Weekly Preaching: Ascension Sunday 2018

May 9th, 2018

What is May 13th? Mother's Day? Easter 7? Ascension? My people attending are 97% thinking Mother's Day. It's so easy to be schmaltzy, to regale people about the wonder of Mom, but I’m one of the people for whom it’s an uncomfortable day. I’d resent you or just stay home if you did the Mom & Apple Pie sermon.

At our place, we cope with Mother’s Day by mentioning it in the pastoral prayers, where we can thank God for mothers who are a blessing, ask for solace for those grieving a lost mother, and pray for healing of fractured relationships  and for those for whom infertility has made Mother’s Day all but unbearable. I like, every time I can on Mother's Day, to talk about Mary, Jesus' mother  how she carried him in her womb, heard his first cry, nursed him, taught him to talk and walk, watched him walk away, felt more wounded than anybody when he was executed, and, if tradition is on point, was the first person he appeared to after rising (admittedly, not in the Bible...).

For me, I'll track the unfolding Christian year by attending to the Ascension. The Psalm (47) is splendid, although we'll probably only use it as a call to worship. The ancient Israelites watched as the ark was carried in procession into the temple, and they cried out "God has gone up with a shout!"  and more. Fabulous.

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My personal focus will be Acts 1:1-14 (as, oddly, Acts 1:1-11 is prescribed for Ascension Day, Acts 1:12-26 for Easter 7). I preached on this three years ago, if you'd like to watch. Skeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity and floating up into heaven. The art is all hokey, of course. Own it. What better time to say to the skeptic, the intellectuals, the doubters, that yes, there's room in church for you, too.

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.” How can we entertain solid science questions with candor, grace, and flat-out interest, and yet stay committed to whatever is at the heart of the story of the Ascension  which shows up in our creed every week?

I'll never forget a sermon I heard early in my ministry from a hardscrabble, not-very-pious preacher who tackled the Ascension story with loads of quibbles and questions, but then said "All I can figure is that this story gets Jesus back home where he belongs, with his Father in heaven." Not bad.

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; 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. Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them. We are Jesus here, now. 

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.
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), as 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?
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Odd, in some ways, that Luke 24:44-53, the Gospel side of Luke's ascension, feels flatter and less inspiring than what he did in Acts 1! It's all about opening up the Scriptures, and the resurrection (as we see repeatedly!) is all about forgiveness, not eternal life. Included is the intriguing promise of "power from on high," not explicitly naming the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.

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 commission, a sending forth. 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; they're real people. There were women! How revolutionary is that? 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 ate the last piece of cake! They are there, risking life and limb with everybody else, worshipping the guy.

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Their togetherness, their oneness throws down the gauntlet to us. John 17, the Gospel for Easter 7, with words spoken in that same room on Maundy Thursday a few weeks earlier, is a theologically rich passage fixated on the glorification of Jesus, which is what Ascension is about. It shows us Jesus praying for the unity of his people. To all who would split the church, be very sure that Jesus has a different purpose for his church  that we be one.

There is a lot in Jesus' prayer about the disciples being in but not of the world  a pregnant, memorable framing of what our life is like, we whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Jesus' culminating plea is that, just as Jesus has consecrated himself, his mission is that they may be consecrated; and verse 19 adds "in truth." We could use some of this consecration-in-truth, in our day of cynicism and ideology where nothing is what it appears to be and truth is negotiable and ideological slant is more than a real, trustworthy thing.

"What can we say come May 13? Easter 7/Ascension" originally appeared on James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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