The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord was on Thursday, but since most of us aren’t in the habit of going to church on Thursday, and since Lutherans and other protestants don’t really know what a Feast day is anyway, we moved it to Sunday. So, Ascension Sunday. Except that it’s really still the 7thSunday in Easter. Also this is Memorial Day Weekend when everyone is out of town in their RVs or boats, or out shopping at those great Memorial Day sales, so maybe not so many are attending this Feast.
The Feast of the Ascension. It’s almost as if we really didn’t want anybody to notice it. Ascension? Uh… yes. Isn’t that mentioned in the Creed? Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father… and… he will come again with special coupons for everything you need for your Memorial Day barbeque. No?
I have to confess that I’ve always had a little trouble taking the Feast of the Ascension seriously. The way the Jesus ascending is described in Luke and Acts always felt a little cartoonish to me. In my imagination I keep seeing it like a Terry Gilliam animation like the ones he did for Monty Python, with Jesus suddenly rising up from the ground then catching a ride out of town on a nearby cloud.
I realize that’s not the best way for a pastor to be thinking about a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus, an event so significant that it is included in the Creeds, so I’ve made an effort to think about it more seriously. After all, the Ascension of Jesus has real significance for those of us who are followers of Jesus. It deserves some thoughtful attention.
The Ascension marks a turning point in the way God engages with humanity—with us. For a very long time, God engaged with us infrequently through prophets like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah. They gave us Torah—the teachings—with all the basic information needed to build good relationships and a just society, and occasional corrective advice and direction. And encouragement. Worship in the temple and reading the scriptures in the synagogue were formative community experiences that reminded the people that they lived in the covenant of God’s teachings, that God was with them, and that their relationships with each other and with God were important.
Then came the Incarnation. God entered human history as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Jesus came to expand on the teachings of the law and the prophets, to confront human systems based on greed and oppressive power dynamics, to renew our relationship with God and expand our understanding of God and to teach us not to be afraid of God. As Richard Rohr says, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came to change our mind about God. Most importantly, Jesus came to proclaim that the reign of God had begun—that a human society structured on God’s values was being inaugurated and was within reach.
So after going to all the trouble of incarnation and living a fully human life from start to finish, after challenging our religious and political and economic systems and suffering the most extreme consequences for doing that, after training disciples, after being crucified and then resurrected—after all that, why would Jesus just up and leave?
I can think of two reasons, and they’re connected to each other. First, I think Jesus ascended, returned to his trans dimensional life, because it was time for the kids to grow up and go out on their own. The kids being us. God decided it was time to engage with the humanity in a new way. Instead of working and speaking through only one person, God was now going to engage the world through multiple persons by endowing us with the Holy Spirit. And for that to happen, Jesus had to step back so we could step forward. His disciples and followers would never fully take the responsibility of renewing and transforming their world if Jesus was still handy in person to arbitrate disputes, point the way through dilemmas, and make all the tough decisions.
Jesus had prepared them for this. Luke says he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He reaffirmed the key points of what he had been teaching them, telling them that repentance, metanoia,and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all peoples. Then he told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for his signal. “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” he says in Luke. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says in Acts.
During that time of waiting in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed together, sang together, worshiped together, and ate together. They created a model for the followers of Jesus that we still follow in many ways. This life together was part of their preparation for the work that lay ahead. Through all this they continued to remind each other of their discipleship experiences with Jesus, sharing what they had learned and imagining how they might apply that knowledge. Though they probably didn’t realize it, they were building a foundation of community to fortify their relationships with each other and to build the mutual support that they would rely on to carry them through the challenging days ahead.
Jesus ascended so we could carry on the work of transforming the world as we are empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit and enriched by our life together.
I think the second reason Jesus ascended is that he had taught us everything we need to know to live a whole, healthy and helpful life. These were the same lessons that we are called to share with the rest of the world:
- If someone lashes out at you, let it go. Turn the other cheek.
- Don’t curse your enemies, pray for them instead. In fact, don’t stop there—love your enemies.
- Forgive and you will be forgiven.
- Do not judge and you will not be judged.
- Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
- Share—if you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have one. If you have 5 loaves and two fish pass it around to the multitude in front of you.
- Give something to everyone who asks.
- Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about how you’re going to get by. God knows what you need and God will take care of you.
- Don’t embrace violence or the tools of violence. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
- And most important of all, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what all the law and the prophets were about. Love each other.
Much of what Jesus taught was a restatement of what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning. Jesus, himself, said, he had come to fulfill what the law and the prophets had been saying all along. Jesus embodied what the prophet Micah had said 700 years before him, “God has told you what is good, people. And what does God require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Or as Eugene Peterson translated it in The Message Bible: “God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”
What else was there to teach? All the bases had been covered. So it was time for Jesus to return to the place he called “My Father’s House.” As one of my friends said, “The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the day that Jesus started working from home.”
Jesus started working from home. But he promised that we wouldn’t be left like orphans. Yes, the work of the kingdom was now in our hands, but we wouldn’t have to do it alone. He promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us to guide us and prompt us and remind us of what Jesus taught us. “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” he says in the Gospel of John. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The book of Acts tells us that while the disciples were gazing up toward heaven and watching Jesus ascend, two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.”
Why do y’all keep looking up toward heaven? Your work is down here. Jesus will be back when the time is right.
Our work is down here. And God knows we could be doing better. War is still erupting all over the world even because people are greedy or sometimes because people are so convinced that their way of seeing the world is the only way and that people who see it another way must be eliminated. Or conquered. Or controlled. People are still turning to self-medication in huge numbers because life for many is meaningless and painful or frightening…or just plain boring. Whole groups of people are oppressed by other whole groups of people because we have made gods of power and competition and money instead of following the God of love and cooperation. The planet itself is crying out in pain and becoming less habitable because we have trashed it instead of loving it and taking care of it and learning our proper place in the interconnected, intricate, and beautiful web of creation.
In the church, the place where the followers of Jesus should be replenished and renewed for our work in the world, we are putting ourselves out of business with overthought, overwrought and exclusionary theologies that are long on structure and order but short on the love and teachings of Jesus, with patriarchies and hierarchies that Jesus never intended, and with abuse of authority and just plain abuse.
In a week like this past week when a devastating mass shooting of school children is bookended by a convention of the Church of The Holy Gun in the same state, when yet another Christian denomination is revealed to have been covering up sexual abuse by its clergy and leaders, when once again a small cadre of politicians managed to block legislation that would make the country safer for all of us, it’s really tempting to gaze up to the heavens and hope that the next cloud that floats overhead will be carrying Jesus back to us to fix everything once and for all.
But that isn’t happening. Jesus is still in heaven, working from home. Which means that the work of transforming the world through love is still very much in our hands. It’s time for us to rise up. It’s time for us to ascend, not to a cloud that will take us away from it all, but to our feet taking us into it all—into the world with the ministry of love, healing, and transformation that Jesus has left in our hands.
God has told us how to live and what to do. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God and with each other. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love the world that God has given us. Love it into peace and wholeness one person at a time. And listen to the Holy Spirit reminding us of everything Jesus said.