Easter 7—Year A
June 1, 2014
After almost 7 weeks of Easter we come to the Ascension of Jesus. It’s a central story of the good news, but we’ve lost touch with it because we are stuck in a literal mindset.
We have no trouble understanding that “moving up” day for a student who is starting Middle School next year does not mean they will be moving to a higher floor in the building but to a new school. We know that when ESPN says that LeBron James has ascended to the top they are telling us about his basketball prowess and not his location in the universe.
But the moment we hear about Jesus ascending to heaven we think up, and since we know there is no physical place up there, and that in fact there is no such thing as an absolute up, Jesus could not have ascended to the right hand of God.
This literalism is a hangover from the Enlightenment’s attempt to keep our focus squarely on ourselves, lest we be disturbed by the idea there is someone in the universe more important than us.
The ascension means that Jesus is Lord and we are not.
It also means that Jesus is both going away from us and yet coming near to us through the Holy Spirit, which explains why the disciples after watching Jesus withdraw into the cloud are filled with joy.
Heaven for biblical people is another dimension of reality that touches earth at all places.
I like how Protestant Karl Barth, whom Pope Pius XII called the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, defines heaven as “the hidden place where God takes space within the creation.” The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth, the article on Ascension.
Heaven is also the control room of the universe. See N. T. Wright’s excellent Surprised by Hope
But if heaven is the control room how is it controlling these first disciples?
It is customary for preachers to say that the first disciples were people just like us!
Of course on one hand that’s true: they are born, live, suffer, and die exactly like us, though on average they die a lot younger than we do.
But on the other hand we also need to see the differences.
Acts tells us they number about 120 yet there is not a high school or college diploma among them. They are also much poorer.
Also, honesty demands that I point out there is no ordained clergy in their number: no bishops, priests, or deacons, no one with a seminary education. Though it didn’t take the Church long to declare that Peter was in fact a bishop so clergy wouldn’t be worried about job security.
Every one of them is Jewish.
So how is it that this uneducated and poor community could change the world?
The short answer begins with noticing they spend time with Jesus. They watch him heal and listen to him teach the mercy of God as he lives that mercy by breaking bread with the broken. They watch how he lives and dies in open surrender to God.
But our gospel today tells us first and foremost what changes everything is their experience of his resurrection as the first born of the new creation, a human being with a glorified body.
Second, they understand they must stop depending on themselves and instead give themselves over to God. In other words, they now accept God’s forgiveness instead of playing “the worthiness game” and the “I’m better than you” game.
In Christ they can play the “I forgive you” and “I love you game” and build real community.
Third, they are anchored in the Bible, which is to say, in God’s Story.
Jesus says: “…everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
This means that what is happening to the 120 has been playing out for more than a thousand years, through God’s covenant with Israel, and even goes back to the beginning of creation and now these people have a role to play as witnesses to Jesus and the resurrection.
Finally, Jesus says they are to wait for “the promise of the Father” so they can be “clothed with power from on high.” Only in and through this power, the Holy Spirit, will their work bear fruit.
What all this tells the disciples is that the good news is not about them and their private relationship with God, where it is God’s job to protect their comfortable lifestyle and keep them happy at all times.
In fact, they now know they will not find personal happiness as long as they make happiness their goal.
Pursuing personal happiness is just the mind’s dream that leads to suffering, as any Buddhist could tell you, because even when we get what we want, we quickly find we always want something new.
I love Susan Werner’s song called “I can’t be new.”
It’s a song from a woman to her partner, but it could just as easily be from a TV or a car or a house or a job to its owner:
When you need a laugh I can be your joker
Cut a loss in half, I can be your broker
I can be your girl through the best and worst time,
But I can’t be the girl you notice for the first time.
So much I can do, but I can’t be new.”
True joy only comes as we find our place, our role, in God’s Story. We are all called to be witnesses and workers for the Lord.
Joy comes as we practice living for others in the power of the Spirit.
So here is the miracle we are being called to consider today: that the Lord who transformed the world through that original 120 can also continue that work of transformation though us.
And he does it the same way:
Christ reveals to us our utter dependence on his grace and mercy.
Christ anchors us in God’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.
If we are not anchored to God’s story we are most surely going to be adrift in the world’s story which can never connect us to the home and the love we are seeking.
The Lord also offers us the promise that the Holy Spirit will clothe us with power from on high.
There is no transformation without claiming our need for the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance.
I was ordained to the priesthood on Ascension Day 1979, 35 years ago. It was an evening service at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Peachtree City, Georgia because our new mission church was meeting in small building owned by the city. I remember some family, friends, and colleagues who were there—some who have since died.
I remember Bishop Bennett Sims after the service pouring the left over consecrated wine into the ground outside the back wall singing “the Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”
And I remember Bill Pregnall, professor at Virginia Seminary saying in his sermon that I and my classmates were arrogant. At the time I took it as a strange insult, but later I would know it as a gift of truth. We were not arrogant in the typical way of boasting and conceit, but in the subtle way of thinking with our education, sophistication, and hard work we could transform the Church. When you are 27 it doesn’t feel like arrogance, but confidence.
We, like those first disciples, also had to learn, and keep learning, that what the Lord desires most of all is not our gifts and talents but our surrender:
The surrender of our story to God’s Story.
The surrender of our pride to God’s power.
The surrender of our sins to God’s mercy.
On Ascension Day we see that Jesus is Lord and that we are not—
–so we can quit trying to control our neighbors and instead spend our lives loving them–
Which is much more fun.