Willing Witnesses

Willing Witnesses

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Yes, not only is He risen, He is ascended into heaven, as we confess in the creeds. This past Thursday was Ascension Day the 40th day after Easter, the day on which the Scriptures tell us Jesus left this earthly realm to return to the right hand of God. Today we observe His ascension as a day of celebration, and with an element of bittersweet longing, too, wishing for a closer presence with our God in the flesh.

Yet we still have His promises that He is with us always, to the close of the age, and He is, indeed. He dwells continually in our hearts and minds through the working of the Holy Spirit, and He is with us physically as well, as His Word strikes our ears and His body and blood are eaten and drunk in His Supper.

Ascension Day is one of the major feasts of the church year, one we hope to observe here at St. Paul with a Thursday Divine Service in the future. There is ample evidence that it has been celebrated in Christianity from at least the 4th century A.D. forward. The writings of early church authors such as St. John Chrysostom, Egeria, and the Greek church historian Socrates all give testament to this. In the western Church, the paschal candle or Christ candle traditionally has been extinguished following the reading of the Gospel. Here at St. Paul, we remove the Christ candle from the chancel after the observance of Ascension, and bring it back at the beginning of Advent.

The Ascension marks the end of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ, and begins His exaltation in power and glory at the right hand of the Father. It is during the mention of the periods of the Son’s humiliation—from His incarnation through His suffering, death, and resurrection—that you’ve probably noticed Pastor Nuckols and bowing, genuflecting, and kneeling during the confessing of the Nicene Creed. We stand again at the mention of Christ’s ascension, for at that point His humiliation is over and He is returning to the glories of heaven, once again fully exalted. This show of reverence is a visible reminder of the fact that God loved us enough to leave heaven and come to us in the humility of human flesh to save us from our sins. It’s not required, but can be helpful.

The Gospel reading today from St. Luke’s account opens in the middle of the scene where our risen Lord is speaking to his disciples. It is evening on Easter Sunday. The two disciples have returned from Emmaus and have told the eleven and the others about their meeting with Jesus. As they talk, “Jesus himself stood among them.” [1] He shared words of assurance with them and ate broiled fish in their presence. Then begins our Gospel text for Ascension Day. The text can be divided into two parts: Jesus’ meeting with the disciples, and then His ascension.

In this meeting, first our risen Lord explains to the disciples that “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” all refer to Him and His life, ministry, and work. Those three phrases refer to the main divisions of the Old Testament. We might think of the Psalms as primarily poems and songs, but they have great importance in pointing us toward the Messiah.

There are several psalms that describe His suffering and death, a few that prophesy His resurrection, and at least one—Psalm 68—that refers to His ascension. One author of a Lutheran commentary on the New Testament explains the Savior’s lesson to those in the Upper Room this way: “Jesus repeats what He has done for the two Emmaus disciples: He takes all these disciples into the Scriptures.” [2]

Even though Jesus had taught the disciples about the messianic quality of all Scripture during his earthly ministry, they still did not understand. And so, the risen Christ needs to open the minds of his followers that they may understand the events they witnessed as the fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures. This has significant implications for the doctrine of faith. Spiritual understanding does not result from drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, or agreeing to rational proofs, but solely from God’s gracious working upon our hearts.

Jesus summarizes what the Holy Scriptures prophesied: His suffering and rising on the third day. He then goes on to explain why: So that “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name.” This is the fulfillment of the commissioning of the Suffering Servant that was prophesied in Isaiah 49:6. Jesus then tells the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” This term, “witness,” is an expression of both their confession of the Gospel of salvation and their verification of what Jesus had said and done to others they would encounter the rest of their lives. Their witness to fact and their witness to truth are one and the same. It is the unavoidable result of the fact that the Gospel presents an historical revelation.

So, how do we take Jesus instruction about us, as His disciples, being His witnesses? Do we casually disregard them, losing them in the drone of a Bible we might hear and sometimes even read, but too often fail to mark, learn, and inwardly digest? Or do we hear Jesus’ words earnestly? Do we take them to heart and realize that—being both completely true and also powerful enough to make realities where they did not exist before–His words make us His witnesses?

Some of you may have heard of Adolph Rupp. He was a legendary coach at the University of Kentucky. He was wildly successful, winning numerous conference and national titles, and at one time was the winningest basketball coach in college history. So great was his impact on the Wildcats’ program that the facility in which UK games are played today is named Rupp Arena. In one interview, Coach Rupp bragged that he could take any average player and make an All-American out of him.

The journalist challenged this seemingly preposterous statement. So a friendly wager was made that Rupp could not turn a certain freshman basketball player with modest ability into an All-American.

After that news interview, Adolph Rupp always referred to the player as his “All-American center”—at every speaking commitment, every news interview, every opportunity where the player and the public could hear it. It was as if Rupp believed repeating the title often enough would make it real.

Would it surprise you to find out that this player actually did get named to the All-America team? Would it surprise you all the more to find out that this young man, Cotton Nash, actually made the All-America team three times? Rupp won the wager with the writer. What we believe about ourselves—and more importantly, what God says about us—is of more value than the gifts, abilities, money, or power with which we start.

Most people would agree that believing in your potential is important if you want to accomplish something. Yet no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we boast about what we can do, we have limits. There are limits on how long our physical bodies will live; limits on how long we can go without food, water, or sleep; limits on how much we can do in a day. We especially have limits on our ability to do what God’s law demands of us; limits on our knowledge; limits on our natural understanding. All our wishes and positive thinking will not change this.

Many people have trouble believing that we have limits, though. They think that they can overcome the realities of the world, and so they run off on their own, trying to make things happen instead of letting their lives be guided by what God places in their path.

There is an expression that pertains to this, which goes: “As opportunity is knocking on the front door, many people are out in their back yards looking for a four-leaf clover.”

Think of the disciples on the first Easter evening. During the past few years they followed a man whom they were sure was the Christ. Yet in the past three days, things seemed to go terribly wrong. The leaders had Him arrested—with help from one of Jesus’ disciples. In a matter of hours, Jesus is painfully dying on the cross. Now on the third day, His body is missing and people say that Jesus is alive! What is going on? They had such a positive attitude as they entered Jerusalem just eight days ago! Now their world made no sense to them.

The disciples know the Torah of Moses. They know the prophets. They have read the Psalms and the other devotional writings in the OT. They know that the Scriptures promise the Messiah, the Christ. For three years they heard the teachings of Jesus. All this, but they did not yet understand.

Now, they thought that hiding in fear was the right response to all they had seen, heard, and experienced. They were like that person looking in the yard for a four-leaf clover while Jesus is knocking on the front door, speaking of repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life.

Are we like the disciples? Are we asking what is going on at the same time Jesus is trying to explain things to us? Instead of hearing what He tells us of our problems and His solutions to them, are we asking, “What gets into people? What prompts a person to experiment with drugs or drink too much? What makes someone beat his wife and his children? Why would anyone leave the Church, turning his or her back on the gifts given them in Word and Sacrament?”

What is going on? In days gone by, it was simply called “sin.” Now, we hem and haw and rationalize, and call it any euphemistic name we can think of, but not “sin.” Instead, we blame our problems and failings on society, on our parents, on genetic or environmental factors, on the government—on anything but ourselves and our own limited human nature.

Like the disciples, we often fail to understand what is going on because we are all “by nature sinful and unclean.” But here is an opportunity offered by Jesus beyond our imagining—an opportunity summarized by His words “repentance and forgiveness,” an opportunity made certain by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to understand the meaning of his death and resurrection. Now Jesus is knocking at our front door, too. Christ is opening our minds so that we can understand.

Jesus told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” As John Chrysostom put it, “Repentance: this alone will turn a wolf into a sheep, make a publican a preacher, turn a thorn into an olive, make a debauchee a religious fellow” [3]

Christ is knocking at the door. Are we hearing His call to repentance, His words of forgiveness? Or are we wandering away, looking for a four-leaf clover of our own discovery—or worse, one of our own design? Our Christian life is a life of continually answering the door and meeting Jesus. Flinging ourselves at His merciful feet, we are heartily sorry for our sins and sincerely repent of them. We have the Lord’s word of forgiveness. Jesus said, “You are witnesses of these things.”

But after we answer the door and hear the Savior, do we close it again, and go back to looking for four-leaf clovers? Why do many of us fail to be witnesses of these things?

Those who have received Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and new life also receive his power to be witnesses of the faith. Imagine a couple who had dated for nearly two years. The young man loved the girl and wanted to propose. However, he had cold feet and could not muster the courage. After an agonizing week, he spoke to his father. “Dad, I want to marry Megan, but there’s a big problem.” “Oh, what’s the matter?” his father asked. After a long pause the son sheepishly replied, “Well, I have no idea how to ask her.” His father said, “Son, simply ask her. There is no wrong way.”

Like this young man, many people are afraid and do not know what to say as a witness for Christ. They agonize. They get cold feet. They lack courage. Most of us are like that at one time or another. We can begin our witness in the way the disciples did. After the ascension, the disciples were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. That is how they began their witnessing of the events that had taken place. They showed that our strongest witnessing begins by being immersed in giving praise and receiving God’s gifts until our Lord returns.

We, too, can begin our witnessing by praising and blessing God in His house. If you don’t know what to say, if you are agonizing, if you lack courage, simply begin with words praising God for Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Like Coach Rupp, many feel that believing in your abilities is important. Yet no matter how hard we might try, we do have limits. We are all “by nature sinful and unclean.” But God has given us an opportunity by giving us His Son. Jesus has called us to be witnesses to His death and resurrection, witnesses who share a message of repentance and forgiveness. If we don’t know what to say, we can begin our witness in the way the disciples began their witness: By praising God for Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand. May we daily lead lives of repentance for our failings, receive the gift of forgiveness, and continually be prepared to give our praise-filled witness to who Jesus is, and what He has done, as we await the return of our risen and ascended Lord.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, Alleluia. And He is ascended to heaven, where He intercedes for us, and waits for His faithful witnesses and disciples. May we be counted among them, by God’s grace. Amen.

[1] Luke 24:36

[2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946] pg. 1202.

[3] Homily 5, ca. A.D. 388