Ascension: A Story to Be Reenacted Everyday (Acts 1:1-11)

At one time he was here.  In the next moment, he was gone.  We are still in that next moment.  Following the resurrection, we have the testimony of witnesses and the disciples.  Paul tells us that some 500 people encountered the risen Christ.  That time of physical resurrection came to an end.  Luke, the great storyteller of the early church, describes the culmination of Jesus’ post resurrection as the “ascension”.  If Jesus was not physically here, where could he be?  Where would he go?  Jesus would go home.  Jesus could only go somewhere far beyond our understanding and comprehension.  Jesus would go away, as he said in John’s gospel.

How do you describe someone leaving?  The emotions one feels at the departure of a loved one are raw and conflicted.  You’ve been at those airport gates, just before the TSA check-in and watched someone blend into a crowd.  Perhaps you’ve even put a loved one on a train.  We’ve been dropped off at college and now we’re the ones dropping on our children off.  A daughter or son leaves home to marry and begin a new family; that’s also a way of leaving.  One moment someone is here, the next moment a room is empty.

The emotional mélange created by leaving, even temporary, tangles our feelings, fear, and hope in unexpected ways.  Departures, whether for a week, month, or two thousand years, mimic death’s finality.  For this brief time, we need to figure out how we’ll untangle these knots in our stomach and go on.  Imagine, trying to write these struggle in a way others could see, experience, and feel for years to come. This was Luke’s challenge and he did it the best way he knew how.

The beginning of the story was much easier.  Who can’t describe the joy and happiness present at the arrival of a new baby?  The story of Jesus’ birth almost wrote itself.  Jesus’ leaving, only a lonely hillside, was another matter altogether.  For a group of people still coming to terms with the resurrection, Jesus’ voluntary departure brought their hopes back to Good Friday levels.  They asked, “How will we live in a world where Jesus isn’t physically present?”

Isn’t that what we’re asking too?  How do we live out the Ascension today?  How can our lives speak to Jesus’ life even though he’s not physically present?  That’s what this passage is really about.  It’s not about Jesus throwing on jetpack and flying off into the clouds.  How do we embody Jesus’ presence even though, we’re told, he’s physically absent?  It’s one of the great contradictions of the Christian faith:  absence can be presence.

The Ascension should be reenacted in our daily lives.  Ascension living, like a riding a bicycle, shouldn’t be something we have to think about.  The Ascension isn’t a ritual; it’s a way of life.

Take a look at the first thing that happens in Luke’s ascension stories.  The disciples gather around Jesus.  The Ascension creates clusters, gatherings, and groups of disciples.  You might even call them communities of believers.  Today, what might we call a cluster, gathering, group, or community of believers?  I’d call it a church.  The Ascension helps form Christian community where there is none.  Most importantly, what is that community formed around?  At the center of the group is the risen Christ.  The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on the risen Christ.  That’s the beginning of an early church mission statement!

From disparate places, we have been brought into this community.  We don’t know how to talk about it. Our lives have been a blur.  Somehow, we ended up in this place.  Saved by an amazing idea that grace was the rescue we needed.  A seat was made at a table, bread was broken, the cup was shared, and we ate together.  Now we are here.

Once the disciples are gathered, Jesus empowers the disciples to be his witnesses in his absence.  This isn’t Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus doesn’t commission the disciples to go out into the world to proclaim anything.  The language isn’t near that formal.  While it lacks the official sounding prose of Matthew, it’s no less powerful or important.  This group, this cluster, this gathering is to go and tell Jesus’ story while he is away.  In very simple language, Jesus is saying, “In my absence, I want you to tell my stories, tell what we did and why we did it.”  That mission statement for the early church continues to take shape doesn’t it?  The Ascension forms intentional faith communities centered on telling the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.  In two steps, Jesus has gathered a community around him and given them a purpose to work towards.  The Holy Spirit will aid them in their quest to be witnesses in an ever expanding area of concentric geographic circles; beginning with Jerusalem, next to Judea, then to Samaria, and across the known world.  Even before Pentecost, they are being transformed and empowered to work in Jesus’ absence.  His physical presence is not a barrier to his presence.  He is present in his witnesses, their stories, and His spirit.  Absence is presence.

There are always things left undone when people leave.  Some of the disciples (perhaps even a majority) were still holding up that Holy Week hope that Jesus will redeem Israel, one way or another, while he’s still present.  Acts 1:6 says, “As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, ‘Lord, are you going to restore the Kingdom of Israel now?’”  This was probably one of those moments Jesus thought, “How many more times am I going to have to answer this question before I get back to heaven?”  Jesus wants to put an end to their constant speculation and worry.  Again, this wasn’t a new question for him.  Here’s his reply:

“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)

Jesus says, “Oh and before I go, don’t go worrying you’re pretty little heads about the end of the world.  We’ve got that covered.  That’s for God to know and you not to find out.”  If we only took Jesus at his word when it comes to this one?  How many people have gotten wealthy they’ve convinced people they knew when the world was ending?  Countless others have died because someone convinced them that they too knew the end was near.  What does Jesus say, “It isn’t for us to know.”  Yes, it’s easy to get depressed by watching too much news and reading trashy theology books.  This is why Jesus warns us against it.  There’s a little known Dr. Seuss book called the Strange Shirt Spot.  In it, the Doctor says:

This spot! It was driving me out of my mind!

What a spot-what a spot for a fellow to find!

My troubles were growing. The way it kept going.

Where would it go next?

There was no way of knowing.

There is no way of knowing, Jesus says.  Be at peace with the ministry we are called to do today.

The last way the Ascension should be lived out and practiced in our lives comes back to a question of perspective.  Where are we looking?  What is a community focusing upon?  Do we have the right individual and church wide priorities?  Why do I ask those questions?  Look at the end of the reading.

“While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them.  They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here looking toward heaven?’”

You know that look, right?   You are staring blankly up at the sky after you’ve seen something that appears wonderful, out of place, or vaguely amazing.   Someone you didn’t notice is standing beside you.  They ask, “What you staring at?”  Mouth agape, pointing skyward, no words just grunts, and you hope no one sees the drool coming off the side of your face as you finally say in manly voice, “Yeah, that’s one of those new Marine Corps Ospreys.”

This is what’s going on here.  Luke says the disciples have just watched Jesus do his thing and two angelic type guys appear from nowhere.  “Why you staring up there?” they ask.  There’s no good reason to be staring at the sky.  The Ascension redirects our perspective and priorities.  Now that Jesus is no longer physically present, the Ascension helps us to look outward and around, and moves us off the mountaintop and back into our communities.  It would be a miserable existence to sit on a mountain, staring up at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return.  Jesus doesn’t call us to wait.  We’re called to be gathered clusters of believers who tell Jesus’ stories to the world who work actively instead of wait idly.  The Ascension is a story about the early church’s first steps after the resurrection.  It’s also a two thousand year old mission statement we are able to reenact in our lives and congregations.

A Morning Prayer for the Journey

Gracious God,
You are here with me now,
In all that I am, you are my very existence,
Within your life giving presence, I acknowledge this moment;
the blessing of time to respond and reflect on the call
to love you with all my body, mind, soul and my neighbor as myself.

In these quiet spaces, where your Spirit dwells,
I confess I have not loved my neighbor or you with my whole heart.

Forgive me.

I ask for the grace to abandon my own cares.
Where I will not hear, may my deafness be healed.
Where I will not see, may my blindness be redeemed.
Where I will not walk, may your Spirit push me toward love.

Now, I embrace the gift of today. These hours before me are your grace made anew.
Yesterday’s failures, foibles, and faults are but calls to forgive ourselves and others;
to reflect your love and to gather your grace for those who need it most.

Every aspect of my life is open to you, O God. From you, nothing is hidden.
You know my fears and hopes. You are with me when I laugh and cry.
Even when I feel you are absent, you are present.
I know your love never ends.  Nothing will separate me from your love.

Bless our journey.  I am grateful for the path before me and the people along our way.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

I Confess, I’m A Traditionalist

I take issue with certain aspects of our current Book of Discipline.  I’m not apologizing for my position.  However, on this Aldersgate Day, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight what I do appreciate about our second sacred holy book.  Like many United Methodist pastors, I collect Books of Discipline.  The two post war editions (1922 and 1948) are forceful statements of progressive theology which have been since relegated to our Social Principles.  In 1922 and 1948, bold announcements on issues of race, war, peace, and culture were at the heart of the Book of Discipline.  Our grandmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-grandfathers were far more attuned to the Gospel than we want to admit.  They were outspoken witnesses in ways we don’t know or understand.  I’m ashamed that I sometimes give them so little credit.    Our ancestors were keeping covenants long before we thought we understood the meaning of the word.

In 1948, as Mahatma Gandhi was leading India to independence and most of Africa and the Caribbean was still under British and French colonial rule, the Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline said,

“We protest, therefore, against all forms of domination of subject peoples for the advantage of those more favorably situated.  No nations should embark upon a policy of colonial expansion or the extension of imperialistic spheres of influence. “

The Methodist Church was against colonialism before being opposed to colonialism was cool.  To make a statement of that significance at the height of the growing Cold War by a major Protestant denomination is nothing short of groundbreaking.  Twenty years before the independence movements moved through the rest of the developing world, Methodism was ahead of the curve.

In 1948 America was the world’s sole nuclear power.  Soviet Russia was America’s major geopolitical threat and the conflict over access to Berlin pushed the world to the brink of war.  How did Methodism respond to the crisis?  In a section entitled “Reduction and Control of Armaments” the church says:

“Fear and suspicion increase the danger of hostilities; the diversion of wealth to this channel withdraws it from the constructive pursuits of peace.  The militarization of the public mind reduces the possibility of the free interplay of ideas. Ideas cannot be destroyed by military force.  It is possible to destroy the cities of an enemy, to bring his armed forces to surrender, in a word, to defeat him as far as the physical power to resist is concerned.  But an ideology cannot be suffocated by poison gas nor demolished by atomic bombs.  Ideas are conquered by better ideas whose truth has been revealed in practices than enrich the personality.” 

How dangerous was it for Methodists to take such a position in 1948?  Post-war America was still a militarized country; we would remain so for most of the Cold War.  The sentiment that “ideas are conquered by better ideas” is one we need to remember today as we fight a distorted ideology bent on death.  Post-war Methodism knew fear and suspicion of our neighbors only made the world a more violent place.  Talk about a tough sale in Joseph McCarthy’s America.

Segregation was still the law of the land in 1948.  Listen to the Methodist Church’s position on racial discrimination:

The principle of racial discrimination is in clear violation of the Christian belief in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the Kingdom of God, the proclamation of which in word and life is our gospel.  We therefore have no choice but to denote it as unchristian and to renounce in as evil. This we do without equivocation.

This we do without equivocation.  There was no doubt as to where the Methodist Church stood on race, Jim Crow, segregation, and America’s future.  The book goes on to say, “The practice of racial discrimination can be no better, morally and spiritually speaking, than the principle from which it stems.”  That means slavery.  Segregation, in Methodism’s eyes, was the same as slavery.  Again, these words are all contained in our 1948 Book of Discipline.   People threatened to leave the church, invoked the Almighty, and claimed God justified racism.  Yet here we are today.

In these days we hear much talk of traditionalists.  On this Aldersgate Day, I am proud to embrace the traditions of the 1948 Book of Discipline.  If we were this brave, this counter-cultural once, why can we not be once more?   Yes, let’s go back to our roots.  We had it right! Where we endorsed the wall of separation between church and state, paid to support contentious objectors, and saw Christianity as a creative force in society.  Sign me up for this tradition.

*paragraphs 2025-2029 Discipline of the Methodist Church, 1948

When Humanity Becomes Human

 

On this day after,
We are rightly amazed,
When humanity becomes human,
Random kindness by strangers,
Simple acts of courtesy displayed,
These are not what anyone might do,
But grand deeds of bravery,
Shocking, surprising, astounding,
Utterly beyond our belief,
People standing together,
Against the bigots for all to see,
Surely this is how we are… normally?
Or are we kind of kind,
Only when innocent children die,
Morality appears to survive,
When it seems,
random people offer tea,
Does terror no longer thrive,
When our phones are charged,
And Instagram knows were alive?
Keep calm and carry on being human.
For this we need no special reward,
Though I offer my prayers,
For my faith in ordinary decency,
Is somewhat restored.

–Richard Bryant

The Oblique World of Ruby

1. Hurley and I went to our own church in the living room. We were both overcome by the Holy Spirit and slept on the for most of our hastily arranged worship service.

2. Do you need help with the dishes?

3. I find it hard to babysit Hurley and tell people this is our house. It is a full time job.

4. Does my butt look big in this hair?

5. I haven’t seen in the Psychotic Feline String Wrangler in two days. Was she transferred to a home for the criminally insane?

6. When are we next having meat with gravy? It’s not so much the meat as it is the gravy.

7. If you look to your left, you can see my paw being placed on your right leg.

8. Do you and mother watching anything other than shows about the fat English king who killed his wives?

9. A board game where silence and paws are the keys to world dominations.

10. Did I just make a pet pun?

The Big “If” (John 14:15-21)

If you’ve had Chemistry or you’re headed toward a college level Chemistry class you’ll know this already:  an equation has to balance.  Some equations are harder to balance than others but it comes down to two basic steps: count the atoms of each element in the reactants and the products and use coefficients in front of the compounds if you need them.  You have to balance chemical equations to adhere to something called the law of conservation of mass.  It’s really a process of trial and error.

As I’ve read through this passage, I’ve felt like I was trying to make an equation balance.  Each time I read it, put it on paper, and tried to balance it; nothing came out right.  It is as if something is missing.  I don’t have all the information I need to make it work.  I’m staring into a two thousand year old silence and thinking about making an educated guess.  Guesses like this scare me. There are hushes between the verses which make it almost impossible to balance the beginning with the ending.  Sometimes you will find life to be like that; incomplete and lacking wholeness you feel you rightly deserve.  Instead of something, you see nothing.  You will be afraid and overwhelmed at times.  Where you should find balance, your footing will be precarious.  With a limited set of options, you will have the opportunity to use the resources at hand to find balance.  As with chemistry equations, life is trial and error.  Even your relationship with God is trial and error; it’s something you work on for the rest of your life.

What about this gap?  What’s missing?  It seems complete at first glance.  It’s not.  The first verse throws the next six out of kilter, whack, and balance.  I’m absolutely certain something was said between what we read as verse 15 and 16.  I’m convinced there was more, at one time, linking those two verses.  The subject changes too abruptly.  The flow is interrupted and no explanation is given.  The jump between verses 15 and 16 doesn’t make sense because Jesus, and I think I know Jesus, doesn’t walk us through the implications of what he says.  He doesn’t balance his own equation.  Jesus doesn’t unpack one verse full of religious dynamite.  That’s not like Jesus.  In a flash, we are on to something completely different.  He tells us of the coming gift of the Holy Spirit.  But verse 15 is still hanging out there saying “Do something with me”.

What’s the significance of verse 15?  Everything; Christian belief itself hangs on the implications of how we read and understand verse 15.  For it to be sitting there by itself, with no solid connection to what comes before or after it, I start to ask the only possible question:  what’s missing?  Given the little bit of time we have remaining, will you join me on this mystery?

Verse 15 says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  That seems straight forward.  If you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments.  OK, we’ve got it!  If I love Jesus I will keep his commandments.  Do you know what his commandments are?  Are they the 10 you memorized in Sunday School?  Are they “Refrain from drinking at frat parties (especially if you are underage), call home once a week when you’re at college, and eat a balanced diet?”  I don’t think Jesus would object to any of those but I’m not certain those are the specific commandments he had in mind.

A while back, a snarky know it all wanted to trap Jesus with a fancy theological question.  This smarty pants happened to be a lawyer.  He asked Jesus, “What’s the greatest commandment?” knowing full well Jesus couldn’t pick only one.  Jesus said all of the law, all 613 commandments in the Old Testament (including the parts in Leviticus about JELLO shots at frat parties) hung on these two greatest commandments:  love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Then love you neighbor as yourself.  Those are Jesus’ commandments.  Those two love commandments.  This is what Jesus is talking about.  I’ll boil it down:  if you love me, you will love others.  You will not pick and choose who you will love.  A relationship with me is built on unconditional love.  I love you unconditionally therefore I expect you to love unconditionally.

Here’s what Jesus does not say; this is the gap, what might have been left out.  Is it possible to read this backwards?  What do I mean by read it backward?  Make verse 15 a negative, rather than a positive statement:  If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t love.”  In its printed form, verse 15 balances, like a chemistry equation.  Loving Jesus equals keeping his commandments.  Would it not balance the other way; not loving Jesus means not keeping his commandments?  Is it not written, is it left out, and because it is easily inferred, “if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself” then you don’t love Jesus?  It sounds like it’s a blank left for us to fill in.  Who knows?

There’s one more consequence which might stem from our basic lack of participation in Jesus’ equation for neighborly love.  Jesus is arguing, “I’ve made it simple.  To love me, love others.”  Who wouldn’t want to be loved by Jesus?  Jesus seems to have a great deal happening when it comes to finding fulfillment now, a great retirement plan, and everyone loved Jesus’ health care benefits.  What scares me and I don’t frighten all that easily is the tiny two word preposition at the beginning of the sentence, “if”.

Jesus realizes our love is conditional.  “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments”.  Keeping his commandments is conditional on falling in love with Jesus, being in love with God.  Do you know how many other things we’re in love with?  You’re in love with cars, fishing, boats, phones, money, jobs, and God may or may not even be on the list.  How fickle are we about love in general?  Jesus realizes we might not get there.  If we do get there, loving God with all we’ve got and our neighbors will fall into place.  Falling in love with God is not a guarantee.   A relationship with Jesus is a love affair but not like any you’ve known before.   The usual rules of romantic comedies and island relationships do not apply.

Here’s the Good News: our love for God is conditional, fickle, and often pathetic.  This scripture is an acknowledgement of how deplorable we are at loving God with all of our heart, soul, and minds.  Jesus is admitting how feeble we are at loving our neighbors ourselves.  On the other hand, God’s love for us unconditional, constant, and stronger than the Roman Army’s most brutal form of torture.  God is everything we are not.

God’s love for us is never preceded by an “if”.  There are millions of reasons not to love humanity, “ifs” a plenty, but God stopped counting “ifs” the night Jesus was born.

Saint Paul, a writer and preacher, says nothing will separate us from the love of God.  Nothing we can do, think of, or have inflicted upon us will disconnect us from God’s love.  He says, “For I am convinced, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things, present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Death, that’s a no.  Angels, that’s also a no.  Rulers, that’s a huge no.  Things you fear down the road, that’s a big fat no.  Nothing cuts us off from God but us.  We are the big “if”.

Uncertainties and possibilities will remain in our lives.  The “ifs” aren’t going away anytime soon, especially for our graduates.  This morning, I want to help take one “if” off the table.  God’s love isn’t in doubt.  You are loved.  We are loved.  Nothing will change this reality.  Now, how will we respond to God’s love?  It’s too big and wonderful of a gift to leave on display.  It’s not the kind of thing you show your relatives admiringly and say, “Look what I got for graduation!”  Open the box, do something with it, share what you’ve received.

We’ve been invited to participate in God’s ongoing work by loving our neighbors and responding to God’s call in our lives.