Apologies all around for being absent. You get out of the rhythm of posting one week, and then it’s three weeks later! Below is the text of the sermon from May 20. We celebrated the Ascension that week. It’s a totally far out story. Audio for this week and next is available on the Bethany website. Would love to hear your thoughts on the Ascension, and related oddities in the comments.
Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
Uh, because Jesus went that way?
Of course they were looking up. Why wouldn’t they be? Jesus has just ascended bodily.
What goes up, must come down.
Of all the unlikely things in this story, this, the disciples staring up into heaven, is the part that makes sense.
The rest of it… well, Gail Ramshaw probably spoke for lots of us when she said she would be just fine without this holiday. I mean, really, when is the last time any of us woke up and said, my gosh, I’m glad we have the ascension. I need that truth in my life right now.
It is exceedingly strange. That’s for sure. The story is that Jesus not only rose from the dead in bodily form, but then, after forty days of eating and teaching and dispensing fishing advice, he levitated, right off of this earth and into heaven.
This presents more than a few problems for us living in the 21st century. For one thing, most of us have been on an airplane. We know that heaven is not just on the other side of the clouds. And we’ve seen pictures from the Hubble telescope—it’s not a matter of just ascending higher. God’s creation extends farther than our minds can begin to comprehend. So, if the people who were there saw what they said they saw, where did Jesus go? We would have been staring at the heavens, too.
Is this story true? Or not? Is there a heaven up above? And is Jesus in it? Or is this all made up?
That question, or that set of questions, has largely defined western Christianity’s relationship to the Bible for the last two hundred years. Genesis says God made the world in seven days, more or less three thousand years ago. True? Or false? Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin. Check yes, or no, and you will know where you fall in post-Enlightenment Christianity.
That fight right there has been the majority of Christian conversation in America for the last two centuries.
It’s not a very edifying fight, is it? Perhaps it is understandable why the church as we know it is in decline. This is not a compelling demonstration of the beauty and life-giving power of Christian spirituality.
Aside from that it entirely misses the point.
The two men in white might well ask us, caught up in these kinds of questions, People of the church, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
It is understandable why the disciples were staring up at the clouds. This is strange, beyond belief, and they’re trying to fit it into their categories, work through it, make it all come together. Where did he go? Is he coming back? How? And when?
But their call is not to summon Jesus back down, or even to fully understand what had just happened.
Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? Jesus has told you what comes next, and it’s not up there. The Holy Spirit is coming, and you will be sent out, not to heaven, but to the next town over, and then the next one, and the next one, until every little town in every corner of this world has encountered this Love that is Lord of All.
Their questions, that left them staring up into heaven, were understandable. But they missed the point.
So too, our questions in response to this story, and stories like it, are understandable: did this happen? Like it says? And if it didn’t, or if it did, happen like that, what does it mean? These are understandable questions.
But like the disciples’ questions, they are pointed in the wrong direction.
Because the Ascension, odd though it may be, is like everything about Jesus. It is ultimately not about metaphysical realities. The point of Jesus is not abstract argument about our empirical world and speculation about unseen things.
No. Jesus is the one who took on flesh.
Jesus did not come and say, you want to know about God, well then, let me pontificate about theodicy, sovereignty, and contingency. Jesus said, let’s look at the mold that makes bread rise—yeast. That’s what God’s action is like—doesn’t look like much, and then suddenly you’ve got a feast.
Jesus is the master of simplicity, and he is absolutely insistent that life with God is not some abstract idea we have to reason our way into.
The questions of his day weren’t the questions of our day, but if he were to meet us in the middle of our debates and questions about empirical reality, science and religion, fact and fiction, as we stand there staring up at the heavens, I think he’d take our chin and turn our heads, look—here is your neighbor: she’s hungry. Go feed her. Here is your neighbor: he’s sick. Visit him. Look at the birds of the air. They’ll show you all you need to know about providence. Look at the lilies of the field. They won’t steer you wrong. Follow me, he says. I’ll show you life.
People of the church, why do you stand looking up to heaven?
What would happen if we let go of our need to make it all add up, and asked instead, where’s Jesus? What has he told us?
The rest of the book of Acts, and indeed, all of church history, is the story of what happened when the disciples brought their eyes down from heaven and turned them back to the earth, looked around, were overcome by the Spirit, and set about the work of Jesus.
This story is still our call to be Jesus’ people in the world, this world, here, now. The question is directed to us: why do you stand looking up at the heavens? The word of Christ still rings out.
Go, go to Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, to the port, Puyallup, Kent, to Dupont and Olympia, and the ends of the earth. Go, and be my people, build an outpost of the kingdom, welcome people in my name, be agents of healing, speak words of life, share what you have, make peace with your neighbors, feed my sheep, tend to the lost and least.
The one who sends us is the same Jesus who promised to meet us on the road to Galilee. This is the same one who said, are you hungry, for life? Eat this bread, drink this cup, I will abide in you and you in me.
You want to find this kingdom of eternal life?
You don’t have to wait until you die. It will be there for you then. But it is not just there and then. It is also here and now. Within you and among you. It is the joy of a feast where the sinful and sick are welcomed, the calm after a storm, and the blooming of a lily. It is bread and wine, on long dusty roads, and moments of quiet before the dawn breaks.
Repent, turn from the ways of death, and trust this good news: the kingdom is here. Go, trust that, live that, share that.
And here’s the best part, the One who makes these promises is Lord of All. That’s the mystery at the heart of this story. That is why we celebrate the Ascension.
The One who sets us to work and opens life to us, is not bound by the death and decay that creep close. It may seem, when we’re about this kingdom work, like the night is long and day a far way off. We feed twenty, two hundred, two thousand, but we look around and fear we’ll never feed all who hunger. We make peace with our partner or friend, even as shots ring out across town, and we doubt that peace will ever come. We find love in this life, and then we have to let it go, as time, and sickness, and chance take their toll. We want to trust that the light of Christ burns in the darkness, but sometimes our darkness is mighty dark and we can’t imagine any way out of the mess we’ve made. We throw up our hands and say, there’s no way on earth…
There may, indeed, be no way on earth, but Jesus reigns over heaven and earth. The earth to which Christ calls us is the earth over which Christ is Lord. He has ascended. He is not bound by gravity, and much less by our laws of how things always have been, always will be.
Our world, our lives, are not ultimately determined by chance. The seeming triumph of the powerful and trampling of the poor, is not the final order of the day. The power of sin that reigns in our hearts is not the ultimate power. The illness and death that cause such heartache do not get the last word.
The powers and principalities that hold such sway in our hearts, in our world, cannot compete with the One who is Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Even the longest night ends when the morning star rises.
We can bear to tear our eyes from the heavens, and look around at this world, right here. Because we know that the One who calls us is faithful.
The word of Christ still stands. Why do you stand looking up at the heavens? Go, go into the streets and alleys of your city, go and be a witness to the power of Love in this world. Share the news that Life, Life abundant, is here and now. Give water to the thirsty. Give and bread to the hungry. Dare to live this life of Love, and trust that you do so by the power, and grace, and love of the One who is Lord of All, who reigns over heaven and earth. Go, and do not fear.
May it so be.by Sarah W. Wiles May 20, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA