is present here and now because He is ascended; He is present everywhere His witness is proclaimed and His holy gifts given out, because He is ascended. He’s the one who said that the Spirit would come when He had gone. And now that He has gone, and the Spirit has come, now He is present with His people in ways He never was while He was on earth with the Apostles. Because until the time when He comes in the Cloud with power and great glory, we still lift our heads in the midst of everything that weighs us down, and we see our redemption drawing near ahead of time. Here, He comes in the Name of the Lord, not in a Cloud, but in bread and a cup. Here, He brings His redemption to us, because we cannot go where He is. Here, He lifts grieving hearts and heavy hands; here He draws along weary sinners to the point where He will meet us all in full divine power and the visible glory of a crucified, resurrected, and ascended Body. He did not leave His Apostles alone; His death and resurrection were the end of death, but they were only the beginning of everything that Jesus would do and teach. And, judging from the fact that no Cloud has yet appeared, and everything’s holding steady, He’s not quite done.
So hang on, people of Faith: the very same Jesus whom the Apostles saw taken into heaven will come in the same way they saw Him go. This fortieth day from the Resurrection of our Lord may or may not be the last, but He comes to us today nonetheless, and He will remain with you and sustain you in your vocations, no less than He did the Apostles.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/3/16