Weekly Preaching: Ascension, Aldersgate, and Memorial Day

May 23rd, 2017

Easter 7, Ascension, Memorial Day, Aldersgate... this Sunday is a catch-all, and a day attendance lags. Technically it’s Easter 7, but I like to dip back and pick up Ascension Day (May 25); if you go straight from Easter 7 to Pentecost, then Jesus leaves without saying goodbye… United Methodists can even slide back to May 24 being Aldersgate Day.

And everyone has the serious complication of Monday, May 29 being Memorial Day, which creates a kind of pressure you may or may not enjoy. Six years ago, after dodging, coping with and responding to criticism for being… insufficiently patriotic? I preached a whole sermon I’d commend to you explaining a Christian viewpoint on Memorial Day, which was semi-well-received. If it helped no one else, it helped me to work through what I will do and won’t do on Sunday morning regarding patriotic holidays.

Wendell Berry (CC BY 2.0, The Center for Interfaith Relations via Flickr)

A lovely quote that fits Memorial Day and almost any biblical text — and you get credit for covering Memorial Day without appearing to glamorize war-mongering — is in Wendell Berry's great novel in which he imagined Jayber Crow reflecting on the death of his friend Forrest in World War II:

“I imagine that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home — in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses like Miss Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever."

I’ll touch on the Gospel (John 17) in a moment, but my personal focus will be Acts 1:1-14 (as, oddly, Acts 1:1-11 is prescribed for Ascension Day, Acts 1:6-14 for Easter 7! Plus I just love vs. 13-14). Skeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity (Wicked, anyone? or John Mayer, anyone else?) and floating up into heaven. The ancient view of a three-storied universe becomes no real problem at all if we recall that Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body” (as we will be too) — a body, but a transformed kind of body that appears and disappears. Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, March 28) asks if we are loyal, first to my intellect and only then to Jesus?  “Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is a deliberate commitment to a Person.”

What commitments does this Person ask of us and inspire in us in Acts 1:1-14? There are at least three, and John expands on those. Jesus exits, leaving the disciples alone. Think Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is with the hobbits for a while on their adventure, but then he leaves them on their own for some time. They face horrific difficulties, requiring courage and hope; they need one another, and they have to stick together. Gandalf shows up again at the climax, but then bids them farewell once more. The plot mirrors the Bible’s: Jesus heals, dazzles, teaches, suffers, is raised — and then he leaves. He trusts them, and us. Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them. We are Jesus here, now.

"Teresa of Avila," Francois Gerard

In the words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.  

My first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, spent 100 pages explicating this.

This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began. So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things. WWJD? We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us); it’s never mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more. Does the church today — does my church today — continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?

I savor that Easter-morning-like query from the white-robed-guys: “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?”  It feels a little like a rebuke, although their gawking, like spectators at Cape Canaveral watching a rocket launch, is understandable: Jesus just defied gravity… And we might be well-served if we looked up into heaven more than we do!

But the question here is a sending. Don’t just stare up, don’t just linger on memory, but get moving, go out into those rippling circles that define our mission field: Jerusalem, then Judea/Samaria, then the ends of the earth. Do we do mission in our back yard or abroad? Yes.

If you’ve read my blog, you know I like those preaching moments that don’t have a go-and-do element, but just an admiring gaze at some Bible moment. Verses 13 and 14 are one for me: they are in a room — the Upper Room! — and we hear their names. I’ll read them during my sermon... real people. How revolutionary is this? There were women! And how tender: Jesus’ mother, Mary. And then how astonishing: Jesus’ brothers. If you want proof that Jesus was the one, look no further. His brothers, who would be the first to fall prey to sibling rivalry, who could say he cheated at marbles! Or he stole my toy! Or he at the last piece of cake! They are there, risking life and limb with everybody else, worshipping the guy they shared a bed and toilet with.

Their togetherness, their oneness throws down the gauntlet to us. John 17, words spoken in that same room on Maundy Thursday a few weeks earlier, and a theologically rich passage fixated on the glorification of Jesus (which is what Ascension is about) shows us Jesus praying for the unity of his people. Wow. To all who would split the church, be very sure that Jesus has a different purpose for his church — that we be one.

P.s. If you are total geek about the calendar, notice that May 31 is the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. What a lovely, moving moment — another that we simply ponder in awe. 

My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available. My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.

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