“Keeping the Promise” Colchester Federated Church, May 28, 2017, (Acts 1:6-14) Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension of the Lord

Today is the Sunday in the Church Year where we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ, and look forward to Pentecost next Sunday.  Like some miracle stories, the Ascension may seem a little odd.  We have this image of Jesus with the disciples on the Mount of Olives and he’s giving them instructions and helping them to understand his teachings.  Jesus tells them that soon they will have power and authority from the Holy Spirit—soon they will be sent out to witness and spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. This seems normal enough, but then we read in the book of Acts: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”[1]

So what do we do with the Ascension?  For decades many Protestants like us just ignored it completely because we found this story too confusing or even embarrassing.  Professor Joseph Weber (a Christian scholar) once complained that, “Most contemporary Christians think the resurrection and ascension are a kind of two-stage rocket: the resurrection gets the body of Jesus up from the ground and then the ascension launches it into outer space.”[2]  He complained to his colleague (and scholar of Preaching and Worship) Laurence Hull Stookey—who I studied in seminary and whose work I’ve relied on for this sermon.  Professor Stookey presented a rich theological understanding of the Ascension so that Protestants won’t just walk away when we find this story perplexing.  Especially given that these events are not exactly typical of all human experiences and notions of gravity, altitude, and science in general.  It’s no wonder that many Christians ignore Ascension of the Lord Day.  But perhaps we shouldn’t because there’s many compelling aspects of the Ascension for us.

Focus on the Present

First of all, we have Jesus telling the disciples to not concern themselves with the time or the periods that God will enact the restoration of Israel.  Jesus is basically telling the disciples to be concerned with matters that they can actually do something about.  Jesus is emphasizing that they shouldn’t focus on when something may or may not be happening sometime in the future—let God handle that!  In the words of Jesus from Jesus Christ Superstar (one of my favorite musicals), “Don’t you mind about the future, don’t you try to think ahead.  Save tomorrow for tomorrow.  Think about today instead.”  Jesus is saying, both in the passage and the musical, focus on spreading my teachings to others and living out those teachings by showing compassion now.  Don’t you mind about the future so much, it’s not for us to know all about God’s timing.  Focus on the present.  Isn’t that call to focus on the present good for us to hear every now and then?  Not being mired in the past and not having massive anxiety about the future?  Focusing on living one day at a time.  Well, that’s an emphasis in our Ascension story.

Actions Matter

Moreover, we have the men in white robes (presumably Angels) asking the disciples “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”[3]  Their words emphasize actions, we see the importance of the disciples doing something about all that they’ve just learned from their teacher and friend.  What are you doing standing around for?  Go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come, start planning and thinking of some tactics for spreading the message of Jesus.  The disciples began thinking about how they could be witnesses in Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth.  To do this, to ponder and prepare themselves for their journeys to come, they gathered together and devoted themselves to prayer.  What comes next?  We’ll find out next week when we celebrate Pentecost.  Though we know from this story that the teachings of Jesus are up to us to spread as his disciples here and now.  It’s the whole so what factor.  Jesus is gone—so what are we going to do about it?  What can we do to spread his message of love, compassion, and acceptance to all people?  Actions matter!

God Deeply Understand Humanity

Alright so far we know that the Ascension teaches us to focus on the present and that our actions matter.  Another lesson is that through Jesus, God understands and experiences human life to the fullest.  Easter was just a few weeks ago.  Even before that we observed Good Friday—a hard day in the Christian tradition.  In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus dies on the cross quoting Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  On Good Friday we may wonder where God was during all of that suffering and pain.  We may try to put ourselves in Jesus’ place and wonder how it felt to have your friends abandon you and all the work you’ve done in your life seem to have failed (before we get the glorious Resurrection.)  And then we may ask ourselves where God was for us when times were hard in our lives.

The Ascension means a great deal in terms of God completely understanding the best and worst of what human beings experience on earth.  Laurence Hull Stookey, that great liturgical scholar we studied back in seminary writes that, “The Risen Christ takes along the fullness of human life experienced by Jesus, including the worst of earthly agony.  Christians have no good reason for doubting that God understands in the most personal possible way our human struggle, sorrows, and defeats.”[4]  When Jesus Christ ascends (whether we take it literally, metaphorically, or it’s just too confusing to reconcile), he takes with him all of those earthly experiences, the good and bad.  We can rest assured that God does understand what we go through because Jesus went through a whole lot.

God is Dependable

In our tradition, we have the life and teachings of Jesus.  We have Good Friday and the death of Jesus.  And then the Resurrection on Easter and the Ascension we celebrate today. The Ascension completes this journey.  God’s promises are fulfilled.  This is the last thing that we can take away from the Ascension—focusing on the present, our actions matter, God deeply understands humanity, and God is dependable.  In the end, we know that what God begins, God brings to completion.  The Word of God that became flesh to dwell with us forever returns to God.  God is dependable.[5]  We believe that Jesus somehow joined God in heaven, to reign in glory.  This means no more fear, no more pain, no more suffering, no more struggling.  Now the work will be, in many respects, up to Jesus’ disciples both then and now!  God began this journey on earth with Jesus in Bethlehem and God is there to welcome Jesus home after everything he went through.  The same can be said for all of us.  At the end, God will be there to welcome us home.  The end of our journeys will be being home with God—where there will be no more pain or tears or fear or suffering, for the first things have passed away.

This week in Jerusalem there was a celebration at the Chapel of the Ascension on Thursday (that was technically Ascension Day.)  When I traveled to the Holy Land during my Sabbatical last summer, I studied at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem.  (Tantur is affiliated with Notre Dame.)  And when our group walked on the Mount of Olives, we stopped at the Chapel of the Ascension to hear this story and to sing and praise God for this moment in our tradition.  We discovered that this is a Holy Site that’s also sacred to Muslims.  Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet and so you’ll discover Muslim groups who also come to the Chapel of the Ascension to pray and praise God for Jesus ascending into heaven.  In fact, a mosque and minaret were added to the Chapel in the 1600s and the custody of the site remains in Muslim hands.  So it’s a really fascinating experience to be inside the Chapel where the ceiling is literally open to the sky to symbolize Jesus returning to God and observe our Christian traditions.  And then walk out to a Muslim group quietly and patiently waiting to go inside to observe their Muslim traditions inside this sacred space.  In a world where too often we hear so much negativity about Muslims this sharing of sacred space between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land of all places really matters.  And it was so beautiful.  What brings the two largest World Religions together in this place?  The Ascension of Jesus Christ.

So hopefully we all can take away a thing or two from celebrating the Ascension of our Lord—focusing on the present and the importance of the disciples’ actions both back then and for us modern-day disciples now.  The belief that God truly understands our suffering and the things that we go through because of Jesus’ eventual return to God.  We know that what God begins, God completes.  God is dependable and will see promises through.  Oh, and the Ascension is also celebrated by Muslims.  And we Christians and Muslims both contemplate these events at the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to this day.

Maybe the Ascension still seems odd and we may wonder why modern Christians bother with it at all.  When I taught this story to a former Confirmation class, those high school students looked at me at the end and one of them responded, “Yeah that’s fine, but it’s still weird, Lauren.”  Maybe that’s where most of us are still sitting, that’s okay.  But like so many seemingly perplexing Biblical miracle stories, this one points to some of those deep and abiding truths about God that can give us hope and courage, and inspire us to go out there and see the promises of God through to the end.  God is dependable, my friends.  And so now we wait with the disciples in the Upper Room.  We wait for the Holy Spirit to come and urge us on, to go out into the world and be Christ’s witnesses, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[6]  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Acts 1:9, NRSV.
[2] Joseph Weber as quoted by Laurence Hull Stookey in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 67.
[3] Acts 1:11.
[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 70.
[5] Stookey, Calendar, 67.
[6] Acts 1:8.