Sunday, May 13, 2018
Seventh Sunday of Easter/Sunday after Ascension
Prayer of the Day
Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Acts 1:3-12 Jesus Ascends
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 Matthias added to the apostles
1 John 5:9-13 Life in the Son of God
John 17:6-19 Christ’s prayer for his disciples
Title: Body of Christ: Ascended, Yet Present
As a young kid I was a real nerd. Not that I’m not a nerd now, I proudly wave that flag high. But as a kid I was the definition – awful military type haircut, thick black rimmed glasses, shortest kid in the class. I had nerd written all over me. And my nerdiness was expressed in many ways. One of the ways was in my love for all things church. I loved everything about church – the music, the vestments, the choreography, and yes, Ginny, I even loved the incense! Everything about it was beautiful and attractive. It felt strangely familiar. It felt like home.
One of my fondest earliest nerdy church memories is of one Ascension Day. It was a special liturgy. For one, it was on a Thursday night. It was also close to the end of the school year so it was a good time to be a kid. The organ was playing, the full choir was singing, the incense was billowing. To this day I can still remember one line from something the choir sang that night. I’m not sure if it was a psalm response or a line from an anthem, but it went:
MEN OF GALILEE, WHY DO YOU STAND LOOKING UP TO HEAVEN? ALLELUIA.
And then one of the altar boys quickly ran up and snuffed out the large Easter candle and it was hurriedly removed from the sanctuary, not to be seen for another whole year. Except for baptisms and funerals, of course. But with the exception of the occasional baptism or funeral that Easter candle remained well-hidden in the bowels of the large sacristy, out of sight. The symbolism was very clear – Easter was no more. The season had ended. For an eight year-old it was all VERY dramatic. Of course, now as a middle-aged man of faith, I see what was all wrong with those dramatics both theologically and liturgically. For one, Easter isn’t over until Pentecost! But you can see the lasting impression it had on me – fifty years later I still remember that liturgy. That’s how powerful it was.
Today we began our liturgy with a reading from Acts designated for Ascension Day. It included that haunting line I still remember from fifty years ago – “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It is interesting to note that Luke is the only evangelist to record the Ascension. Twice he records it – in his Gospel and in the Acts passage we heard earlier. Matthew and John assume the Ascension; Mark outright ignores it. Not that it’s not important, but because the Ascension is a tricky theological subject. And yet it’s a subject we confess to believe in every Sunday in the Creed. “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” We say we believe that. But do we?
It appears from Luke’s tellings that Jesus’ ascension was a literal, bodily return to heaven. How can we explain that? Well, I don’t think we can, not in human terms. It was a divine thing. A God thing. I think the more important question to be asked about the Ascension is why is it so meaningful? What makes it so important? Well the first thing is that it marks the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. God the Father had lovingly sent his Son into the world at Bethlehem, and now the Son was returning to the Father. The period of human limitation was at an end.
Jesus ascended into Heaven because He had accomplished all he had set out to do on earth – His was a true “mission accomplished.” It was time for him to return to his heavenly glory. It was time for him to be exalted by the Father. The One with whom the Father was well-pleased was received up in heaven and given a name above all names. (Phillipians 2:9) Perhaps the most important quality of Jesus’ ascension is that it allowed him to prepare a place for US. We’re promised that in the Gospel of John. “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” This was my Southern Baptist grandmother’s favorite scripture passage. And what a beautiful, comforting passage it is. Jesus is ascended to the right hand of the Father, and awaits in glory in a place set aside for us. Comforting indeed.
And then two angels show up, promising the disciples that Christ would return in just the same way that they had watched him go. The promise of His return is made. When Jesus comes to set up His kingdom, he will return just as he left – literally, bodily, visibly in the clouds. Pretty cool, huh? What a return that will be – what a great day!
But in the meantime the question still remains: if Jesus ascended into heaven and we are to await his return, where is he NOW? That’s a question theologians have debated for centuries. Throughout all of Scripture, Jesus is said to be at the right hand of God. So biblically, Jesus is in an actual place called heaven, a place of glory next to God the Father. That’s biblically. But in another sense Jesus is very much here in this world. Jesus being God, has all the attributes of God including omnipresence. So Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit are everywhere. As Solomon says in Second Chronicles, “the heaven, even the highest heaven, cannot contain Him.”
And then sacramentally, of course, Jesus is with us here every Sunday at the table. Lutheran theology teaches that Jesus is present in, with and under the bread and wine we share. Jesus is there. Jesus is there wherever two or more gather in his name. Jesus is there. Omnipresent.
But I want to reflect on the disciples who watched Jesus ascend, who saw Him physically leave their presence. I wonder how they felt at the ascension, what feelings it created in them. The poem we heard in today’s Creative Commentary describes this wonder beautifully. “Can their eyes, having seen the beauty of your face, see anything now that doesn’t fret them? And to ears that heard your sweetness, is not all else clamor and dullness?” Just imagine the range of emotions the disciples went through in a short period of time. They knew Jesus as their teacher and rabbi for just three years, then he was brutally murdered, crucified on a tree. But he rose from the dead, and appeared to them! But his appearances were all too brief and were filled with much explanation about the messianic meaning of the Scriptures. There wasn’t a lot of warm and fuzzy time shared between Jesus and his followers post-Resurrection. What time they shared together was all business; getting ready the business of the church.
Again I refer to the beautiful poem we heard earlier.
“And that swollen sea, who now shall calm it? Who tame the burning wind? With you in eclipse, what star shall guide the ship to port?”
The answer to these questions in the poem appears obvious – YOU. You shall calm the swollen sea. You shall tame the burning wind. You shall be the star that guides the ships to port. YOU meaning the disciples. YOU meaning us, you and I. YOU meaning the Church. You, nourished by the Holy Spirit, confidently will do all these things.
This is why I think Jesus had to ascend to the Father. I believe that He had to leave us for a time, for us to be able to learn to function as the Church in His name. This is why the two angels redirect their attention from heaven back to Jerusalem, toward earth. The angels redirect their gaze from the heavens toward their own lives and their life context. In the same way the angels redirect us. Instead of “Men of Galilee” the wording is changed to “Men and Women of St. John’s – why are you standing around looking up into heaven? Look down, look toward earth.”
We are born here and now and each given a vocation. The call is not to be about always gazing into heaven, but focused on the injustices done unto and the needs of our neighbors. We are called to yell ENOUGH! when we witness racial incidents at Yale University, of all places, or a Waffle House or a Starbucks. Come on, friends it’s 2018 and it’s not getting any better. It’s time we stand up as Church and yell ENOUGH! to racial profiling and discrimination and police brutality. We are to be about sharing and bringing justice to all humanity. This is what the angels are calling us to today.
Over the course of two millennia the Church hasn’t always gotten it right. Far too many times it got it seriously wrong. But when it gets it right, we should celebrate it. I am so proud to say that the ELCA has gotten it right recently. This past weekend I spent with Pastor Mark and others from our congregation at the annual Synod Assembly. I had the privilege of watching a colleague from school be ordained as the newest pastor in our synod. He is starting a brand new and exciting ministry. I watched in pride as our synod officially became a sanctuary synod for immigrants. I had the opportunity to watch our interim bishop lead the assembly. Believe me folks, our synod is in good hands with this bishop. And speaking of bishops — last week two other synods of the ELCA elected African American females to lead them. This marked the first time an African American female was ever elected bishop and it happened not just once, but twice in the same week. Two powerful, strong, faithful women have been called to lead this Church. They are today’s “Men of Galilee.” And I am confident that their gazes will not be heaven ward but squarely on the events of this world… on the injustices in this world. This is news to celebrate!
This is the Good News – the Church is alive and Jesus is very much with us. Even though He is ascended and seated at God’s right hand, he’s also with us. He’s present when we break bread together. He is omnipresent…and we are never alone. And I say this as a proud Jesus church nerd AMEN.
Vicar John Keogh