Sunday, May 16, 2010

God Has Gone Up

Acts 1:1-11 / Psalm 47
Ascension / Easter 7
May 18, 2010
William G. Carter

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

A few years ago, my friends at the Stony Point conference center received a large collection of religious art. The retired dean of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine was cleaning out his closets. He gave much of his collection to my favorite conference center.

One of the pieces is a plaster sculpture of the Ascension of Jesus. It’s designed in hot, wild color. The exact scene is not immediately obvious. But if you look carefully, at the top of the panel, you see two feet dangling out of the sky. From down below, that's all anybody can see of Jesus ascending.

When people see it, when they recognize it, the scene stirs up a chuckle. Jesus is lifted up from the earth. A cloud takes most of him from our sight. All we can see of him are the bottoms of his feet.

We don't talk much about the Ascension of Jesus, even though the event rates two lines in the Apostles' Creed: "He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God." It is the only part of the creed in present tense. Yet it sounds unusual to present-tense people.

Not long ago, I read a theology book by one of my former professors. In all 300 pages of his systematic theology, he never says a word about the Ascension of Jesus. Apparently he didn't feel it was important enough to mention.

At the other extreme, there's a minister up in Endwell, New York, who talks about it plenty. He says the Ascension suggests the existence of space ships in Bible. Some 40 days after Easter, it was time for Jesus to depart this planet. Along came a U.F.O., and Jesus said, in effect, "Beam me up, Father, there's no intelligent life down here."

We want to take the Ascension seriously, but let’s admit it: Jesus rising into the sky is a most unusual event. It seems unreal to the modern mind, a relic from the days when people thought the universe was stacked in three stories: heaven above us, earth around us, hell down below. Galileo and his children have changed all that. When the first astronauts blasted off into orbit, they went up, circled the earth, and came down. "Did you see heaven?" somebody asked. "No," they replied. Because spatially speaking, at least, heaven is not up there. So it's hard to picture Jesus physically floating into the sky.

Maybe that explains why most New Testament writers don't draw the picture for us. Only Luke dares to describe the scene, and he does so twice. The Gospel of Luke doesn't end with the resurrection, with Jesus appearing here and there. No, Luke stretches out the story for another forty days, ending with Jesus being lifted up into glory. Then Luke begins his second volume, the book of Acts, with the same scene. The story of Jesus ends with the ascension. The story of the church begins with the ascension. For the writer of Luke, the single, pivotal event upon which the ages turn is the ascension of Jesus Christ.

Even so, it is a most curious event. Maybe the ascension of Jesus belongs on the ceiling. It doesn't translate into anything the world down here can easily understand. So the question remains: what does it mean to live beneath his feet?

Well, like the writer of Luke, some people hear this story and they are impressed with it. Ignore the discrepancies with modern physics and take it as it is. After all, it's not every day that you see somebody shooting up into the air without a rocket pack. In my reading this week, I came across one pious Bible commentator, who says: "How thrilling it must have been to see the Lord rising into the sky!" Luke, in his own small way, notes that after the disciples saw the ascension, "they worshiped with great joy; they were continually praising God." In other words, they were excited. They were impressed.

If this story is trying to fill us with excitement, God knows we need it. Here we are, some 40 days after Easter. Summer is coming. Any time now, we might start receiving those last minute phone calls, where somebody says, "Sorry I can't take up the offering tomorrow, but my tee time got moved up to 8:30." As the days lag on after Easter, enthusiasm begins to wane. Maybe we need an impressive event like the Ascension to fire us up.

Just ask those people down in Texas. They have a church that tries keep everybody fired up. One year, they booked a series of special events. One week, they brought in a professional knife thrower who quoted scripture. The following Sunday, they welcomed a beauty queen who had given her life to Christ.

Then came the spectacle of spectacles: they got the bright idea to re-enact of Christ's rising into heaven. A large crane was wheeled into the church's parking lot. On cue, the congregation sang a hymn, and a man in a Jesus suit was hoisted a hundred feet into the air. The crowd said "ooh" and "aah." Just then a mysterious Voice spoke through a 200-watt amplifier, "Why do you look into the air? The same Jesus who ascended will return the same way as when he left." Whatever else we can say about that stunt, it was impressive.

Maybe that's why Luke tells this story: to jump start the twenty-eight chapters of the book of Acts. Maybe that's what the church needs: a little spark, a little fire.

But wait a minute... No sooner does Jesus ascend, when two angels appear to say, "People of the church, why are you standing around looking up in the air?" There's work to be done.

• Jesus said, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem," the city where he died.
• "And you shall be my witnesses in Judea..." Through the entire region.
• "And you shall be my witnesses in Samaria..." That is, in the land of Jerusalem's enemies, among people of questionable backgrounds and uncomfortable habits.
• "And you shall be my witnesses to the end of the earth." In other words, we need to get busy. We'd better get organized. We have to train our people. We have work to do.

That's how it is to be a witness. That's what it takes to be a Christian. We can't stand around with our noses in the air. Whatever it was that the disciples saw on the sixth Thursday after Easter, the ascension was not intended to distract the church from its mission. Rather it sent out the church to serve.

I don’t think we need to get tied up on the questions of physics. We don't worry if Jesus went up, or if he went out of sight. The Ascension has a deeper meaning. It signifies the power and authority of Jesus. As John Calvin noted, this is not a story about Jesus going to a place. This is a story about Jesus assuming a function. He is going up as the Lord of all. He has gone to the throne of power. Forty days after rising from the dead, he took his seat at the right hand of God. Jesus Christ has power and authority over all. And we're on his side. He said it himself. "You shall receive power..."

Maybe that's what the church needs -- a glimpse of power, a view of authority. It gives you confidence, knowing you've got the right man on your side. Who's in charge? We're in charge! That's a good feeling.

But then I heard how tempting that feeling can be. I heard a couple people talking in the grocery store about the next election. One of them said, "We need to put the right people in power. They will put all the crazies in their place. We need to show those people who is in charge."

Now that's the voice of power, for sure. At least, that’s how the world perceives power - - as a force for exerting influence and control, a way to push others around to get what we want. But if the church comes looking for power in the Ascension of Jesus, we're going to see power unlike any kind of power the world has ever seen.

In that plaster sculpture, in those feet dangling from the sky, there’s a small but essential detail: the feet of Jesus have nail prints. The Jesus who is lifted up into heaven is the Jesus who gave his life for the world. As Jesus is raised up to rule over heaven and earth, he rules with sacrificial love.

Just recall the story. The disciples wanted to know: "Lord, is this the time to restore Israel's power? Are you finally going to make us number one?" And how did he respond? Jesus raised his crucified hands in a sign of blessing. Then he told them to stay in the city and pray. The very people who bow at the feet of Christ are instructed to pray. This is a Lord who reveals power totally unlike the power of the world.

So what's the point of a story like this one? If we stare in wonder at the event, we discover it is a distraction. If we come to claim its authority, we find it offers another kind of power.

Perhaps it's best for the Ascension to stay over our heads. That will keep the world down here in perspective. Strangers walk up and down the street, and Jesus sees every one of them from his vantage point. If there is weakness from disease, any violation caused by violence, any deprivation from poverty, the Lord stands above it. The Ascension offers a perspective on the world, a way for us to perceive reality. As theologian Leslie Newbigin says, "It's wrong to try understanding a Bible story from the perspective of the world. That's backwards. Christians are those who understand the world from the perspective of the Biblical story." (Truth to Tell, 47)

Jesus has gone up. He is the Lord. That is the one thing the Ascension can teach us: that we don't need to be afraid of anything. Nothing in heaven, or earth, or under the earth, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Savior. Or to put it another way: Fear not; Jesus Christ is Lord.

This is a prophetic word. Every day we hear about people who are afraid. Just like that man from a church who went out to visit somebody who had been absent on Sunday mornings. The conversation began pleasant enough, but then the second man began rambling on about the state of the world. "I just don't understand things anymore," he said. "Nobody is in control. People are running wild. You have to look out for yourself these days. I am going to look out for myself," he said. "What do you mean by that?" his friend asked.

"I mean I've got guns," the man replied. "A couple of pistols, a rifle. I keep them by my bed every night, so that when the revolution comes, when they come up to my house and try to take it away, I'll be ready. I'm not going to just sit by and do nothing. It's a fact that the government doesn't care anymore. Nobody cares, nobody is in charge. Things are out of control." (Will Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, p. 105)

Do you hear what the man said, "Nobody cares. Nobody's in charge. Things are out of control." Out there in the world, that's a very clear message. Here in the church, however, we see things differently. Jesus Christ is Lord. Of what shall be afraid?

Back in the 1930's, the shadow of Nazi cruelty covered Europe. At one point in his teaching career, theologian Karl Barth is said to have stood up in front of a student audience to announce, "I have rediscovered the necessity of the ascension."

"How can you turn to an ancient story of the church?" someone asked. "With all the violence and oppression brewing in the world, with the mass build-up of weapons, with the public glorification of military might, with prejudice and hatred rearing their ugly faces, how can you talk about a Bible story from the first century?"

Barth smiled; then he said, "When the lights go out, it's good to know who's in charge."

In other words: Don't be afraid; Jesus Christ is Lord. God has gone up, and sits upon the throne.

(c) William G. Carter
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