SCRIPTURE Readings Acts 1:6-11; Luke 24:50-53
Sermon, May 21st, 2017, “Take Your Place”
This seems like an appropriate place to be to preach a message on Ascension Sunday (in the pulpit)! I hope our eyes are lifted up today, and I pray that our hearts and lives will be uplifted as well! “One year, with the whole Duke University seminary in robes and gathered in the chapel, the Ascension Day celebration ended with clouds of incense ascending and a great song of ascension leading them out of the mist into the courtyard. What the worshipers did not know was that one enterprising student, we’ll name him Steve, had taken one of the tacky, life-size Christmas crèche figures (you know, the hollow, light-weight plastic ones) and he had attached a rocket device to it. As the proper and distinguished clergy entered the courtyard, the young man, lit the fuse and sent the rocket and the plastic Jesus out of the shrubbery and into space through a cloud of smoke and sparks. It shot right through the procession and ended up on a dormitory roof nearby. There the Ascension Day Rocket sputtered and died.
Needless to say, the dean of the seminary did not give the student extra credit for his Ascension Day pyrotechnic display. When the student defended himself by saying, “I was merely trying to dramatize my deep belief in the reality of the ascension of Christ,” the dean was not moved or amused. In addition, this act did not catch-on among liturgical innovators, dramatizing the established gap that still exists to this day between rocket science and Ascension celebrations.” While this story really does sound like our own Duke graduate, Pastor Steve, it was not. This is a true story though of an unnamed graduate, or at least I assume graduate from Duke that was written by the former Dean of Duke Chapel, Bishop Will Willimon.
This is a day that is kind of out of this world, rocket science and ascension do not seem to be that far apart on a day like today. It’s certainly a unique day in the life of the church in the Christian calendar. It’s also one that is not often emphasized in Methodist circles, as noted by the lack of hymns in the hymnal about Jesus’ ascension. I was even told this week during Bible study that we have never really celebrated Ascension Sunday at Meridian Street. So, here we go! What is this Ascension Day? It is an important story to reflect on from the Gospel narrative of Luke/Acts, the only Gospel to record this story (except the longer version of Mark does include one verse related to ascension). It’s traditionally celebrated 40 days after Easter Day and before the celebration of Pentecost. The 40th Day is actually next Thursday, but we’re celebrating the Ascension of Christ today. As you know, I’m a rather traditional and liturgical pastor and really wanted to have a celebration next Thursday, but I didn’t think you would show! So, what is it that we celebrate today? The early church often celebrated the big four festival days, you could probably guess them: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and….yep, Ascension. But why? What is so special about Jesus’ ascension?
It simply appears to be another odd tale of religion, where a man ascends high into the sky. It sounds more like something from the comic books or from a superhero movie. The ascension of Jesus doesn’t easily fit into our understanding of the world or science. In fact, I would argue that this experience is not one to be taken literally; instead Luke is trying to tell us that its significance lies in what it tells us about the Christ. What does it tell us? In the first reading of this story, it might sound like Luke is telling us that Jesus left us. In fact, the last section of Luke tells us “He left them and was taken up.” Is Luke telling us that Jesus left us? Why would we celebrate a day when Jesus left us? It kind of feels like that doesn’t it? Jesus ascended into heaven leaving the rest of us down here peering up into the sky and clouds hoping he’ll come back one day to fix this mess he left.
Bishop Willimon again writes about a time in the 1970’s when he randomly entered a Catholic Church on Ascension Day. A boys’ choir was singing, Deus Ascendti, “God Has Gone Up.” Willimon thought in that moment, “Just as I thought. God has gone up. And isn’t that typical. Gone up, away from the angry violent world. God has abandoned us.” As he continued to listen though, the idea struck him that the choir did not sing, Deus Abscondi, “God has deserted us.” They were singing, Deus Ascendti, “God Has Gone Up.”
Christ may have gone up, but not out of the world. As one pastor noted, “He is simply no longer limited by physical constraints. He can be everywhere. He has not abandoned us.” He has ascended to take his place as king, in charge, to rule, to put all things under his feet.
Could it be that this day and these Scripture readings have something to do with both with who Jesus is and where Jesus is today? The ascension says something about Jesus. The cosmic nature of the Christ is that his rule is beyond the manger in Bethlehem, beyond the roads of Galilee, beyond the fishermen’s boat, beyond the teaching in the temple, beyond the Via Delorosa (the way of the cross), beyond life or death in the resurrection, and even beyond this world. As the reformer John Calvin wrote, “It is not a story about a place, but a function…and that function is the Lordship of Christ.”
This story is about who Christ is, true, but it’s also about where Jesus is in our world. To say that Jesus is everywhere to many people will sound like Jesus is nowhere. To some, the ascension will really sound like “God has deserted us.” It’s easy to forget about our role in the world we occupy. It’s not that Christ has left us, Christ has blessed us. It’s not that Christ has deserted us; Christ has inserted us into the world. We act for Christ today. We are his hands and feet. Luke tells us that Jesus “lifted up his hands and blessed them.” Acts, an extension of the Gospel of Luke, tells us that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus’ desires for his followers are clear. We are to be his witnesses.
Saint Teresa of Avila in the 16th Century wrote, Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
This again speaks to the world, the universe we find ourselves inserted in. The never ending, forever rule of the cosmic nature of Christ calls us into wrestling with the major issues of our day. How do we face questions about war and violence; injustice and oppression; race and racism; poverty, hunger, and homelessness? We remember that we have become the witnesses, the representatives, the workers in the world to bring Christ’s Kingdom fully to earth. There are some who would argue that our best response as Christians is to flee the world. Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option argues that “the goal (for Christians) is to embrace exile from mainstream culture.” Essentially we are to desert the world and set up our own community separate from the wider culture. Is this symbolizing “Deus Ascendti, “God has gone up” or Deus Abscondi, “God has abandoned”?
We don’t abandon the world; that’s not our call, that wasn’t Jesus or his disciples’ call either. Yes, we are to abandon the evil, sin, and injustice of the world, but we do this by engaging, completely in the world. We engage in the mission of the church to make a difference in every facet of our common life; business, education, government, yes, even politics. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He healed and loved against the popular notions and laws of the day. He preached and acted against the powers of the time. He resisted the empire all the way to the cross and God raised him up in the resurrection and lifted him up in the ascension. Jesus was lifted up far higher than Rome or any other earthly power! Jesus took his place and we are to take ours.
The great Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, wrote, “It is the time in which the Church is united with Christ only in faith and by the Holy Spirit; it is the interim time between His earthly existence and His return in glory; it is the time of the great opportunity, of the task of the Church towards the world; it is the time of mission … The Ascension is the beginning of this time of ours.” It is our time; it is our turn to be the hands and feet of Christ.
I heard the story once that when Jesus ascended to heaven he was met by the Littlest Angel. The littlest angel had been rolling around in the clouds and stopped playing when Jesus arrived. He looked at his Lord and he looked down on the mountain where longing disciples were looking up and looking forlorn. He asked Jesus, “So, what happens next?” Jesus said, “What do you mean?” The Littlest Angel tried again, “Now that you are up here, what will they do? What is your plan?” Jesus pointed to the disciples and said, “They are my plan.” The Littlest Angel laughed and laughed and then looking at Jesus smiling at him realized Jesus was serious. The angel asked, “Don’t you have any other plan?” “No,” Jesus replied. “They are my only plan.”
After Jesus ascends, we read that the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy and they stayed in the temple praising God. Yet Acts gives a little more detail that the disciples were looking intently into the sky. Two men dressed in white, similar to the story at the tomb, asked them, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” We’re not meant to stay put, looking up waiting for Jesus’ return to fix everything. Instead we’re to look around and be God’s witnesses in word and deed.
Being God’s witnesses is more than simply being kind in public, that’s already expected of you. It’s more than simply giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, or helping the homeless, that’s the call of Matthew 25 for every follower. Being a witness is also testifying to what you know to be right in a world where wrongs aren’t always called out. It’s reminding the powers that be that we have a responsibility to the poor, the oppressed, and the refugee. It’s raising the bar of the national discourse in politics and beyond politics and moving us in public policy to the place that Jesus ascended to; a Kingdom place, a heavenly place, a Godly place. To be a witness is to dig in where you are planted, and water the roots that will bear fruit in the future. You were created to lift this world to a new level. There is no escape plan, you are the plan. You were created to bring God’s Kingdom to earth, to work for the king that was rightly uplifted to his throne. There’s too much to do in this kingdom planting, it’s time to get carried away with Christ.
The ascension is one of those days with many ways to look at it and many things to learn from it. While it kind of sounds like rocket science, we know that the ascension exalts Jesus, lifts Jesus to his rightful place and it’s time to take ours. Jesus has not abandoned us on this Ascension Day. Not at all! Instead, Jesus was lifted high above every earthly power and beyond, and has breathed into us the power of the Holy Spirit, that we would become the hands and feet of the living Christ, just as Saint Teresa noted Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Today we celebrate that Jesus took his place. Now take yours.
Eternal Ruler, hope of all the earth, we proclaim that Jesus has taken his place as King and Lord over all. Jesus has taken his place, may we now take our place, bringing your kingdom to earth, making a difference in every place of our society. Leave no place untouched by your rule, not in our lives or our communities, nation, or world. Bring your kingdom come and give us strength to now become the hands and feet of Christ Jesus our Lord. Bring the day when the whole world accepts your rule, we pray in the name of our risen and ascended Lord, Jesus the Christ Amen.
William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, Abington Press, Nashville, TN., 1984, p. 100).