What Are You So Happy About?
NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, 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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The Ascension is one of those days we pretty much ignore in the Presbyterian Church. Ascension Day is always on a Thursday, because it is observed 40 days after Easter. While the Catholic Church considers Ascension Day to be a holy day of obligation, even the Vatican moved the observance to Sunday because it had become just too difficult to convince people to show up for mass on a Thursday.
Which makes sense. People have to go to work. Not even the most faithful Christian business owner shuts down on Ascension Day. And I can’t help but think I’d get a raised eyebrow from David’s teachers if I sent a note saying, “Please excuse David’s absence on Thursday. We were celebrating Ascension Day.”
It’s not like you can even buy a Ascension Day card. And really, how can Ascension Day truly be considered a legitimate holiday if there’s no greeting card to accompany it?
So, why do we even bother to mention the ascension of Jesus in a Presbyterian church? Unlike our Catholic brothers and sisters, it’s not a mortal sin for us to skip observing the ascension. Even at the presbytery meeting last week – which was scheduled, as it has been for the past few years on Ascension Day – the sermon during opening worship was NOT about the ascension for at least the third year in a row.
You and I have heard literally hundreds and hundreds of sermons about the incarnation, about Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection. We celebrate Resurrection for 40 whole days, but we only get a couple verses in Luke and Acts about how Jesus leaves his earthly ministry. The other gospels ignore ascension entirely and say nothing about how Jesus departs from earth. Only Luke seems compelled to give Jesus’ story a tidy, definitive earthly ending. Matthew, Mark and John are not interested in how the story ends at all.
Is it because ascension is just too strange to believe, let alone talk about? I was telling Tom and Mark in the car the other day on the way back from presbytery that when it comes Jesus’ resurrection, I’m totally on board. But ascension is just so odd.
Maybe it’s because, if we think about the ascension at all, we think about it as it is depicted in paintings – with Jesus rising up, up, up into the clouds, his feet hanging from mid-air. Such pictures made complete sense to Christians who believed in the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy’s geocentric model. Ptolemy said heaven was literally above us, the outermost region of whole universe. And for centuries, people believed heaven to be a place up beyond the stars.
Such a belief persists even today, right? In fact, I read about a popular phone app named, “Jesus Jump” in which Jesus bounces from cloud to cloud on his way up to heaven. The game is over when Jesus misses a cloud and falls back to earth. I’m not sure the game developers appreciate what terrible theology Jesus Jumps represents, but they certainly share most people’s vague understanding of heaven being somewhere up there. And that getting there is a very, very difficult journey.
Probably all of us know and are willing to admit that heaven is probably not a far away place that exists somewhere way up there. But knowing that Jesus isn’t floating above our heads still doesn’t answer the question about where Jesus has gone. All we know for sure is Jesus is right in front of the disciples one minute and, poof, he’s gone. Sort of like Elvis. Our understanding of the ascension is limited to this idea that Jesus has left the building and gone to heaven, whatever that means and wherever that is.
I have often thought of this whole scene in both Luke and Acts as sort of, well, sad. Jesus is gone. When he told Mary not to hold on to him in the garden, I guess he really meant it as a warning, because he was wasn’t planning on sticking around much longer.
But notice there are some guys today in our text who are not the least bit sad when Jesus leaves. Their voices of the disciples do not sound sad. In fact, they sound glad. The last few verses of Luke sound a little like Who-ville on Christmas morning. The disciples aren’t boo-hooing, but are whooping it up out there on Bethany. They are worshiping! They are filled with great joy! They aren’t mad or sad or confused about Jesus leaving them. In fact, look at them -- there they are in the “temple blessing God.”
What are they so happy about?
Is it possible the disciples are not fully grasping the situation here?
Or, maybe it’s us – the modern, enlightened disciples – who don’t know what the heck is going on.
Remember – at this point in Luke, the disciples have just emerged from the crucifixion, shaken, confused and grieving. And on Easter evening, just three days later, these sad, defeated disciples powerfully experience the Resurrected Christ – first on the Emmaus Road, and then later on in Jerusalem where Jesus reveals who he is in the breaking of bread and in showing them his hands and his feet. Then, Luke tells us that Jesus opens the disciples’ minds so they can understand, finally, how his life, death and resurrection is a fulfillment of all Moses and the prophets foretold. The disciples have gotten Jesus back, have just barely absorbed the reality of his resurrection, and before you know it, he’s getting ready to up and leave them.
And, at least in Luke’s rendering, the disciples aren’t sad in the least.
Could it be that the disciples experience the ascension not as Jesus’ leaving or disappearing? Could it be that what they experience is not the beginning of Jesus’ absence from them, but the assurance of Jesus’ continued presence with them and with all future disciples, in every time and place?
The problem is that we think of heaven as another place. We’re not sure where heaven is, but we’re pretty certain it isn’t here. If Jesus has gone to heaven, then he must be in a different place.
But in Luke, the kingdom of God, which many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in some distant future place, but rather a future that -- in Jesus’ death and resurrection -- has broken into the present. The Kingdom of God is both already here, but not yet complete.
If we can let go of the notion of heaven being a completely different location, removed from earth, and think of it as the Kingdom of God breaking in every day, the ascension becomes very good news. If we can think of the ascension as being the moment when Jesus joined God and he is with God, that means Christ is no longer bound by time and space, but available always and forever with all of us. If we can stop thinking about going to heaven, and begin thinking of our life being a progressive journey to the very heart of God, the good news about Jesus gets even better.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says:
27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. (John 14:27-28)
So Jesus does not leave us in the ascension. He goes away, but becomes even more available and accessible, not just to a particular people in a certain time and place, but to everyone in every time and place. The Kingdom of God is very near to us. And that makes the ascension very good news indeed.
I think this is why the disciples are able to rejoice even as the visible Christ leaves them. Because, despite how unprepared and off-balance they may feel, they are equipped do the work of Jesus now. The work the Father had given Jesus to do has become the disciples’ work – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, wage peace and not war, love our enemy, be salt in the world, be light in the darkness. Just as Jesus preached in his first sermon in the gospel of Luke:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Lk 4:18-19)
The ascension affirms to us that Jesus’ work is now ours, and that people who have never seen Jesus will see him in us. It is a beautifully blessed and somewhat overwhelming responsibility.
Ascension is not about the mysterious disappearance of Jesus into heaven, but the eternal presence of Jesus with us, which equips us to do His kingdom building work as faithfully, fully, truly and gently as we are able. And next week, on Pentecost, we receive the Holy Spirit, which gives us the strength to do the work.
In Ephesians text today, Paul we can be certain of our ability to do the work Christ has called us to do: “…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
What is the hope to which Jesus has called you? What power has God placed in you through the freedom of the risen and ascended Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit?
What is the hope to which Jesus has called this church? What power has God placed in us?
We will be meeting again on Tuesday night as we look at the directions we can take as a congregation moving into the future as part of the Unglued Church work. Each of the three teams will report on what they’ve discovered in what such a future may look like.
And we will be meeting in the shadow of the most recent Pew report, released this week. According to the survey, seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, representing a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007. Those numbers are huge, and losses cut across all Christian denominations.
So Christianity as we’ve known it in our own context is shrinking. You probably didn’t need a Pew report to tell you that. But is Christianity dying?
It may seem Jesus has abandoned us, but is it not possible that precisely here, in our hour of greatest need, he is more fully present than we could dream? “If the gospel is to be trusted, we should never imagine that a season of struggle signals Jesus’ absence. The same is true for the church. We should not assume that a season of difficulty signals that the church is dying.”
The ascension tells us the relationship at the core of who we are as God’s people will not die, cannot die. The relationship we have with the human Jesus, who walked on Palestinian mud and healed human flesh and ate fish and drank wine and was rejected by his religion and killed by the State and overcame death itself – that relationship is the core of who we are called to be and cannot be destroyed. No matter how much we mess up in the church. No matter how deeply we mess up our own lives. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus.
Our hope is not in the survival of the church – this church, any church. Our only hope is the power of the resurrected and ascended and living Christ that keeps us at work in the world. Paul tells us -- “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Jesus reigns above every denominational rule, every church authority, and every secular power.
So maybe the ascension is about the freedom we have in Christ to follow him wherever he goes, fearlessly, joyfully, worshipping and whooping it up just like the disciples who, although they could no longer see his body, could experience the power of Jesus in one another. And the disciples would go on to experience the living Christ in the people they had yet to meet – Gentiles, eunuchs, women, Jews, hustlers, gamblers, sinners, even in that rotten guy named Saul…all of whom we meet in the Book of Acts.
It is in the mystery of the ascension that the Jesus movement began. It is in the mystery of God’s working in the world that the Jesus movement continues today. The manner in which the movement is expressed will look different in every future generation, just as it has been expressed differently over the history of Christianity. What we have built over the past century in the mainline churches of North America is giving way to a different expression – nobody knows but God what it will look like.
So how is this good news for us, you may ask? Why should we be happy about all of these changes in the church? What have we got to smile about, Pastor Susan? Why are you smiling, Susan, when it looks like everything is falling apart?
I am smiling because the more we let go of the structures we’ve built around the mystery that is the heart of our faith, the closer we will move to the heart of God. It’s not that we do not need structures, or some order to temper our ardor. We do. I am a Presbyterian after all, and doing things decently and in order is part of my pastoral DNA. But when we worship our structures more than Jesus, or mistake our structures as the source of our faith, then it is time to rethink our priorities.
Like the love of God we know in Jesus Christ, there is no ending to fear. In fact, if you think about it, there is only one ending worth talking about, and it is the ending to which we look forward with great happiness – when God finally gathers all creation together and the kingdom of God, -- this heaven which we receive only glimpses of in this life -- becomes complete.
Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Gospel of Luke ends not with a bang or whimper, a curse or a judgment. It does not end in tears or a final embrace or a conclusive goodbye. It ends with the ceaseless blessing of Christ. And the effect of Christ’s ascension creates a holy space for disciples of every time and place to continue Christ’s mission. And that, brothers and sisters, is something to celebrate.
Thanks be to God.