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Perspectives from the Cross: Beyond the Cross

April 23, 2006

Acts 1:1-11; Luke 1:1-5

Today, we conclude our series entitled Perspectives on the Cross with today’s sermon, “Beyond the Cross.” I want us to begin our time together with a brief Bible study by looking at several passages of scripture, beginning with the first chapter of the gospel of Luke, Verses 1-5. Luke, as you perhaps know, is the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. He begins his gospel differently than any of the other gospel writers.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke writes to Theophilus that he had carefully investigated all of the events that occurred in the life of Jesus because he himself was not an eyewitness. When we consider the gospel of Luke, we might actually regard it as the Gospel According to the Apostle Paul. Luke, as you know, was a companion of Paul.

In the book of Acts, we find a very definite turning point. Paul wanted to go deeper into the continent of Asia, but for whatever reason was prevented from doing so. At a place called Troas, he had what he referred to as the “Macedonian Call.” In a vision, a dream, Paul saw a man from Macedonia calling him, saying, “Please come, and tell us of this gospel.” That change is very important. Until then, all of the accounts in Acts were written using the third-person point of view. We see references to “they” and “them.” After that experience at Troas, the point of view becomes first-person, using “we” and “us.” Since we know that Luke was the writer of the book of Acts, we know that he joined Paul at Troas.

Now turn to the first chapter of Acts. Immediately in Verse 1, we see that Luke is addressing the same person when he writes, “In my former book, Theophilus…” Theophilus is a word that means “lover of God.” Luke could be addressing one person; but more than likely, he is writing to all people who love God. He clearly says that he has written a previous book, the gospel of Luke. We might think of the book of Acts as Volume 2 of Luke’s writing. He says, “I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.”

Now we want to examine two passages of scripture that provide a description of the ascension.

Luke 24:50-53: When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Acts 1:9-10: After he had said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going.

About twenty years ago on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was launched on a seventy-three second trip. For seventy-three seconds, the Challenger rose into the air as people watched it grow smaller in the sky. Then after seventy-three seconds, the space shuttle exploded. Surrounded by a cloud, the astronauts on board disappeared. Among those were a schoolteacher from Concord, New Hampshire, Christa McCullough, and a man from Lake City, South Carolina, Ronald McNair. It took seventy-three seconds for the astronauts to rise into the air and disappear forever. When a space shuttle takes off, our clear expectation is that it will return. We expected those astronauts aboard the Challenger to be back with us in just a matter of days.

Something very much like that event happened on the day Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives. He, too, rose into the air and disappeared from their sight, leaving them to experience a profound sense of absence. Luke gives us two accounts or versions of the ascension. In his first gospel, he says that following this event, the disciples worshipped, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually praised God in the temple. This ascension did not seem to alarm or disturb them. They appeared grateful for this experience as evident in their rejoicing, praising, and worshipping of God. Perhaps the disciples thought, “Jesus is gone, but he will back in a day or two, a week at the most. He is not going to be gone for very long.” Perhaps because of this expectation, they were joyful.

You will notice that the second account of the ascension, recorded in the book of Acts, presents a very different reaction among the disciples. They stand, gazing into the sky as if the occurrence had startled, surprised, even baffled them. The scripture says they look intently into the sky as Jesus rose before their very eyes. While the first description says that Jesus gave that familiar blessing and then rose into the air, the second account does not mention the blessing; Jesus just disappears.

A pervasive sense of absence occurs when Jesus disappears. I imagine the disciples were a little bit like a classroom of students, watching their favorite teacher, Mrs. McCullough, board the space shuttle only to disappear forever. Maybe the disciples were like the townspeople of Lake City, as they watched their favorite astronaut, Ronald McNair, rise into the sky and disappear.

Many people are baffled about what we do here every Sunday. They do not understand why Christians come to this place Sunday after Sunday, why we gather at any place to pray, to sing praises, and to listen to someone talk. Why do we do this Sunday after Sunday? Is it because the person whom we praise, the person to whom we pray, has been taken from us? Christ has been gone from this earth for almost 2000 years.

Do you suppose people who had loved ones aboard the space shuttle Challenger have a once-a-week observance to remember those taken from them? It has only been twenty years, but we all know that they do not gather every week to memorialize that event. Now, nearly 2000 years later, we are still gathering in places like this sanctuary to remember the life, the death, and the resurrection of a person who left this earth. How do you explain that? How do we understand this? Do you think that those who had loved ones aboard the Challenger will be commemorating the event 2000 years from now? I doubt it. I doubt they will even remember. Books of history will contain a record, and occasionally someone may refer to this event; but I doubt that event will be observed at all.

You will never hear me fuss about people who attend church only at Christmas or only at Easter. Being from a large family, I know that people who live far away cannot be at every family occasion. We are just glad for the ones who can come to family gatherings, rather than concerned and upset about those who just did not make it. I am always thankful to see people who come to worship at Christmas or Easter because they are a part of this family.

Why do we come here the week after Easter? Is it because Jesus is absent? Where has he gone? Before his death on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” Was that the end? I think not. If that were the end, this sermon series should have ended two weeks ago. He died on the cross but rose again. If Easter does not occur, then the crucifixion makes no sense. We logically continue this sermon series, Perspectives on the Cross, through Easter Sunday. Maybe that Sunday should have been the end of the series. Why should we go one week longer, now to this Sunday after Easter? Did everything end with the resurrection? I think not. One perception on the cross is ongoing, one we might call the Perspective beyond the Cross. By the time Luke wrote the ascension account in Acts, Jesus was gone. Luke knew Jesus was not going to return a short time later. It had already been several years since his resurrection and ascension. Some of the original apostles had already died.

Following the disappearance of Jesus in Acts, Luke records an encounter between the disciples and two men dressed in white who raised an important question, “Why do you stand gazing into the sky?” Luke, a physician, could have thought those two men were doctors or possibly nurses. Maybe he thought they were attendants from a psychiatric hospital. After all, the disciples must have looked crazy, standing there gazing into the sky. Though Luke never directly identifies those two men, he thought they were angels delivering a message.

When the men asked, “Why do you stand gazing into the sky?” the disciples stopped looking up into the sky and starting looking around them. They might have even stretched their sore necks there on the top of the Mount of Olives and looked toward the city where they were able to see all of Jerusalem, including the temple with its gleaming white stones. They might have remembered, “Jesus taught in that place.” From the top of the Mount of Olives, they could have also seen Golgotha, the place where Jesus died. From the top of the Mount of Olives, they could have seen the site of the empty tomb and remembered the resurrection. From the top of the Mount of Olives, they could have seen the house where they had gathered for the last Passover meal in an upper room, the room where, after his resurrection, Jesus had appeared to them, and where they would return after this ascension. Many memories may have come to mind as they looked around them.

When a loved one is suddenly taken away from you, you are left with many memories. Sometimes those memories are wonderful. Sometimes they are bittersweet. When you remember someone like that, you call to mind details you may not have remembered while the person was alive. Even characteristics and traits that tended to be very annoying may become somewhat charming, even pleasant, at a distance. Remembering someone does not take away the feeling of absence.

Do we come here only to remember a Lord taken from us nearly 2000 years ago? Memory is not enough to sustain this kind of regular worship. Our son Erik died a little over five years ago. That first year, I went to the grave just about every week. Now I only go to his grave on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and his birthday. I will sometimes go by when I have a few extra minutes after a funeral at Greenlawn, but I do not make regular trips to his grave anymore. Memory, however precious, is not enough to sustain the kind of devotion that the Christian church has exercised for nearly two millennia. What makes the difference? Where has Jesus gone?

A Sunday School teacher asked her class, “What do you find most amazing about God?”

A little boy answered, “The most amazing thing about God is that He created the whole world with only His left hand.”

Curious, the teacher asked, “Why do you say that God created the whole world with only His left hand?”

The boy said, “Jesus is sitting on His other hand. The Bible says that Jesus is sitting on His right hand.”

The Bible does say that. I suppose we think of Jesus as being right next to God, somewhere far away.

Would you point to heaven? What if I brought you back in twelve hours and asked you to point to heaven then? We have learned from people like Copernicus and Galileo, that given the rotation of the earth, we would be pointing at exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction. We must not think of heaven so much as up as we think of heaven being beyond.

The ascension, a strange event, appeared at the end of the gospel of Luke and at the beginning of the book of Acts. It ends Volume 1 and begins Volume 2. In this second account of the ascension, the physician Luke saw something the other gospel writers probably did not see. He likely regarded the ascension as a kind of transition, not an end at all. In fact, we, too, might think of it differently. We may consider it a beginning. Once the apostles quit staring heavenward when the angels asked them what they were gazing at, they started looking around them. They saw not only Jerusalem, a city that provoked numerous memories, but they also saw each other. They saw other people. They saw ordinary things in an ordinary world. They saw the world that Jesus had said was their mission field. Once they started looking around, they understood they were not going to see Jesus by gazing into the sky; but if they paid attention, they could see him present in this world. Jesus is no longer here on this earth so that he can be everywhere. His absence does not bring us together; his abiding presence brings us together. The Lord Jesus is here. We come together as a church – week after week, year after year, century after century – not because Jesus was taken from us, but because Jesus is present with us. His presence is invisible, but his presence is powerful. It turns followers into leaders. It turns converted people into missionaries. It turns listeners into preachers. It turns people who have been healed into healers.

The ascension is a turning point, a point of transition. Once those eleven apostles quit staring into the sky and started looking around, they became the church. They gathered, not because Jesus was absent but because his presence was very real to them. Jesus promised, “You will receive power,” and they did. He promised, “You will be witnesses,” and they were. They became witnesses in the church of Jesus Christ. His body draws us together week after week, year after year, century after century because here we celebrate his presence. It does not matter whether we have a big crowd on Easter Sunday or whether just two or three of us are gathered. Jesus is present. Every time we get together, the Lord Jesus is present. That is our perspective of the cross from this vantage point. We remember that the Christ who is present with us suffered and died and conquered death. A little chorus captures the concept this way: “You came from heaven to earth to show the way, From earth to the cross my debt to pay, From the cross to the grave, From the grave to the sky. Lord, I lift your name on high.”

When we gather here, we do as the disciples did. We come with joy and gladness. We come to worship a Christ who is not absent from us at all. We worship a Christ who is present. “Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place. I can feel his mighty power and his grace. I can hear the brush of angel wings. I see glory on each face. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

Do you know that the Lord is in this place? Do you sense that? Luke has a phrase that no other gospel writer uses. He says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (I Colossians 1:27). Is Christ in you? Does his presence abide in you? If not, I invite you to make a decision to allow him to come into your life, allow him to be your Lord and Savior. If you have already experienced that, you know of his presence. Maybe the need of your life is a church home. You know that God has led you to this place. He wants you to belong and be a part of His family here. We invite you to make your decision today as we stand and sing together our hymn of invitation, “The Way of the Cross Leads Home.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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