Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
May 20, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today isn’t really the Feast of the Ascension in the church calendar. Ascension day was actually last Thursday; but we don’t gather for worship on Thursday (except Maundy Thursday), and I have some things I want to say that flow from the account of Jesus’ Ascension in Acts, so we’re doing Ascension anyway, albeit it a few days late.
The story of the Ascension in Acts that we just heard is a really strange story, isn’t it. The centerpiece of the story is Jesus being taken up into heaven on a cloud. We’ve probably all seen paintings of that scene. You can see it in stained glass just by turning around the looking at the window above the front door to our sanctuary. In the story Jesus gets lifted up to heaven. Never mind that if a physical body left the earth going up at the speed of light two thousand years ago that body would still be in the Milky Way. We are, after all, dealing here with myth not fact, but that’s not what I want to talk about this morning. I want to talk about what Acts’ story of Jesus’ Ascension can tell us about what Jesus really meant in his world and what he can mean in ours.
To get at that meaning we have to follow this quite complex story rather carefully. I know we just heard it, but let’s go through it again so that we’re all clear on what’s in it. The apostles are gathered with the risen Christ, apparently forty days after Jesus’ Resurrection. The story begins with them asking Jesus “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In response Jesus doesn’t so much answer their question as he just brushes it off. “It is not for you to know,” he says to them. Then he changes the subject. He tells them that they will “receive power” when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, foreshadowing the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which, as Acts tells the story, happens ten days later. Then comes the Ascension itself, after which two men in white robes appear. They say to the disciples: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Whereupon the story of the Ascension ends.
So how does this story tell us something about what Jesus meant in his world and what he can mean in ours? It is often the case in the New Testament that a teaching about a divine truth begins with a misunderstanding. Throughout the Gospels people misunderstand Jesus, and it happens again here. It happens with the disciples. They have been with Jesus since early in his ministry. They have seen him heal and heard him preach. They have wept at his crucifixion and rejoiced in his resurrection, and they still don’t get it. We see that they don’t get it in the question they ask Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” This question is grounded in a common belief among Jews in Jesus’ time, namely that the Messiah would recreate the Kingdom of David, a very earthly kingdom that had existed a thousand years earlier when Israel was independent and free. To do that the Messiah would have to drive the occupying Romans into the sea, which was what the people of Jesus’ time wanted most of all. The disciples are saying in essence “OK, Jesus. Will you now at last get on with really being the Messiah and drive the Romans into the sea for us?”
As we have seen, Jesus just brushes this question off. He apparently thinks that it is so off the mark that it isn’t even worth answering directly. Instead of answering their question Jesus offers them a different vision. He promises them power through the Holy Spirit. The disciples don’t respond to that promise before Jesus disappears from their sight. Receiving power from the Holy Spirit wasn’t what they wanted, it was just what they were going to get. They wanted the Romans destroyed, and that they weren’t going to get. I don’t imagine they were very happy about that.
Then more misunderstanding by the disciples. Jesus has gone up on a cloud; and, I think quite understandably, they’re just standing there looking up into the sky. Whereupon two men in white, presumably angels, appear and tell them once again that they’re getting it wrong. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” The angels at least strongly imply that although Jesus has gone up into heaven, their gaze needs to be directed down here on earth, where Jesus has just told them that they will be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” Again, they don’t get it. The scene closes with a reference to Jesus’ “second coming,” about which more anon.
So, we’ve got the disciples misunderstanding everything. They think Jesus being the Messiah is about massacring Romans, and it isn’t. They think Jesus going into heaven means they should be focused on heaven, and it doesn’t. But that’s all negative stuff. That’s all misunderstanding of what Jesus and Christian discipleship are all about. Does this story of Jesus’ Ascension have anything positive to say to us about those things? I think it does.
When the disciples ask if Jesus is now going to throw out the Romans and recreate the Kingdom of David, he responds by saying that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. That’s a reference to Pentecost. Since I won’t be here next week to talk about Pentecost, let me say a word about it now. The Holy Spirit does indeed come upon the disciple community. After it does, they—or at least some of them—have the power that Jesus had. As Acts continues we hear stories of them preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, even raising the dead. The point, I think, is that those are the things that Christ’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, are about. The disciples want the Kingdom of David. They get the Kingdom of God. They get not political power but a ministry of preaching and healing. We learn that while the Kingdom of God certainly has political implications it isn’t political in the way the world is political. It is political in the way God is political, caring for the poor, caring for the sick, including the outcast, establishing peace through compassion and justice not through violence. The Kingdom of God doesn’t raise an army and drive the Romans into the sea. Rather, it lays bare the violence and the moral bankruptcy of empire by living an alternative life, a life of caring, a life of justice, a life of peace. That’s what the disciples didn’t understand. It is something we can learn from a careful reading of the story of the Ascension.
The angels reprove the disciples for looking up into heaven. That’s not what they’re supposed to be doing. So we learn that the life of the disciples of Christ doesn’t consist of a longing for heaven after this life. It consists of working for the Kingdom of God in this life, on this earth. That’s why, after they ask about restoring the Kingdom of David, Jesus says to the disciples “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The disciples task, and our task, isn’t to stand here longing for heaven. It is to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world. That too is something we can learn from a careful reading of the story of the Ascension.
This story about Jesus’ Ascension isn’t just about something that happened to other people a long time ago in a place far away. So many people today make the same mistakes we see the disciples making in this story. So many people long for Christ to return in power and glory to destroy the powers of evil that we never seem to overcome on our own. So many people see that return as violent, as the coming of Christ the Warrior to drive out our latter day Romans by force. They want what the disciples wanted, and the story of the Ascension tells us that that’s not what we’re going to get from God and Jesus Christ. What we get is what those disciples got, the power to do the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, a ministry of peace, of healing, of reconciliation. So many people today don’t hear the way Jesus brushes off the disciples question about restoring the kingdom. May we hear it today.
So many people understand the life of Christian faith as being about standing on earth looking up toward heaven, as longing for a heavenly home beyond the trials and tribulations of this earth. That longing is understandable. We all share it to some extent, and I don’t mean to deny that such a heavenly home awaits us. But we need to listen to the angels of the Ascension story. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Heaven can wait. Heaven can take care of itself. Our mission as disciples of Christ is in this world. Our mission, like the mission of those first disciples, is to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. Not to convert but to serve, to heal, to help. To help bring about the Kingdom of God.
A lot of us probably don’t pay a lot of attention to the story of the Ascension. It is, after all, something that it is impossible for us to believe literally. Jesus isn’t two thousand light years “up” there still in the Milky Way. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand it literally. We can learn its lessons beyond a literal understanding. We can indeed be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the world. We can undertake a ministry of healing. We can indeed work nonviolently for peace through justice. That’s what this odd story of Jesus’ Ascension tells us, and we can do it. Or at least with the help of God we can. Amen.