Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11
There is so much going on at this time of year. The weather is warmer so it’s nice to get outside. It’s a good time for gardening or deferred maintenance around the house—don’t forget to clean out your dryer vent, by the way. Baseball, soccer and other sports are kicking into high gear. Schools are having finals and graduations. People are taking vacation or planning vacation. Last week was Mother’s Day. Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend—we’re already seeing ads for the sales. When you add in Congregational Meetings, birthday celebrations and a retirement party it’s easy for something important to be overlooked. Something like, say, the Ascension of Jesus.
The Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, was on Thursday. It’s always on a Thursday because it always comes 40 days after Easter. Because it’s always on a Thursday, it often gets overlooked. Fortunately, we have the option of commemoration the Ascension on the 7th Sunday of Easter.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are written by the same author—let’s just go ahead and call him Luke—and Luke thought that the Ascension was so important that he wrote about it twice. The Gospel of Luke ends with the Ascension as a kind of preview of coming attractions, and the Acts of the Apostles begins with the Ascension. By ending his gospel with the Ascension, Luke was telling us that this event marked the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus. By beginning the book of Acts with the Ascension, Luke is telling us that the Ascension marks the beginning of the mission of the followers of Jesus.
The 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday is a transition point between the energizing excitement of the resurrection and the energizing empowerment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It’s a time to stand for a moment with the disciples as they stood at a transition point between their work of learning from Jesus to their work of teaching the Way of Jesus.
It’s a good time to remember the power and importance of transitions.
In today’s gospel lesson from John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples, and by extension for us. He says that we belong to him, that we are a gift the Father has given him. We belong to him and we also belong to the Father, which Jesus would have us understand is one and the same thing.
Jesus says that he is glorified in his followers. The Message translates it as “my life is on display in them,” and I think that’s a useful way for us to think about what it means for Jesus to be glorified in us. His life is on display in us. He asks the Father to protect us. And then he ends this part of his prayer by asking that we may be one as he and the Father are one.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In today’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, we get Luke’s fuller account of the Ascension. The Message nicely captures the clueless confusion of the disciples as they stand at a transition point that will radically change their lives: “When they were together for the last time they asked, ‘Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?’”
Isn’t that just so like us. You would think that after all they’ve seen, all they’ve been through, they might have learned to sit tight and see what comes next, but they can’t let go of their pet vision, their favorite idea, their fondest hope. We have that same problem sometimes, don’t we? We bring up our agenda before Jesus has a chance to show us what comes next.
Jesus is surprisingly blunt in his response to them. He wants them to know that God’s agenda is broader than restoring Israel as an independent earthly kingdom. He wants them to be ready to move out into the whole world. He wants them to get the whole idea of the “Kingdom of Israel” –Israel as another political and military world power—out of their heads to make room for the world-wide Kin-dom of God. He wants their minds and hearts free for what comes next, for the work he’s calling them to do.
Once again, Eugene Peterson captures not just the words but the mood of Jesus’ response in The Message: “He told them, ‘You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’”
“These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, ‘You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.’”
You Galileans! Why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky? You Galileans. You People from anywhere and everywhere… why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky? Jesus will be back. In God’s own good time. In the meantime, there’s work to do…and it’s not up there in the sky.
So why did the resurrected Christ ascend to heaven and leave us here to slog on without him, especially knowing that sometimes it was going to be so difficult and so painful?
Maybe we can think of Ascension Day as Graduation Day. If he had simply stayed with us here forever, maybe it would have stunted our growth. We would always be waiting for him to identify every problem and propose every solution. We would always be asking him what we should think. We would be like the spoiled kids who never develop any life skills who end up living the rest of their in their parents’ spare room or basement.
The Ascension is Graduation Day. It’s the day Jesus hands us the keys. It’s the day we become adults in the faith and responsible partners in the mission and ministry of healing the world.
Jesus taught us everything we need to know. He gave us the Holy Spirit—so we’re not really ever without him at all. And now, with the knowledge Christ gives us, with the love he instills in us, and with the guidance of the Spirit, he wants us to master our own lives and take on God’s work.
We are now God’s tools for transforming the world so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven. Christ’s work has become our work. Rebuilding the world on Christ’s ethic of love, grace and forgiveness is our priority.
That means that we have to be clear about what Christ’s ethic of love looks like in practical terms in this world. How do we live out the beatitudes of Matthew 5? How do we learn to see Christ in the needs of our neighbor as in Matthew 25? How do we embrace the mission of Luke 4 and Isaiah 61: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”? How do we live out the values Luke 6, “blessed are the poor, but woe to those who are rich” in our personal lives, and in our life together as the church, and in our life as a society, a culture and a nation? How do we witness to our Ethic of Love, compassion and caring for the neighbor and even instill these values into our systems without imposing our religion on others, but at the same time being clear that our faith is, for us, the source of these values?
Figuring this out, answering these questions, takes prayer and discernment. It takes time and discussion. It takes time together beyond Sunday worship and coffee. If we’re really going to live as witnesses to the love, the power, and the Way of Christ it means we take time together to examine our church, our community, our world and our nation through the lens of Christ’s commandment to love one another.
I mentioned earlier that Memorial Day is coming up.
I remember Memorial Day picnics at Salemsborg Cemetery in Kansas when I was a kid. There would be a prayer and a brief speech by the pastor and a hymn or two. People would visit the graves of their loved ones and plant flags on the graves of veterans. Special attention was given to those who had died while serving. I remember how my dad, who was usually pretty talkative in large gatherings, was quiet and introspective at these Memorial Day picnics, and I imagine he was thinking of all his friends in his B-24 Bomber group, especially the ones who never came home from the war.
“Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus. “To give up your life for your friends.”
That truth was old even when Jesus said it. He was applying it, of course, to his own sacrifice for all of us and the sacrifice we should all be willing to make for each other. But it was something every soldier already knew and took to heart because soldiers have been giving up their lives for their friends for millennia—for crown, country and cause, of course, too, but deep at the root of it, mostly because they have believed that it’s what is necessary to protect family and friends.
That is the root that Jesus taps into with his Ethic of Love—that God-instilled instinct within us to give ourselves to each other and for each other in a cause that’s greater and more noble than our own selfish interests. When Jesus calls us to “love one another even as I have loved you,” he’s asking us to find that God-given well of instinctive altruism inside ourselves and to drink deeply from it.
Every gravestone of a soldier or sailor or flyer killed in service is a marker both of the triumph and the failure of this Ethic of Love. It is a triumph because it stands as a witness to ultimate self-sacrifice. And as Jesus said, there is no greater love. It is a failure because we have not yet succeeded in creating a world where we care about each other enough to free each other from the devastation of armed conflict and violence.
“You will be my witnesses,” said Jesus. You will be my witnesses that there is a better way. You will bring love and grace and forgiveness to a world filled with violence, greed and fear. You will meet the world’s anger and hate with forgiveness, peace and love. You will meet the world’s fear and greed with grace, hope and generosity.
You Galileans… you people… you followers of Christ, why are you staring up at the empty sky? There’s work to do. In Jesus’ name.