5.26.2006

Ascension Sunday Sermon

Yeah, I'm a day late. The liturgically appropriate day to celebrate Ascension is the fortieth day after Easter, traditional a Thursday. But I loved the Ascension texts and made an executive decision to celebrate the Ascension this Sunday. Here's the sermon, with thanks to Nathan Mattox for doing the research on the Shekinah and providing other details I'd normally miss.

The weeks after Easter always seem a little anti-climactic. How do you follow something as transformative and redemptive as the Resurrection? Up from the grave he arose!… and then… he ate… some fish. The lectionary leads us back to some of the most treasured of Jesus’ teachings as a reminder of our relationship with the Risen Lord—he is the vine, and we are the branches. He is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. He is our Savior, but he is also our friend. The weeks pass along, and suddenly we are in danger of treating Easter less like a way of life and more like a holiday to remember. Just when the church is in danger of becoming placid again, just when we are about to get used to the idea that God is so good he breathed life and Spirit into our Crucified Lord, we are faced with the wild and wonderful tale of the Ascension.

I love this story. I love the image it paints, like the one on our bulletins today, of Jesus floating away on a cloud. I love that it cannot, will not be tamed into a version that fits our skeptical modern minds. Through the ages there have been many well-meaning biblical interpreters who go out of their way to read the bible in a rational, reasonable manner. But the story of how Christ ascended to Heaven dangles like a pearl at the end of the Gospel of Luke, settling once and for all that the story of our faith doesn’t play by the rules of physics. And thank God for that. Here we have a story full of power and wisdom, promise and glory. Here we have the only story strong enough to be a bridge between the brilliance of Easter and the energy of Pentecost. For here, in the epilogue to Luke and the introduction to Acts, we encounter our Risen Lord rising even higher yet, to be in the realm of his Heavenly Father.

In the story of the Ascension, the hazy fog of misunderstanding burns away to reveal one solitary cloud of God’s presence, the same divine cloud that appeared when Moses received the law, the same billowing presence that hovered nearby as Jesus was transfigured on the mountain. And in this drama, the fullness of Christ’s identity is finally uncovered. God did not raise his son from the tomb only to allow him to die again; the new life he breathed into him would be eternal. He had been lifted to the cross, lifted from the grave, and now, after 40 days of final words to his Disciples, he is lifted up to Heaven. God raised him to reign forever over the Kingdom at the center of his divine agenda. The humble, confounding prophet of parables and miracles is crowned King. To say that Christ is Lord is to proclaim that the final authority of our lives is Christ. Not ourselves, not our fears, not even our earthly leaders. Christ’s ascension to the throne of God’s Kingdom calls into question any other allegiance, for as witnesses to the gospel our allegiance is owed to God.

If God embraced Christ as King of his heavenly realm, that makes the disciples, that makes us, citizens of that peaceable Kingdom. And in both the gospel and the book of Acts, Luke recalls that Jesus’ last words have everything to do with commissioning the early Church on how to be Kingdom people, to bear witness to what their Lord has done for them.

“Thus it is written,” Jesus says, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

In the book of Acts, the Disciples still don’t quite get it. They want to know when and how their Lord will restore the Israelite Kingdom. After all, that had been the focus of Jewish hope for centuries—for God to send a Messiah to drive out the foreign occupiers and reestablish Jerusalem as the Holy City of God’s chosen people. But it turns out that God’s plan was different. It turns out that the Messiah wouldn’t assume the throne of Jerusalem, but would die and assume the throne of all Creation. It turns out that God wouldn’t just redeem Israel, but that Jerusalem would be only the beginning, the well from which a spiritual movement of global proportions would spring. It turns out that the redemption of God’s beloved world would not take place within a generation, but over two millennia and counting. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, it turns out that Jesus wasn’t going to build the Kingdom all by himself, but that the disciples he gathered around him had been conscripted into the holy work of proclaiming the story of Jesus.

What happens in the moments before the ascension is this: the disciples find out that they will have a new identity, and though the word is not used, the disciples discover that they will be the church. With Christ at their head and Peter as their rock, the men and women gathered at the foot of Christ’s ascension learned that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit for the purpose of continuing the redemptive work started by their Lord and Savior. Despite their blundering, despite their misunderstanding, their moments of utter faithlessness, the little circle of believers gathered that day were give the big news that God was doing a new thing through them. They were being raised up as ministers of the gospel, entrusted with a congregation much larger than they had realized, a congregation that included all the corners of the earth, peoples in lands they didn’t even know existed. Those men and women who would become the early church were Christ’s only mouthpiece, God’s chosen way for the good news of his redeeming love to reach the nations.

Their friend and shepherd, Jesus, would not be physically present. They could no longer embrace him anymore than they could hitchhike to heaven by grasping the hem of his robes. The cloud would change everything, spiriting their Risen Savior off to a realm beyond human perception. But God does not leave his children alone. On Ascension day, the word is out that a Holy Spirit is on its way, a Spirit so mysterious and real that it can only be described in paradox— a Spirit like water, like fire, like wind. Jesus promises that the disciples, the church, will receive power in the form of that most Holy Spirit.

They will be clothed with power from on High. That is such a turn of phrase. Nothing expresses the nature of the Holy Spirit better than that lovely metaphor Jesus proclaims before he blesses the disciples and catches his taxi-cloud to Heaven. “You will be clothed with Power from on High.” Power like a cardigan sweater, power like a winter jacket. Jesus speaks of a Power that tangibly embraces us, warms us, reassures us that we belong to God.

Suddenly the disciples were alone again, their savior having disappeared once more. But it was not like the eve of the crucifixion. Mourning and lamentation were not in order. In the book of Acts, they stand there, staring at the empty spot in the sky where Jesus had been. Are they bewildered? Overwhelmed? Confused? Dismayed? It takes a pair of angels to snap them out of their heavenward gaze. They reassure the Disciples that Jesus is going to return, but imply that the appropriate thing to do is not simply stand around looking for clues of his advent. Don’t focus your heart on the Kingdom in Heaven, roll up your sleeves and get busy participating in the foundation of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Those disciples had a choice. They could run away in fear the way they had done the last time their Savior eclipsed their sight, or they could trust. They could give up on Jesus and his refusal to establish the new Jerusalem according to their limited human agenda, or they could pour their hopes into the promise of a Holy Spirit to guide and empower them to become the Body of Christ on Earth. They chose the later. They chose to worship, to return to the place God had called them with great joy, to continually bless God in the temple.

Despite their brokenness and infidelity, their unbelief and anxiety, Christ’s promises found a home in his circle of disciples. I have often marveled that the fact that we got from Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s rejection, and Thomas’s disbelief to the church seems the most unlikely of all the miracles of the New Testament. It is a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit and a testament to the power of the gospel story. Never once has the church been a perfect, sinless institution. But never once has the church allowed the flame of the Kingdom of God to be extinguished completely. That flame still flickers and burns, an ember of hope and promise for all of Creation.

We are heirs to that power, successors of that promise. We have the same choice as the Disciples. Do we let our worries and agendas damage our trust – or do we move forward with joyful anticipation for the powerful cloak of the Holy Spirit? Do we stare at the sky and long for a tangible savior—or do we lift our voices in jubilant praise for the Christ who reins over the heavens and the earth? Do we drown the Body of Christ in fear, or do we celebrate his ascension in love?

May we choose well, for God has already chosen us.

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