SCRIPTURE – Acts 1:1-14 – In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “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.
June 1, 2014
Now here’s a treasured story we all know and love. A wise and powerful being descends from the heavens to make his dwelling among us mortal humans. He develops a small following of people who were outside the power structure, including women and children. He performs miracles and healings. He is hunted down by the ruling powers, who finally end up taking him captive. He dies, is resurrected, and then ascends back to the heavens as his earth-bound friends look upward, gazing at the sky.
Of course, I’m talking about “E.T. the Extraterrestrial.” That movie, which came out in 1982, was a defining moment for my generation. I’ll never forget in that very last scene, when E.T. is about to board his spaceship. He goes to each of the three children and gives them a message to remember. When he comes to Eliot, the boy with whom E.T. had such a strong connection, he puts his glowing finger on Eliot’s heart and says, “I’ll be right here.” I’m tearing up just thinking about it. And then, E.T. boards his spaceship and goes home.
Our story from Acts today might not have the same emotional appeal or the special effects, but there are a lot of similarities. Like E.T., Jesus has been persecuted by authorities, he’s died, been resurrected, and is now ready to go home to his Father in heaven. But before he ascends, he has some marching orders to share with the disciples. After doing so, we are told he was “lifted up,” and a cloud took him out of their sight. This is his last earthly appearance. This moment is the culmination of all that Jesus had done and said in scripture. This is the Ascension.
So why don’t we pay any attention to it? Culturally, this story doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Christmas or the heart-overflowing joy of Easter, but in the grand scheme of God’s work in this world, what we observe on this Sunday is just as important. Ascension Sunday falls six weeks after Easter and one week before Pentecost, which is next week. Before we get there, we first have to tie up the loose ends in Jesus’ story, like the fact that he’s been resurrected and is walking around making appearances. Now what? Is he just going to keep doing this forever? Two thousand years after the first Easter would Jesus still be walking the earth, popping up here and there? “Honey, set an extra plate, I invited Resurrected Jesus over for dinner tonight.” Of course not! So we have this story at the beginning of Acts about Jesus’ ascension, which sets the stage for the disciples to take up the torch and continue God’s work.
I think I know why we don’t really celebrate Ascension Sunday. It’s because what is acknowledged on Ascension Sunday is that fact that Jesus left us; it’s the day the present Lord became absent. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Do we really need a day commemorating Christ’s absence from us? We get too many reminders of that on regular days, that God doesn’t always feel as close to us as we would like. We want him around, popping up here and there when we need him. But he’s gone, as we are reminded today.
This might seem like a strange thing to celebrate, but it’s just one of the many paradoxes about Christianity. A paradox is defined as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” That pretty much sums up our entire belief system, doesn’t it? Think how absurd this gathering must look to outsiders. We come together week after week with no intention of doing anything productive. The main leaders put on a dress – even the guys! – we sit and face a huge instrument of torture, we close our eyes and talk as if there’s someone there. We declare things we can’t prove and make promises we don’t always keep to a God we can’t see. Does that sound a bit absurd?
But remember the other part of the definition of paradox: “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” A possible truth. Can we say a definitive truth? Not definitively. Do we really know that we know that we know what we believe is true? No more so than I can show you a picture of what the wind looks like or describe what freedom feels like. But I believe what I know about God is true, and one of the reasons I believe that is because of what happens on Ascension Sunday.
As you may know, Acts is actually the second part of a two-part book, both written by Luke to his friend Theophilus. In the first book, the gospel of Luke, the author writes his account if the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the story doesn’t end there. You can’t stop at the end of Luke. That would be like stopping the story after Cinderella lost her slipper or after E.T’s gray little body is found in that creek bed. There’s more to the story. To fully grasp the whole narrative arc, you have to read Acts.
What Acts does, particularly these first 14 verses, is it completes Jesus’ story and fulfills God’s promises. It reminds us that what God begins, God completes. What God promises, God fulfills. This episode brings closure to the story of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and prepares the way for the fulfilling of the next promise. Jesus says in John’s gospel, “If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” That’s what happens on Pentecost, the reminder that Jesus told us, “I’ll be right here.”
But we’re not there yet. We only have to wait seven days, but the disciples had to wait 40. Forty days in between Jesus ascending and the Holy Spirit coming. No wonder they stood there looking up at the sky! I would, too. In a sense, ever since the Ascension we’ve been looking up, waiting for a glimpse of God, waiting for Jesus to return and set things right. We’re living in what theologian Karl Barth called “the significant pause,” the time in between Jesus’ first and second coming, the time where we wait with expectant hope for God to do what God has promised. And until then, we stand with the disciples, looking up and wondering and asking, “Now what?”
Now what, indeed. I’ve heard that question asked many times. Now what? The person I thought would always be around is no longer around. Now what? That security I thought I would always have is gone. Now what? The child I thought would always need me is off on their own. Now what? Sometimes the assurance of Jesus’ presence slips from our hands like a child’s balloon that ascends to the heavens. And we’re left behind to ask, “Now what?”
God heard the disciples’ hearts crying out that question, because God provides an answer in the form of two angels who offer a gentle reproof: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” In other words, “Don’t just stand there; do something!” Jesus spent three years doing ministry among these disciples, teaching them and listening to them and forgiving them and empowering them. He has been preparing them for this moment, when the reins of this fledgling religious group would be handed over to them. It’s time to stop looking up and start looking around. As I heard one pastor say it, “Don’t look for Jesus in the heights; look for him in the depths.” The depths of human life, the deep, dark places in the world, that’s where the disciples will now find him.
So as we sit here this morning, experiencing the paradox of Sunday worship, I wonder if we are guilty of the same neck-craning as the disciples. Are we sitting here looking up, waiting for a concrete sign from the heavens, putting God’s work on hold until we get some sort of confirmation that this paradox of Christianity is more than just a possible truth? Are we hoping to experience a presence that would make sense of the feelings of absence, a definitive, incontrovertible truth to counteract the absurdity of life? Are we holding back until we know that we know that we know this whole faith thing is true?
If we are, that’s OK. I believe all of us go through times when that’s all we have to offer, simply to be here with our craned necks and our quizzical looks. But the reality of life is that there will be times when Christ feels absent, when we live in the “significant pause” between Christ’s appearances here on earth. But if we only spend our time looking up, I think we’ve lost the plot. Unlike the disciples, we don’t have the benefit of three years of teaching from Jesus, but we have something else. We have this church. We have God’s word. We have the bread and the cup. We have each other. This place is our training ground, where we can hear about and practice grace and forgiveness and loving each other, so that we can take those things into the world. But if the extent of our faith – our scripture reading, our praying, our talking about justice and inclusion and being Christ-like – if all of that starts and ends here, we’re just looking up.
I believe we are called to come here and look up so that we can go out there and look around. We come here each week to listen and to sing and to taste, to be reminded of who we are and who we’re called to be so we can go out and live that call. We come here to pray so we can go out there and witness. There’s nothing wrong with looking up, with seeking God’s face and waiting with hope for Christ’s return. But if we only look up, if we don’t then live out what we believe is true, we’re missing the presence of Christ that’s already here, in our midst.
The answer to “now what” is the church, reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to be a companion to the lonely, to confront evil, to speak a word of truth. Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor says about this story, “It’s almost as if he had not ascended but exploded, so that all of the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, so that the seeds of heaven were sown over the fields of the earth.” The Ascension isn’t a story about Christ’s absence. It’s a story about Christ’s presence with us in all times and all place. “I’ll be right here.”
I think I have a better understanding of why Ascension Sunday is no really given a lot of attention. In this sermon alone, I’ve compared Jesus to a Disney princess, an extraterrestrial, and a balloon. There just aren’t any good Ascension metaphors. “Jesus, I need a picture. I need a comparison. I need a reminder down here on earth of what you are like so I can tell others about you.” (Look around) Oh, yeah. I see Jesus now. He’s right here. Now what?