Happy Ascension Sunday, everyone!
SCRIPTURE – Acts 1:1-14 –
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 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. 4 While staying[a] 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; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 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.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 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[c] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
May 28, 2017
I hope you all are having a good Memorial Day weekend. A lot of us look forward to this holiday because it marks the end of school and the beginning of summer. And who doesn’t like a Monday off? But I’m sure we also are aware of the meaning of Memorial Day, when we remember all of those who’ve gone before us, especially the service men and women of our armed forces. We are free to celebrate this holiday because they sacrificed to make us free, and we give thanks for them this weekend.
This year, this weekend also coincides with another holiday. You probably know the word “holiday” is a contraction of the words “holy day,” and the other holiday observed this weekend is more of a holy day. So what you are you big plans to celebration Ascension Sunday? Did you put up your Ascension Day tree? Are you exchanging Ascension Day presents? I thought Ascension Day was primarily a Catholic celebration, but I was talking to someone who attends a Catholic church about this last night, and she said, “What’s an Ascension?” Culturally, this story doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Christmas or the resurrection 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 must 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, you’ll never guess who I ran into at Target today. Risen Jesus!” Probably 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 the 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, divorce days, diagnosis days, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts 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. We know all too well what it feels like when Jesus is absent from us. Today reminds us he’s gone, he’s no longer with us, and that’s not something to celebrate.
Celebrating Jesus’ absence is one of the many paradoxes of faith. A paradox is defined as “a statement 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 eat a small piece of bread and drink a thimble of grape juice and claim it’s some dead guy’s body and blood. 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 that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” A possible truth. Can we say a definitive truth? Not definitively. But I’m willing to stake my life on the possibility that God is real. 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.
What the book of 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.
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. The old saying goes, “What goes up must come down,” but it usually doesn’t take 40 days. No wonder they stood there looking up at the sky! I would, too. 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 God who used to feel so close now feels so far away, as far as heaven is from earth. 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. “Why are you looking up to heaven?” Sounds like a weird question to ask in a church, of all places. And don’t get me wrong. Heaven is wonderful. We need Heaven, there’s a need for the holiness and hope that Heaven provides for us. We need to know that there’s something more beyond our mortal life. But the big problem with looking up to Heaven is that you can’t see the person next to you. Are we looking up instead of looking around? Do we think God can only be found up there? Are we looking to the heights instead of the depths?
If we are, that’s OK. I believe all of us go through times when that’s all we can do, simply be here with our craned necks and our quizzical looks and our hope in a possible truth. 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. Unlike the disciples, we don’t have the benefit of three years of teaching from Jesus. If the disciples just saw the guy, and were standing around looking at the sky, what chance do we have of seeing him, of feeling his presence?
As I was researching this sermon, I came across a painting of the Ascension. In it, Jesus is about three stories up and the disciples are all staring at him. And I saw the most peculiar thing in this painting. On the ground, where Jesus was just standing moments before, are a set of footprints, a reminder that Jesus was here, that his body was real, that it took up space on this earth. Jesus left footprints here.
We don’t have the benefit of seeing the real Jesus here on earth or watching him ascend to the heavens. 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. He is physically gone, so we are now his body, called to be real, called to make footprints in his name, to leave tangible evidence that the body of Christ is here, now, in this place. Remember, right before the divine elevator started going up, Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses to you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That includes Lexington, right? That means we have work to do. But if the extent of our faith – our scripture reading, our praying, our talking about justice and inclusion and being Christ-like – if all 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 the promise of Heaven. 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” – in our faith and in our culture – 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, to leave footprints in his name. Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor says about this story, “It’s almost as if Jesus 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 places, including right here, right now. Christ is here. Is Christ also out there? Let’s go see if we can find him. And where we don’t find him, let’s be him to others.