Jaylynn: Sunday, May 16th Ascension Sunday INTRO TO SCRIPTURE
I’m thankful for the Acts reading today on this beautiful Ascension Sunday. I’m also going to read from Luke’s gospel. We’ll be hearing in Luke today, after two disciples encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Jesus approached them and began travelling with them, though they did not recognize him. They were glad to have another companion along the road and they began telling him the stories of their Jesus and how the women went to the tomb and found it empty. You can imagine these two fellows talking on and on…not having a clue about what they were saying, or who they were talking to---and, I can imagine Jesus wondering “did I die for this?” J
ALL the prophets had spoken, and yet these men still didn’t know or believe what was happening. Jesus started by explaining the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and the prophets. As they reached their destination, they urged Jesus to stay and eat with them. As Jesus sat with them at the table, it wasn’t until he took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them that their eyes were opened and they recognized their Savior.
THIS brings us to today’s Gospel reading. Hear now the Word of the Lord.
Scripture: Luke 24: 44-53
Sermon Title: “I BELIEVE”
This past Thursday was the feast day of the church called Ascension Day. We celebrate Ascension Day on this Sunday. The Ascension takes place 39 days after Easter. As we learn more about this wonderful and mysterious celebration, we will also learn more about Christ’s love for us.
Ascension Sunday is the day we celebrate that Jesus has gone up into the heavens and sits at the right hand of God. This church tradition may not always say the Apostle’s Creed. But it’s a creed I’ve grown up saying almost every week. It begins with the words “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…” This day is different than Easter morning. Will Willimon writes, “On Ascension day, Jesus rose, not from the dead, but from the earth, into heaven.”
The Ascension of Jesus is an image that even the greatest artists of the world cannot quite capture. Only through faith can the ascension be described at all. The Acts passage you heard read tells the story a bit differently than the gospel passage in Luke. In Acts, we get the visual pictures of the disciples watching as Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Can you even imagine this scene? They ended up looking like this! (Look up—dumbfounded!) They looked a little silly, I’m sure, to where some standing by had to bring them back down to earth “why do you [just] stand there looking up toward heaven?” they asked. Jesus had gone up, but God had not abandoned us.
“Christ is gone, not to forsake us, but to continue to redeem us,” as Rev. Willimon writes. “The one who became so much like us has gone up to take charge with the One who made us.” This was, after all, God’s plan all along. Jesus had come to earth as man, died and risen, and ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father, and because of this we now have access to God. Jesus isn’t simply gone now, but is present with us in a new way—and above all in the sacraments. God is present with us in the body and blood of Christ. We, like the disciples, recognize him as we break bread and share the cup together as a church, as a community of faith, as believers. I’ve spoken with some of you lately about how much we miss coming together as a body to receive the Lord’s Supper. We may have to create some innovative ways to do this this summer, if we can, as it’s a beautiful reminder of how Christ reveals himself to us.
St. Leo ‘the Great’, as he’s called, wrote in a sermon on Ascension that “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” Because of Christ’s departure from this earth, it is possible for everyone to partake in the ongoing sacramental presence of Christ, not just those walking around Palestine. Our faith is increased by the Lord’s ascension and our faith is strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit. “I will not leave you orphaned,” says the Lord.
Now, next week we will celebrate Pentecost—when the Holy Spirit descends upon us as the gift promised from God. Fred Craddock, a New Testament scholar, writes that “Pentecost completes Easter just as Easter completes Good Friday. A church without Pentecost cannot shout “He is risen” loudly enough to sustain easter week after week.” So, we wait with anticipation for Pentecost to come, because we are promised this ongoing presence of God’s Spirit with us.
Before we get too deep into Pentecost, though, we have to come back to the ascension—the going up of Christ into heaven. The idea of heaven is one that fascinates us—it demands our notice and interest. However, no matter how hard we try, we cannot fathom what heaven is like. When the great theologian Karl Bart learned of his friend Paul Tillich’s death, he simply said, “well, now he knows.” Tillich was actually Barth’s rival so to speak in theology. Barth always said that the knowledge of heaven is not for us. So, in a way, when he said, “well, now he knows.” Now, he knows that Barth was right!
Have you ever thought about all of our questions about heaven and everything else—those who are in heaven know the answers. Will our puppies and kittens and bunnies be with us in heaven one day? The real granddaughter of Siegfried Farnon who the show “All Creatures Great and Small” is based on, says simply: “No question. Absolutely.”
Will there be hocky in heaven? I know Canadians have an answer for that one. But one of my most perplexing questions is this, “If I died today, but say Jason (my husband) lived to be 102—would I age in heaven as he did on earth? What would we look like? My theology teacher in seminary tried to comfort me somewhat with my questions. He said there’s actually a “theory” out there that says heaven (no matter the age we die), we will all be thirty-three, the age that Christ was when he died. My response to my teacher at the time was “I’m thirty now, I’ve got three years to lose 10 pounds and get into shape! More seriously, many of our loved ones who have gone before us know what heaven is like. We who are still living on this earth remain—not to be downcast or discouraged, but to continue to go forth and be empowered by God’s spirit. Like the disciples who were told not to gawk up at the sky, we have work to do while we’re still here.
Sometimes when we realize that it is us who are here below on this earth, there is a tendency to get overwhelmed with our daily lives, downcast and even depressed. Isn’t there more glory at the mountaintops than down here below? We know what it’s like to be depressed. Our mental health has certainly taken a toll on many of us during this pandemic. We know what it’s like to feel insecure. We know what it’s like to feel defeated. My grandmother lost her husband when he was 81. She lived to be 93 years old! So, in my opinion, she lost her husband too soon. She had to sell the home they shared for 35 years which every grandchild knew and loved (they were married almost 60 years). It was a home that looked over the great countryside of Oklahoma, with a magnificent back porch that my family helped build for them. She moved to another state (Texas), into a retirement home in a city with two rooms and no back porch. She was depressed. Clinically depressed, as they describe it. It’s understandable! The doctor prescribed a medication that was actually working quite well, but she stopped cold turkey, telling my mom “I can cure my own depression…I don’t need any help.”
Well, for one, God didn’t leave us here to try and ‘cure ourselves on our own.’ God is present with us. God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit. God has also given us the comfort of others, and the wisdom of other’s as they care for us, and God doesn’t want us to live as though we don’t need help! Our goal isn’t to try and do things on our own. Our goal should be to continue what the Father has begun…to be the body of Christ for all the world, to accept help when we need it, and give help when we can.
It is this going forth that we sometimes have difficult with. The Spirit of Christ empowers the church for its mission in the world. That can actually be unsettling if you think about it. For this Holy Spirit, as we know it, will move the church into areas we might otherwise not have gone, and it will engage us with people and activities we might not otherwise have chosen. It is this power of the Holy Spirit that pushes us to go beyond our comfort zones, and bless others as we ourselves have been blessed.
The disciples didn’t come down dejected and downtrodden at the departure of Christ. They stopped looking up, and started looking around. They gained power from on high, and received the hope of Christ—full of joy and blessing. They wouldn’t have returned to Jerusalem and the temple with great joy, had they not received the blessing that God is with us.
Ascension Day is not just about an upward movement of Christ. It has a downward focus, too. That’s where we are. Let’s not continue to stand dumbfounded looking up, wondering where Jesus went. But look around in the events of this earth. God is with us and his presence lives in those who believe. Heaven for us, is not yet to be. In the meantime, we are called to love life and continue with the work that Jesus began. Amen.