Sunday, May 26, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23; Acts 1:1-11
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Today we are celebrating the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Not a phrase you hear very often in a Presbyterian Church. When the Sunday closest to Ascension Day rolls around, it always poses a dilemma: Skip the Sunday readings and read the story of Jesus rising into heaven? Or give the Ascension a miss? Last year in my congregation, Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven, probably because I liked the lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter better, and because, well, the Ascension is . . . tricky. I’m not going to name names but I have it on good authority that at least one pastor of this congregation has never preached a sermon on the ascension.
Protestant churches today tend to show away from the ascension. It’s something the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate. I have heard of multiple Catholic Church of the Ascensions but I have never heard of Ascension Presbyterian Church.
But, the ascension was important enough to the early church that they put mention it in the Nicene Creed and we say every week in the Apostle’s Creed “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty.” The ascension is mentioned throughout the rest of the New Testament and several of the catechisms in our Book of Confessions. So, maybe us Presbyterians should focus on it a just a little more.
A main reason for our lack of focus on the ascension is that it doesn’t make sense to us. This story can easily raise more questions than answers. Especially when we get stuck asking how? How was Jesus ascended? Did he float up into the sky on a cloud or was it more akin to being beamed up like in a Star Trek episode. It certainly is an odd little story and maybe we should just leave it at that.
The disciples had just spent 40 wonderful days with their living and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. When they walked up on the mountain that day, they knew something special was going to happen. Special things always happen on the top of mountains in the Bible. They asked Jesus, “Is this the day you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?” or is this the day you plan to restore order to all of creation and release Israel from captivity. Jesus says, “no, but you will soon receive the special gift of the Holy Spirit that will empower you to be my disciples in Jerusalem, in all the surrounding areas, and throughout the whole world.”
And then Jesus was lifted up into the sky and taken out of sight by a cloud. And as the disciples stood there watching the clouds, 2 men appeared and they asked the question, “Why are you still looking towards the heavens? Why are you still looking into the clouds?”
That’s actually a pretty good question. Why were the disciples staring up into the clouds that day. Well, like us, they probably don’t understand what just happened and can’t believe their eyes. Maybe they were gazing at the clouds out of shock and amazement. It’s not often that you see someone lifted up into the sky on a cloud into heaven. Or more likely, they were hoping Jesus would come back. They were hoping that their God, their leader, and their dear dear friend would return to them. They had already lost Jesus once when he died on the cross. They had just lost him again. They seemed intent on staring into the sky at the clouds until he came back to them.
With the ascension, the disciples enter into a strange time of transition. It’s a time when the bodily presence of Jesus has left them and they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. The ascension is a story of transition. It marks the end of Christ’s earthly mission. With Jesus leaving the disciples, he leaves room for all disciples in all times and all places to receive the Holy Spirit. Which is wonderful, but doesn’t stop them from being a time of awkward transition.
We are right along with the disciples as the church waits for the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Theologian Karl Barth called this transition time between Ascension and Pentecost “the significant pause.” But we also go through other times of transition. Lewinsville in particular just left a transition time with looking for a new pastor and are about to enter a new one when renovations begin in 2020. But even more than that, we are people who go through personal times of transitions. Whether it’s waiting for Pentecost to come, being finished with school but having to wait for graduation, moving from one house to another, or changing to a different job, we are all constantly in times of transition.
In times of transition and times of awkwardness, the ascension is actually a comfort. In the ascension, Jesus in his resurrected, human body is taken back up into heaven which means that God cares for not just our spirits but also our humanity. Even though Jesus has left earth, God still cares deeply for us.
Jackie Hager, one of our confirmands this year, had a really amazing thought during one of our classes. She told us that we are all in the heart of God. We regularly call Jackie our resident theologian. But, little did Jackie know that she was actually agreeing with famous theologian John Calvin. When talking about the ascension, Calvin says that we are pulled into the very heart of God through Jesus Christ. The ascension is this amazing outpouring and acceptance by God of not only our spirits but also our humanity. This is profound good news for us. It means that we every part of us is deeply valued and deeply loved by God. This includes all of us when we are at our best and when we are at our worst. This includes every person who is going through an awkward transition. Every person who is suffering, Every person who is lonely and struggling. Every person in our community.
We are people who grow and change. We move in and out of times of transition. We have high moments where we succeed but also very low moments where we screw up and sin. But through it all, we can carry with us this vision of our scared humanity being taken into the very heart of God by Jesus Christ.
The ascension is definitely a mountain top moment when like the disciples we stare up into the clouds confused, but basking in the glory and love of God. But another thing we learn from the ascension story is that we cannot stay on the mountain top. The ascension is a comfort but also call to look around and do something.
We don’t like this uncomfortable time of waiting. Waiting until Jesus comes again and finally makes everything right. We don’t like looking at the world around us because a lot of times we don’t like what we see. During this time of waiting, we like to worship Jesus and ponder and think about all of the wonderful and loving things he has done for us. We like to live on the mountain top and focus on the Wows. Wow. Jesus came to be with us. Wow. Jesus died for us. Wow. Jesus was resurrected for us. Wow. Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s easy for us to look up into the heavens and think. Wow. This isn’t a bad thing. We should be worshipping God. We should be in awe of God’s majesty.
But during this time of waiting, Jesus has also placed a call on our lives just like he did for the disciples. That call is to live in this moment, in the here and now. To live in this moment and bring the good news of Jesus to others. To bring all of moments that Jesus makes us say “wow” to all people. To not just stand looking up at the clouds but to actually do something good.
We can tell people about these wow moments and about who Jesus is. But we can also and probably more effectively show them. We can show others who Jesus is and what he has done for us through our own actions. We show others Jesus by loving others, by forgiving others, and by treating others with respect. We can call attention to problems we see in the world whether that be racism, sexism, bullying and so many more problems and not ignore them.
The ascension is a tricky and uncomfortable story. It’s unbelievable to our ears and potentially gives us more questions than answers. It is an uncomfortable story of transition that we may relate to more than we realize. But in this awkward story of transition is comfort and a call. Embrace the comfort that God gives us by taking us into God’s heart today and embrace the call to stop looking in the clouds and instead look around us and do something. Show the love of Jesus and the value that God has for us to others. Over the next week, take a moment to look into the clouds and think of all God has done for you. But then, lower your head back down, and see what God has in store for you right in front of you. Amen.