May 29, 2022
Our second reading on this Sunday when we celebrate the Ascension is always our second reading on this Sunday when we celebrate the Ascension. With what Meg read from Luke, we see how the story of the Ascension makes for a nice ending to the gospel of Jesus. What we hear next from Acts is how that ending is really our beginning… as the church must rise up and become the body of Christ in the world. Listen as God continues speaking.
READ Acts 1:1-11
When I first started in ministry and preaching… the Ascension would always throw me for a loop because at that time there was still a small part of me that had a difficult time with the visuals of this story. Jesus floating off into the sky… I just didn’t know what to do with that image. As a new minister, I wasn’t sure how much I even needed to defend that image of Jesus taking flight and heading off to that literal heaven floating up there on the clouds. It was always a weird place to be at the beginning of my preaching ministry, because I wasn’t a believer of the literal heaven up there floating around on a cloud… but there was still that small troublesome voice in me that would raise the question of how much to talk about it… what about the people in the congregation who might believe in that literal heaven in the sky? Don’t I need to make room for them? And at the same time there was another voice saying your job is to help people grow in their faith… not to keep them in the same place.
Twenty-two years later, I’m still starting my Ascension sermons with the same inner conflict and monologue.
And here’s the thing… here’s why I bring all this up… again… today… that idea… and others like it… is like a lead weight keeping us from ascending. That idea… and others like it… is equivalent to burying your head in the sand… and when we bury our head in the sand… you know which part of us are left sticking up in the air for all to see. I mean it doesn’t take much… just a word or two to immobilize us… a tiny dash of fear… and then we’re no different than these disciples standing out there on that hill… staring up at the sun… our vision being blinded and burned away… not being of any good to anyone. Worrying about the wrong things. Lord, is now the time we get to have control of the Empire… is now our time to be in power?
The story of Ascension is just that… the church ascending to the heights of the faith to which it has been called… the church… the people… being filled with resurrection life and leaving the tomb behind… leaving behind the culture of death that puts the God of love and grace on a cross because… because of fear of the empire and what the empire will do. Isn’t that an excuse the religious leaders of the day gave when they murdered this prophet… this healer and teacher of a different kind of kingdom? He’s causing problems. He’s upsetting the boat. He’s going to be seen as a threat to the powerful Romans… so it is best we get rid of him before something bad really happens. No theological debate. No listening to the message and judging it on its merits. No engagement with the good news that was doing something among the people who found something in him… something of God in that Jesus… that these religious leaders weren’t providing. No. Head in the sand… the excuse of fear… the welcoming of death… again… and the keeping of the status quo.
Fear. Fear keeps us down. No one ascends through fear. What do you fear? Losing power and influence? No one rises up through fear. People turn the blind eye in fear… turn inward and harden their hearts against others. People embrace apathy in fear. People arm themselves and fortify their positions and dig in when they are afraid. No one who is afraid picks up a cross to die. No one who is afraid truly believes that there is life after the death you fear.
It’s a small thing, really… but when I first began preaching about the Ascension… I was afraid of upsetting someone if I didn’t present Jesus literally floating off into the sky. I was afraid of hurting someone’s fragile faith if I were to stand up and say quite plainly… it’s not about proving the historicity of any of this… it’s about letting the meaning melt your hard heart… it’s about letting go of whatever form of death has a grip on you… letting go and embracing the possibility of new life through resurrection… a life free from death. It’s about ascending to the high nature of the call of discipleship.
The cross represents the worst death the Romans could invent. Jesus goes through the pain of it. It is terrible. It is horrible. It is not the end. The finality of the tomb… that which we fear so much… is stripped of its power. If only we could struggle and fight more in our belief of that. Maintaining a fragile faith… where in these stories did Jesus do that for his disciples? Jesus pushed them toward a resurrection faith… one that had to pick up and carry a cross if they were going to follow him. What fragile, scared disciple is going to step out boldly to pick up the cross meant for them? There are a hundred and one excuses to stay that fearful disciple’s hand… and we can always convince ourselves and justify our actions for not going forward.
Here’s what I mean. This past week at our Monday night Bible study on Mark, we read two stories about Jesus’ healing and setting people free… and those actions brought him into conflict with the religious leaders. Not because they couldn’t duplicate the miraculous acts… they don’t even try. The conflict never turns into a contest of who can do the most good… a contest of mutual ascension. No. Instead the conflict is all about pulling someone back down. It’s about the hardness… and I suppose the weightiness… of people’s hearts that won’t allow them to rise up to something greater… but that will instead motivate them to stay in the depths of the miserableness of the status quo. The first story we read from Mark is a story you all know well… of a paralytic who is brought to Jesus through the roof of the house by his four friends. The faith… the lengths to which the friends go… their sacrifice with only the thought of their friend’s well-being… of him rising up from the mat on which he was forced to lay… that faith is what impresses Jesus in the moment. He doesn’t complain about the hole made in the roof of his house or how they didn’t wait their turn with everyone else that surrounded the house that night. Jesus didn’t search to find meaningless fault to create an insurmountable distraction… to become the excuse for fear to thrive. Jesus sees the faith of the friends and he tells the paralytic his sins are forgiven… get up and walk. Then comes the move we see time and again in our fear saturated culture… the scribes skip over the amazing power of forgiveness that will cause this man crippled by sin to rise up… all their hard hearts are worried about is that Jesus dared to forgive… and only God can forgive. Which in practice… I suppose… only means we are left with the power to condemn. Because we condemn so easily. Forgiveness is hard… maybe because it might lead to resurrection and ascension. Don’t want to take that risk. Condemnation is easy because it maintains the miserable status quo and keeps whatever new life that might spring up… buried in the tomb.
In a second story in Mark, Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath. And he is surrounded by hard hearts waiting to see if Jesus will break the establishment rules of the Sabbath by healing a man with a withered hand. There is the chance that someone’s fragile faith might shatter. The story speaks clearly of Jesus’ anger at their hardened hearts… of his anger that they would deem these laws as more sacred than the actual doing of good. Sound familiar? I mean, who would love a law over doing what is good and right? That’s crazy, right? That’s preacher sarcasm there if you didn’t notice. Like before, the person who is healed gets ignored. How his life gets restored is ignored. Jesus defies the law… the absolute obedience to which has turned the religious leaders in the synagogue on that day into servants of death so much so that after Jesus heals the man… their response is to conspire with the politicians to find a way to destroy him… to kill Jesus. We can’t have this man daring to suggest that we need to pull our heads out of the ground. We can’t have this man showing the people how to walk from the tombs of our own making with just a bit of forgiveness and love… the desire to do what is right by people with the showing of a bit of grace… we can’t have people rising up from our death dealing ways. We might lose power and control… and we are afraid of that most of all.
The message… the meaning of the story of the Ascension in Acts is clear. It’s as if those two men in white are here now… today… giving us a shove in the right direction. You… meaning we… us… we must be the resurrected body of Christ in the world. We must rise up to the occasion. Leave the tomb behind. Leave the fear behind. Leave the excuses behind. Pull our heads out of the sand and stop talking out of our posteriors as we obscure the obvious truth of God with our own sinful tediousness. It’s not about standing still on some hillside looking up to try to see some heaven floating up there on a cloud somewhere… it has everything to do with making room for the kingdom of heaven to exist and find life in the here and now. Amen.