Monday, May 17, 2010

Lively Faith

Sermon for 5.16.2010, Ascension Sunday (Observed)
Psalm 47; Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s New Testament lesson: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I have a friend, an African-Cuban, who likes to tell me about her old-fashioned, devout mother. When, as a teen, Estella would droop around the house, disappointed with school, or a boyfriend, or whatever, her mother would say emphatically, “Daughter, look UP!” She wasn’t talking about posture or manners. She was talking faith: Raise your eyes, daughter. The King of Glory is in charge!

Estelle’s mother knew the passage we heard today, knew that when the time came for Jesus to end his time with his disciples on earth, he blessed them and as he was blessing them, he was “carried up into heaven.” Acts tells us that “a cloud took him out of their sight.” In the Bible, a cloud often indicates the presence and power of God. Remember “the pillar of cloud by day” that guides the Children of Israel. Certainly Jesus disappeared in a way that made them understand that he had moved beyond ordinary human sight and had joined God. The notion of the Trinity had not yet been developed and so the first Christians speak of “being seated at God’s right hand—the favored side—in heavenly places.” They certainly understand that the one who had been so disgraced by the crucifixion is now exalted beyond our comprehension.

Although the disciples may not have been able to put the experience into words, they knew how to act upon it. For the first time, they worship him. They finally understand that this man whom they have loved as a friend and teacher, and with whom they have broken bread, is also greater and more powerful than they could have imagined. Like one’s response to God, adoration and reverence and praise are what are now appropriate for Jesus. And so, when they return to Jerusalem, the joy of this realization is so great that they continually seek the holiness of the temple as the most fitting place to bless God for what has happened.

We often talk to God like a friend, a relative, an authority figure who needs to listen more fully, maybe even needs to be whipped into shape. But haven’t there also been times when the awesome nature of our God assails us? There is a healing, a new diagnosis, a change of heart, a job, a gift that can only be God-sent. One winter when I was in an elementary school in inner-city New Haven, I was assigned a group of non-readers who had to reach a certain level to be promoted. As you can imagine, there was real pressure from the District, and so I got to work in small groups or one-on-one, my favorite way to teach. Many of the students were able to make the grade and the consequences for them were powerful. But I remember one in particular. At the end of the year, I made an appointment with his mother. “Javon has passed,” I told her. Her immediate reaction was “Thank you, Lord Jesus!” These words were neither casual nor perfunctory. They were a cry of adoration to the One from whom all blessings flow. For several moments, the power of Jesus filled the room. Finally she was ready to turn to me for our conference. Her faith moved me one step closer to seminary.

So this is what Luke records for us and urges us never to forget: There was a birth, a ministry, a terrible death, a resurrection, and many appearances after that resurrection. And then there was also the Ascension, one of the principle days of celebration for the Universal Church. We have to have Ascension to mark the end of the earthly life of our Lord and to give it closure. Ascending completes his life by incorporating it into the life of God from which he came. After that everything is touched by something greater, something bigger, something awesome and often hard for us to wrap our hearts around. When our lives need something far bigger, far greater than we can imagine for ourselves, I urge us all to remember the Ascension.

And yet, as always, there is something more. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve just seen that Luke records that the disciples worship Jesus and commit themselves to praising God for what they have experienced. Well they might. Well we might. But Acts was written by the same author as Luke, and in Acts, there is a slightly different take. As the disciples are staring up into heaven—sometimes I think they’re gawking, sometimes I think of them in a holy trance—two men appear to challenge them and get them moving: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go.” Come how? Come when? That is not explained. But if Jesus is now right next to God and if he’s capable of returning, our worship and praise fill us with power that we can exercise in any number of ways as witnesses for Jesus Christ.

It’s appropriate that these two men/angels/heavenly messengers appear in Acts since Acts is a book of works, of witnessing. The witnessing of the first apostles, largely of evangelism, may not be our witnessing, but there is certainly the expectation that, like them, as our spiritual experience deepens, our faith and our witness of our faith will deepen as well. How can we not? I’m not only talking about food pantries, or community gardens, or suppers, or Apple Festivals, although you know how much I love them. This witness can also be personal, for us to work out in deep prayer with God and with one another.

I included the passage from Ephesians because of its suggestions for the way this witness is nurtured. Ephesians speaks of the “wisdom and revelation” that develop as we “come to know” Jesus. Gradually we can better understand the “hope to which he has called [us],” “the riches of his glorious inheritance.” The power that pulled Jesus from the tomb and transformed his disciples with a new faith is the same power that seats Christ Jesus next to God and makes him the fullness of God in all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ fills all things, is filling and will fill all things in ways we cannot imagine.

This new Jesus is the light we see by. As the theologian Rowan Williams has said, “We see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 69). As we do this, we become committed to the world and its creatures—including ourselves—in a new way. This is a lively faith—a faith that is alive and a life that is holy because it is transformed by love for God and neighbor and with gratitude and humility for ourselves and our own private weaknesses and struggles.

In our opening prayer this morning, we prayed to Christ as higher than high and yet with footprints that are still warm on earth. That is the paradox of Ascension and that is its blessing: Because Jesus’ life after Ascension is so clearly bound up with God’s, heaven and earth are also bound together, and earth does not have the last word. Isn’t this really what the Incarnation—the coming into flesh of Christ—has prepared us for? What we think of as the powers and realities of this life—its evils, and illness, and death—are not the ultimate power.

The gravity of this world has been undone. We are free to look up. We are commanded to look up. God has put all things under Christ’s feet, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This day completes Easter. Now both heaven and earth are filled with Christ’s presence and with a totally new kind of power. We are commanded to look up—and then to look around and about where we are placed. There is a new era, a new vocation for us to be engaged in and committed to.

Let us pray: Dearest Christ, keep us lifted up with you so that we may grow in faith and the fruit of that faith. Lead us in our journey with you and enlighten our hearts so that we may know the hope to which you are calling us. Give us the grace to trust in you as the continuing source of power and strength and to imagine your ever unfolding lordship over the whole of creation. Amen.

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