Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension Sunday Sermon

Many thanks to the Vicar of Hosgmeade for the lovely ascension story!

Luke 24:44-53

            So, I have this thing about feet, as I may have mentioned before. The only feet I like are baby feet. Once they start walking around in big kid shoes and start getting sweaty, that’s when any and all affection for them stops! My children know that the fastest way to gross mommy out or get her to move is to put their feet anywhere near my face or hands.

            Why am I telling you this? Good question. It’s because I have always associated this passage with feet. Hear me out. There was this picture, I guess artwork is a more apt description of the ascension story hanging up in my preschool Sunday School classroom as a child. It showed the disciples all gathered in a nice semi-circle on a hillside, looking up. If you followed their line of sight you found a bank of big billowing fluffy white clouds, with two feet sticking out of the bottom. I’ll admit, it kind of freaked me out, and as an adult it kind of still does.

            The Ascension is one of those passages in the bible that I accept, but don’t understand. I know that it is important. If it wasn’t why would Luke record it not only once, but twice as we heard in our scripture readings from his books Luke and the Acts of the apostles? I get that Jesus returned to God and along with God prepared to send us the Holy Spirit. I understand that Jesus couldn’t just keep poping into the upper room every so often, or the disciples would never have left that room. I struggle however to come up with how it happened.

            I like to know the how, the why, the mechanics of things. Cause and effect, Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a comfort in understanding the workings of things. And I guess that’s what makes the Ascension a bit uncomfortable to me. I just don’t get it.

            So I accept it, state it when we say the apostles creed, and try largely not to think of it. I have agonized this week on how to address this text without really having to deal with the ascension part. I was trying really hard to gloss over it, give it a nod and then move on to the more practical elements of the text. But I realize that I cannot deal with the text without the ascension anymore than I could preach on the resurrection texts without the resurrection!

            Luke tells us that the disciples have gathered to talk with one another in the upper room and share the stories of those who have been witness to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. He breaks into their midst just as Simon has given his account, and the two disciples from the Emmaus road are giving their account of seeing the risen Lord. They are terrified. They are not sure if he is a ghost or if he is real. He shows them his hands and feet. He assures them of his flesh and bones and even takes some broiled fish and eats it in their presence. Then Jesus begins to remind them of his teachings.

            He reminds them of all that he has said to them. He reminds them of the words for the prophets and Moses of the traditions of the law and the poetry of the psalms. And then, in the midst of a day full of miracles he performs yet another. Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures.

            It is this moment that turns the disciples from a group of scared men holed up together to await their certain deaths, to men prepared to die to tell the truth. Jesus tells them that the truth, the gospel truth and good news is to be shared with all nations beginning right there in Jerusalem, the city that was so dangerous to them in that moment.

            The fullness of the scriptures unfolded before them, the presence of the resurrected Lord beside them, I think the disciples were rip roaring ready to run out into the streets and shout out their joy to the world. But Jesus knows that they wilol need more than excitement, more than boldness, more than a spiritual high to get through what this gospel sharing business will entail. So he tells them that more is coming. Stay in the city until I send you power from on high.

            Jesus had to know how excited they would be, afterall we as human beings can hardly wait to share good news. If this had append in our day or time Peter and John would have been live tweeting the events of the day. But when we prepare to share the Gospel, we need more than the high spirits of the moment, we need the guidance of something more than ourselves.

            When we share good news we need to be prepared for the questions, the doubts, the neigh sayers.  When Steve and I first got engaged we waited to tell people, not because we doubted our commitment, not because we were not excited, but because we needed to work some issues out among the two of us to be able to answer those inevitable questions, When? Where? Who? How? And but you’ve only known each other two months!

            Jesus gives the disciples the promise of power from on high, the promise of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate next week as we remember the miracle of Pentecost. He tells them that they will not go out into the world alone, but that this power will go with them. This is a comfort and a joy to be sure.

            At this point I imagine the disciples are pretty keyed up, like a room full of kids who have just heard the music from the ice cream truck and have been given a dollar bill to get their hearts desire! So Jesus takes them out of the room and into the countryside of Bethany.

            Here’s where the next miracle occurs. He blesses them. Jesus who has prayed throughout his life here on earth, again lifts his hands to the heavens and blesses the disciples. Oh how I wish we had the words of that blessing written down, because I know there are times when my heart needs to hear words of encouragement and strength that also allow me to wait upon the further movement of the Lord! But I suppose I will have to settle for the many many other words of God recorded for me in this book and not lament those I do not yet know!

            Jesus blessed the disciples, prayed for them, just as he prays for us, entreating to God on our behalves daily. And as he is blessing them he is carried up into heaven.  And they worship him. They return to Jerusalem and they praise and worship him continually in the temple. They go not back to their locked room, but into the temple of God to continue in praise and worship and to await the gift that Jesus has yet promised.

            But about that going up into heaven thing, you thought I’d forgotten about that didn’t you? Well maybe I’ve decided there are some things that it’s better not to understand. Perhaps there are things that we just take on faith. Or perhaps there is another way to look at it.

            There is a story about the ascension that has helped me better understand, or come to peace with it this week. It’s said to be from the teachings of Abba Sayah, and ancient Christian mystic.

As Abba Sayah told the story, as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn’t bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus’ right leg, and refused to let go.
“John?” said Jesus “What are you doing?”
And John shouted back,
“If you won’t stay with us, then I’m coming too.”

Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg.
“I’m coming too,” she shouted.
By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
“Okay, Father… what do I do now?” And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
“Ascend!” the voice said.
“Ascend?” Jesus asked
“Ascend!” the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground. But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The other apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching…

And then – what was this? Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old,- men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!”

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the voice of a small child.
“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me”
“I can’t wait,” Jesus called back, “I don’t know how this thing works.”

But the little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air – Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog. But Jesus couldn’t stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.

At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself. But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him.

There’s a sense in which we can think about the Ascension as “Christmas backwards”. At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…

Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God. Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.

And, as Abba Saya said. that’s where we’ve been ever since.

            And that’s where we stand this ascention and communion Sunday, drawn into heaven by the presence of our savior, drawn to the table to remember him once more, drawn to each other to exemplify his teachings and ministry in the world. Let us together affirm our faith in the mystery of Christ, using the Apostle’s creed.

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