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Sermon for Ascension Sunday, "Finding Easter: Looking Up," Acts 1:1-11

Sermon 5/8/16
Acts 1:1-11

Finding Easter: Looking Up

Today is Ascension Sunday, which is kind of a weird day in the liturgical calendar that usually gets glossed over. Ascension Sunday probably isn’t anyone’s favorite day in the liturgical calendar. There aren’t a lot of well-known Ascension hymns. We don’t have special Ascension decorations, and no one exchanges Ascension-day presents. In fact, as I looked back through my files, I note that last year, I opted not to even focus on the Ascension in worship. We were in the middle of our Dream series, and I didn’t want to disrupt the flow just for little old Ascension Sunday. So we didn’t talk about it in worship. Easy to skip right past.
It’s also easy to skip over because it is a strange day. Although many of us could talk a lot about the last days of Jesus’ life - the Last Supper, the foot washing, the trial and crucifixion, and I hope most of us could describe the events of Easter - Jesus’ resurrection, I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about the sort of ambiguous time after Easter. Maybe we know about Pentecost - which we’ll celebrate next Sunday - when God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, that violent rushing wind that rests on them like tongues of fire and sets them speaking in many languages.But I don’t think we give much thought to the time Jesus spends with the disciples after the resurrection, and perhaps even less to how that particular time draws to a close. I think part of our holding the Ascension of Jesus at arm’s length in our hearts and minds come from the fact that the scriptures depict Jesus literally rising up into the air, into the clouds, to return to God. This makes sense for a first century audience, for whom the realm of God would have been literally up. The heavens were where God dwelt, in the sky, above the earth, hovering over all creation. But we don’t tend to think of heaven as a physical place that you could get to if you got in, say, a space shuttle. We know about the planet and the universe and the stars, at least enough to know that God isn’t just floating around on the other side of the clouds. So this image of Jesus ascending isn’t particularly compelling, I think. Here it is, though, ready for us to study, interpret, and decide how it impacts us - or not.  
This year, we’re studying the Book of Acts in Bible Study, and Acts begins with the story of the Ascension, so it’s already been on my mind, and I’ve already been mulling it over. And so this year, we will not pass it by, but dig in a little. Acts opens with the author addressing someone named Theophilus, saying, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” The first book is the gospel of Luke - the author of Luke and Acts is one and the same. We don’t know anything about Theophilus. The name means literally Lover of God, and so Theophilus might be a person who was interested in becoming a follower of Jesus, or really just a brought name addressing all who claim to love God.
The author recounts that forty days pass after the resurrection, during which time Jesus continued to appear to disciples, teaching about the kingdom of God, and directing them to stay in Jerusalem until they received God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. On the fortieth day, they’ve gathered together with Jesus, and they ask him: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Essentially, they are asking if Jesus is going to rid Israel of Roman occupation, return it to its glory, and rule over it as king. They have been asking him this throughout his entire ministry, and throughout his entire ministry, Jesus has been teaching them that that is exactly that kind of ruler and lord Jesus is not, that the kingdom of God is not this rule of power and might that will come in and conquer the occupying Romans by violent force. And so I can only imagine that here, even now after the resurrection, even after another forty days of teaching about the kingdom, how very exasperated Jesus must be to have to tell them yet again that that is not what’s all about, or what he’s ever been all about. Still, Jesus moves on quickly, and reminds them one last time that the power they will be getting is the power of the Holy Spirit. What the disciples will be are witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth.
While Jesus is saying this, we read, the disciples realize that he’s being lifted up, and taken out of their sight. They stand, a bit frozen, staring into the sky, gazing up towards heaven. But while they’re still looking up, two men in white robes suddenly appear, standing with them. They say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And that’s where this scene and our text for the day conclude.
There’s some parallels here between this account of the Ascension and Luke’s account of the Resurrection. Remember, on Easter Sunday, we read that the women came to the tomb and found it empty. But as they were wondering over the empty tomb, two men in white appeared, even as the women were gazing at the emptiness, to ask: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen.” At Easter, the messengers of God help to direct the attention of the Jesus-followers away from wherever they gotten stuck at, and instead to redirect it to getting moving, getting the message out, getting the news announced - Jesus is on the move, not stuck in a tomb of death! Jesus is on the move, and the women have to get going to help tell the story.
I think the same thing is happening a bit here at the Ascension. The disciples are gazing up at heaven, because the only thing they can focus on is that Jesus has left them. Yes, he’s resurrected. Yes, he’s conquered death. But in that moment, when he’s leaving earth, not going to be with them physically any longer, I can only imagine that they are overwhelmed with anxiety and fear and loneliness. And so they gaze up at the sky, hoping perhaps to catch one last glimpse. The messengers of God appear to pull their gazes from where they are stuck, on the sky, and pull them back into their present reality. Why are they gazing up at heaven? Jesus’ work on earth - at least in that way - is done. Now the work of the disciples is about to begin, and it’s time for them to get moving, get to it.
And here, I think, is the truly amazing message of the Ascension: Even with the disciples asking - let’s face it - last minute stupid questions, Jesus has entrusted into their very imperfect hands his whole work, the purpose of his whole life, his whole vision for the realization of God’s reign on earth, everything that he hopes and dreams for us to be: Jesus has handed it over and left it completely in the hands of the disciples. Essentially, the Ascension represents Jesus saying that he doesn’t have any tasks left that are only his to complete. Everything else that needs doing - it is for those who are left to do it. And certainly, as the messengers note, this can’t be done by gazing up into the sky, but instead, by getting started.  
We are the ones who are here, who are left, who remain to carry out the work of Jesus. He’s made us his body, his hands and feet in the world. To us, to you, to me, Jesus has entrusted the carrying out of all of his hopes for the world. Rev. David Lose writes, “Jesus leaves, but we stay. As it turns out, this is the ultimate "left behind" story, but according to Jesus, being left behind is neither a sign of imperfect [our] faith nor a chance to prove [ourselves] worthy. Rather, being left behind is an honor, an invitation to participate in the glory of[God], a commissioning, in fact, into the work of [God.]” (1) I wonder if we always get the weight and significance of that - how much faith Jesus puts in us, to believe that we can carry out the work of God in the world. Are we doing it? Are we embodying the good news of God’s love and grace in the world? Are we the hands and feet, the body of Christ in the world? This week, this is your homework assignment. I’ve been letting you off too easy on the homework lately! This week, I want you to think about your actions each day, and write down the places where you have helped care for God’s world and God’s people during the week. (2) How are you doing the work of Jesus? I want you to think about it each day, and write it down, and bring it to worship with you next week. And please, don’t be too quick to answer, “I’m not - I’m not doing the work of Jesus.” Remember, Jesus entrusted this work to his followers, full of confidence that we would carry it out. I may doubt myself sometimes, but I trust Jesus, and so his trust in us is based on good information! How are you caring for God’s world and God’s people, doing the work of Jesus, each day, in your every day?
People of Apple Valley, why stand gazing up at heaven? After all, the body of Christ is right here, in this very room in fact, ready to love and serve and be God’s witnesses, even to the ends of the earth. Amen.  

A Blessing for Ascension Day
I know how your mind
rushes ahead
trying to fathom
what could follow this.
What will you do,
where will you go,
how will you live?

You will want
to outrun the grief.
You will want
to keep turning toward
the horizon,
watching for what was lost
to come back,
to return to you
and never leave again.

For now
hear me when I say
all you need to do
is to still yourself
is to turn toward one another
is to stay.

and see what comes
to fill
the gaping hole
in your chest.
Wait with your hands open
to receive what could never come
except to what is empty
and hollow.

You cannot know it now,
cannot even imagine
what lies ahead,
but I tell you
the day is coming
when breath will
fill your lungs
as it never has before
and with your own ears
you will hear words
coming to you new
and startling.
You will dream dreams
and you will see the world
ablaze with blessing.

Wait for it.
Still yourself.
Jan Richardson

  1. A suggestion from Lose.
  2. Jan Richardson, Painted Prayer Book,


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