Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015
Where is he? Do you see him? Where’d he go? He was just here.
You might not believe me, but, really, it’s true. Everyone thought he was dead and gone, executed as a common criminal, buried in a tomb. But he turned out to be more alive than ever before.
And that was a good thing, since it’s obvious that we can’t do this job by ourselves. In fact…we’re not even sure what the job is. Preaching? Healing? Feeding people? Reforming the Temple system? Starting a revolution?
At first, it didn't really matter that we didn't know what we were doing. We followed him and did what he did…or at least we tried.
After they finally caught up with him and executed him, we thought it was all over. It was such a relief when we discovered he’d returned, different than before – but just as vivid, just as inspiring. We could depend on him again, and good thing! None of us has it together enough to pull that stuff off without Jesus.
This time we asked him the question we’d been asking ourselves all along, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” he said.” And then “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.” If that’s our job description, we thought, then it’s a good thing you’re still around!
But as soon as he had said this, as we were watching, he was lifted up and away from us. Gone. Looks like it’s for good this time. Now what do we do? Where’d he go? Do you see him?
Acts 1:1-11 is Luke’s second account of the ascension of Jesus. His first account is found in his Gospel, where the resurrected Jesus rises to heaven almost immediately after appearing to the disciples. But in Part 2 – the Book of the Acts of the Apostles – Luke gives us a different and expanded picture.
After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God. As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.”
6 When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”
7-8 He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”
9-11 These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, “You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? (The Message)
Now, that seems a silly question. Wouldn't you stand looking up if you had seen Jesus rising up to heaven?
Surely Luke intends us to remember another time when two men appeared, two men in dazzling clothes who stood beside the women who had come to the tomb on Easter morning. Those men, had also asked a question. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" But the women hadn't come to the tomb looking for the living, they’d come looking for a dead body. Another silly question!
The second question is not just silly as a question; it reflects a picture of the world that we know doesn't make sense anymore. We know that heaven isn't “up.” After 2000 years of scientific advancement, we know that planet earth is but a small part of a solar system that itself, takes up only the tiniest fraction of an enormous galaxy. And we know that our enormous galaxy lies in an unimaginably vast universe that consists of billions of galaxies.
Jesus couldn't have gone “up there” literally: he would have frozen to death, or suffocated, or been irradiated, or ripped to shreds by black holes.
So for many of us, the idea of the risen Jesus literally “going beyond the clouds” in any literal way is beyond silly; it is preposterous and unhelpful to our faith.
The author of Luke is writing from the world-view that he knows—that the earth is flat, that heaven is above the earth, and the land of the dead is below it. It was neither silly nor preposterous to Luke and his listeners that Jesus would “ascend” into the highest heaven to be one with God.
Even today, with all our scientific knowledge, we tend to associate positive power and moral authority with being “up.” Height continues to have its advantages, in job interviews and political elections…and preaching. No wonder they put pulpits where they do – it’s almost as good as a mountaintop!
Some of you know that I've recently returned from 4 days at a preaching festival in Denver, Colorado. In keeping with its “mile high” location – as well as the ancient association of speaking for God and mountaintops – this year’s festival was called “Preaching from the Mountaintop.”
Perhaps four days of preaching is not your idea of a good time. My 20 year old daughter was incredulous. “Really? Really? You get four days…and you spend them listening to sermons?”
Yes, it’s true. I did choose that, and I don’t regret it one bit. The speakers were preachers’ preachers, the best of the best. I thought I’d get some good material. And with a title like “Preaching from the Mountaintop,” I figured I’d get plenty of inspiration for all that we are going through right now here at UUMC. We’re looking for ways to turn outwards, to extend ourselves to the world. I thought I’d hear something just right for us on this Ascension Day when Jesus commands his disciples to be his witnesses ‘even to the ends of the earth.’”
And I did. But it was not the message I expected. The theme that ran through all the speakers -- which I am confident they did not plan because they have less time, even, than I have – was that it’s time for the church to come down off the mountain.
In Denver, Dr. Diana Butler Bass brought home to us what we preachers already knew. But she did it with statistics: In the last 7 years, from 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant numbers have decreased by 3.4%, from 18.1% of the American population to 14.7% of it. Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have also seen declines, although not as steep. Non-Christian faiths have increased 1.2%, from 4.7 to 5.9% of the population and those who describe themselves as “Unaffiliated” have increased 6.7%, from 16.1 to 22.8%.
Those are steep changes, especially over the course of just seven years. But we weren't surprised; we've been expecting this – and preaching about it ourselves – for awhile now.
Despite this apparently bad news, however, the mood of the festival was neither depressed nor depressing. In an odd way, the change in the American religious landscape was energizing. The speakers addressed it as an opportunity; a chance for a new understanding of what the church really should be about, what we must be about if we’re going to last another century; what we can be about, now that we are no longer dictators and preservers of the authoritative American worldview.
Some churches and denominations are trying new ways of organizing themselves. But Dr. Butler Bass says that what we are to be about in this new climate cannot happen with just a change in structure. Others advocate new ways of worshiping, new music, new architecture. But it’s going to take more than a change in style, she says. What we need is a new way of thinking about, talking about, and embodying God.
Even with the contributions of modern astrophysics, Christians have inherited the idea that heaven and God are up there, and hell and eternal separation from God are down there, and earth is somewhere in between. Even though we know, intellectually, that it can’t be, we still operate as if God is something/some one totally different from ourselves, living in a different realm, occasionally blessing us, or terrifying us, by coming down for a visit.
Dr. Butler Bass argues that what the church needs is a new understanding of God and reality. To move from a vertical understanding (God, earth, hell) to a horizontal one. The view she asked us to consider sees God on the horizon, on our plane, not up above us.
- If God is on our level, then God is always with us, not waiting for us somewhere else.
- If God is on the horizon, then we can see God and move toward God. And as we shift and change, God also shifts and changes to keep us moving forward.
- The horizon is always present, but always changing; it never leaves but it can never be captured.
- A horizontal God is both near and far, here and there, with us and ahead of us.
This is obviously a very different understanding of reality than the very vertical one we read about in the Book of Acts where Luke records Jesus as being lifted up, into the clouds.
Or is it?
Even in this ancient ascension account, the two angels speak to the disciples and say, You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.”
In other words, we can imagine they are saying, “Why do you insist on looking away from here, away from now? Don’t get stuck on the future. Because Jesus is going to enter your lives again. Jesus will be present with us here and now. God’s presence is among us, not far off in some distant, superior place beyond our reach. No, God is very near.
According to Luke, Jesus spent forty days after the resurrection speaking with his disciples about the kingdom of God. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" they asked him. Jesus answered, "It is not for you to know the times or the periods that God has set by divine authority, but"- and this is one of the biggest little words in the Bible -- "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," which surely includes where weare right now. That is, the promise of the Spirit is a promise for this earth, this place, this time.
Centuries later, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth. A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities -- that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him."
"Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" Well it is easier to look for a pure world up there, let’s admit it. There are so many blemishes, so many things wrong, down here. Perhaps you've heard someone say, "Show me a church where the ministers aren't self-serving, where the people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I'll become a member." Well, they’re going to wait a long time, because such a church takes up no space on this earth.
Annie Dillard writes about such longings in her book Holy the Firm:
A blur of romance clings to our notion of people in the Bible, as though of course God should come to these simple folks, these Sunday School watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves, while we now are complex and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? There is no one but us. There is no one to send nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time. But there is no one but us. There never has been."
There is no one but us, not in this time and space. We can stand looking up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses." You will preach and teach, and heal and feed, and speak the truth and start revolutions. It’s quite a job description! And you will do it, ordinary and imperfect as you are, through equally ordinary and imperfect communities of faith.
We are not called to spend our time looking up. We are called to find the divine in the here and now, to trust that Christ’s promise is in and around us. We are called to receive the Holy Spirit as the power to follow Christ outward toward the horizon that is God.
Where’d he go? Can you see him?
Oh! There you are!
Barbara K. Lundblad. “Footprints on the Earth.” Day 1 Radio Program, Ascension Sunday, May 08, 2005. http://day1.org/937-footprints_on_the_earth
Catherine Taylor. “Power Source.” Day 1 Radio Program. Ascension of the Lord, June 01, 2003. http://day1.org/513-power_source
Mindi Welton-Mitchell. Worship Resources for May 12, 2013. http://rev-o-lution.org.
Taylor Burton-Edwards et al. Discipleship Resources at umcdiscipleship.org. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/ascension-sunday-seventh-sunday-of-