Finding Easter: Looking Up
If you read the May newsletter, you might know that today we’re going to talk a bit more about what the difference is between a disciple and an apostle, and that we’re also going to be celebrating this weird thing called Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday isn’t exactly one of our highest holy days. It 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. Many years, if I have been in the middle of a sermon series on Ascension Sunday, I’ve not even bothered to focus on the Ascension during worship. It’s easy to skip right past.
But it’s an important part of our liturgical season. Right now, we’re still in the midst of the feast of Easter, the great fifty days of Easter. 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 day - 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. The Ascension is the celebration of the day Jesus leaves earth, after the resurrection, returning to God’s realm, leaving the disciples behind to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This happens forty days after the resurrection, and in worship we celebrate it on the closest Sunday to that count.
I think another 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 most of us 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. Or at least, it might be more confusing than compelling. Here it is, though, ready for us to study, interpret, and decide how it impacts us - or not.
We find the story of Jesus’ ascension both at the end of the gospel of Luke and at the beginning of the book of Acts. Luke is the other of both of those works, and Acts is a sequel of sorts to Luke – the story of what happens to the disciples after Jesus is no longer physically with them. And even though the very same author tells us more or less the very same story in both Luke and Acts, the impact of the Ascension at the end of Jesus’s years of preaching and teaching the disciples is different than the Ascension as told at the beginning of the years of the apostles being sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to build the church of Jesus. Disciples, apostles. As I said in my newsletter article, disciple literally means “student.” We are students of Jesus Christ. We try to learn from him, follow in his ways, be as much like him as we can. We are definitely meant to be disciples! And we always have more we can learn, as we seek to mold ourselves more and more into Christ-like ways of being in the world. And yet, we are also called to be apostles, which means literally, “ones who are sent.” We are sent-ones. We don’t become disciples just for our own benefit, but so that we are equipped to serve those who are lost, on the fringes, desperate, and unaware or unconvinced of God’s abiding love for them. How will the good news be shared if we, disciples, never are “sent out”? If the gospels, then, are about our journey as disciples, students of Jesus, the book of Acts is about our call to be sent-ones, people sent out in the name and with the mission of Jesus.
Acts opens with the author addressing someone named Theophilus, saying, “In the first book, [which we know is the Gospel of Luke] Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” 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 broad 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. 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 further, Jesus certainly isn’t interested in talking about dates and times that things will happen. 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, Jesus says, are his witnesses 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 are some parallels here between this account of the Ascension and Luke’s account of the Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, Luke records 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.
A good group of us have recently been participating in a study called animate Faith. During our first session, we talked about two fancy church words – kataphatic, and apophatic – two ways of thinking about God. Kataphatic means that we can find meaningful ways of talking about God, like through the images of God we find throughout the scripture – God as rock, God as a mother hen, God as a shepherd, God as love. Apophatic means that we can’t grasp the fullness of God with our words – God is beyond our description. We talked about finding a balance between these ways of understanding. And as we talked about the apophatic tradition, we talked about whether or not we are people who are comfortable with not knowing things. I can tell you that I have always liked to know the answers. When I got to seminary, and was suddenly confronted with reading and learning a lot about faith and following Jesus that was totally new to me, for a while I was overwhelmed to the point of inaction with all that I didn’t know. It was, frankly, a pretty new feeling for me – not knowing – and I did not like it. Eventually, though, I found not that I could simply study enough to be able to know everything I wanted to about God and my task of discipleship, but rather that I could grow in my faith even in the midst of all that I didn’t know, that perhaps coming to terms with how much more God was than I could comprehend was a sign of my maturing faith, rather than of my ignorance. God is so much bigger than any box I can make to keep God in. And even still, we’re called to trust in what we do know, and follow God, even when we don’t know where God is leading, what will happen when we risk it all, and let ourselves be sent out to do the work of Jesus in the world.
This 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. 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? We are disciples, students, always. But sometimes, the lesson we need to learn is that we can’t keep waiting until we know everything before we’re willing to go where God wants to send us. If we waited until we felt ready, we’d still be standing with the disciples, gazing up at the clouds, waiting for more information. We’re called to be apostles, too, sent out, witnesses of the work of Jesus to the ends of the earth. So why stand gazing up at heaven? After all, the body of Christ is right here, in this very room in fact, ready to be sent out. Amen.