Sermon: Don’t stand looking for Jesus in the sky

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Feast of the Ascension, 16th of May, 2021

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

We often ignore the Feast of the Ascension, hovering as it does between Easter and Pentecost in the same way that Jesus’ feet hover at the top of Ascension paintings. When the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written people lived in a three-tiered universe. Heaven was up; Sheol, the realm of the dead, was down; and there was no difficulty in imagining Jesus reaching heaven by rising upwards. We no longer live in that universe, and for us the description of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ can lead to mental images of Jesus taking off through and beyond the earth’s atmosphere into outer space, although as one of the biblical commentators I read this week reminds us: ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.[1]

But we cannot ignore the Ascension. It is so important a part of the story of Jesus that it has a clause in the Apostles’ Creed. One of the things that the church believes about Jesus is that ‘he ascended into heaven’. So what is it that we are saying we believe in when we recite the Creed?

There are only two descriptions of the Ascension in the Christian Scriptures, both written by Luke. It is the last thing that he describes in the Gospel that carries his name, and the first thing he describes in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. These descriptions of the Ascension are the transition point between Luke talking about Jesus’ life, and Luke talking about the mission of Jesus’ followers empowered by the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, the two stories are slightly different. In the first description of the Ascension it seems to have happened very soon after the resurrection, immediately after Jesus’ appears to ‘the eleven and their companions’. It’s also short; Luke writes: ‘Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.’ (Luke 24:50-1) The Ascension happens in a subordinate clause and could be easily missed; the focus is on Jesus blessing his disciples as he leaves them. This description echoes what the other three canonical gospels say. In all of them Jesus’ entry into heaven happens on Easter Day, separate from the resurrection but immediately following it.

Luke’s second description of the Ascension, at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, is longer and more detailed. In this description the Ascension is said to happen forty days after the resurrection; Jesus commissions his followers, rather than simply blessing them; and we have an appearance from two men in white robes. These are probably meant to be the same two men in dazzling robes who spoke to the women at the tomb on Easter morning. Then they asked: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ Now they ask: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ In both cases these two men remind Jesus’ followers not to standing gazing on the past but to look towards the future.

Ascension - Dali, 1958

Luke tells us that Jesus has just spent forty days – forty to indicate a period of formation – giving his disciples instructions. And yet the two men in white robes still need to tell them not to stand there looking up. For those of us who are unsure of our qualifications to follow Jesus, these first disciples are a constant reassurance. Jesus has died, descended to the dead, been resurrected by God, and spent forty days preparing the disciples to be his representatives on earth – and still, still!, they ask him ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ It is as though the disciples think that post-resurrection they can forget all that intervening unpleasantness of crucifixion and a suffering Messiah and return to the expectations of the cheering crowds of Palm Sunday, that Jesus will rule over an Israel freed from Roman occupation with the disciples beside him.

That is not what Jesus is commissioning them to do. They are not simply to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea. They are also to witness to him in Samaria and to the very ends of the earth. Luke’s second volume will tell the story of the Jesus movement gradually, oh-so-slowly, discovering what that means; that even Gentiles are to be welcomed into the family, and that the message is to be taken to the very centre of the evil Empire, to Rome itself. That all begins here. We celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, the day when the Jesus movement went public, but it is at the Ascension that the leaders of that movement are commissioned for their task.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in this short introduction: during his ministry Jesus gave instructions ‘through the Holy Spirit to the apostles’; during the forty post-resurrection days he spent with them Jesus promised that they would ‘be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’; and as he leaves them he tells them again: ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you’. Luke is preparing us for the entrance of another manifestation of God among humanity, for the next Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Today, the Feast of the Ascension, marks the end of Jesus’ time on earth. Next week, the Feast of Pentecost, marks the coming of the Spirit. The baton is passed, Jesus leaves the scene, and the Holy Spirit enters. The arrival of the Holy Spirit does not mean Christ has been replaced by the Christian community that became the Church. The Church does not replace Christ; instead Christ is present with the community in a new way, through the Holy Spirit. It is one of the mysteries and gifts of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are One. By ascending to the Father, Christ can relate to humanity beyond the limits in time and space. Jesus lived and died in one country, at one time, interacting with a small group of people. The Holy Spirit is accessible to everyone, all people, all the time. This is how we can be in relationship with Christ, despite living 2000 years after his birth on the other side of the world from his birthplace. God is with us through the Holy Spirit, the gift of God and God.

The Ascension is the last time the human Jesus of Nazareth is seen by his disciples. It is the final act in the drama of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation heaven came to earth when the Word became flesh and lived among us. Now in the Ascension earth is taken up into heaven. When we say in the Apostles Creed that Jesus ‘was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven’ we are saying that everything humanity experiences, including death itself, has been experienced by God in Jesus. Now all of that, including the experience of crucifixion and death, is being taken up into heaven. The God who has experienced everything that it means to be human, who understands our humanity from the inside, has made our humanity part of God. Through Jesus humanity now dwells in the heart of God, valued and loved. Each of us will one day join Jesus there, Jesus has promised that he goes to prepare a place there for us. Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are the first fruits of what we believe will one day be true of all of us. We too will become part of the community of love that is the Trinity, the community that is God.

In the meantime, we stand like the disciples in a liminal space, poised between Easter and Pentecost, between heaven and earth, between the beginning and the end. We could race on to Pentecost, to the coming of the Holy Spirit and Peter’s astonishingly successful sermon to the ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’. Or we could pause here, with Jesus gone and ten days still to wait, pondering what it means to live in this in-between time, because even after Pentecost the in-between is still where we Christians dwell.

We live between Christ’s first coming and his second. We know that the day will come when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We know that there will be a time when people will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, when nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. We know that that day is coming – but it is not here yet. In this in-between time we could remain immobile, looking up at where Jesus was, hoping to see him return. Or we could do what Jesus commissioned the church to do, and take his message of love and peace and hope and joy to the ends of the earth. The disciples had still been hoping for the exaltation of Israel over its enemies; Jesus instead commissioned them to witness to him not merely in Jerusalem and all Judea, but to those Israel had persecuted, the Samaritans, and those who had persecuted Israel, the Romans. And that is our commissioning too, to act as Jesus to those we love and who love us, and to act as Jesus to those we have persecuted and those who have persecuted us.

We could keep gazing up towards heaven in our attempts to see Jesus, or we could look for Jesus where he told us we would find him, in each other and especially in the least of these. Counter-intuitively, the message of the Ascension is that we will find God here on earth. Amen.

[1] Ronald Cole Turner, ‘Acts 11:1-11’ in Feasting on the Word, year C, vol. 2, p. 498.

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