Sermon, June 2, 2019 by Rev Gloria Christian
“Just Don’t Stand There, Get Busy!”
The central point of the ascension is that the Holy Spirit will continue to empower our ministry as a church, as it empowered the ministry of Jesus. The big question is “Why are the disciples standing looking toward heaven? We can stand in awe at miracles around us but that doesn’t get the work of the church done. Go out and baptize with the Holy Spirit. A baptism that proclaims forgiveness. Thus, the forgiveness that we experience and the same forgiveness that we are called to proclaim, comes to us by the power of God, as simultaneous gift and task.
It is a sad day in the church today. I haven’t seen an infant baptism in the church since I came to First United in 2011. I know you have baptized here but on the most part baptisms are a thing of the past, just as is confirmation of youth, and young adults present in worship at First United. So, per ratio of membership with larger churches, Sicamous is doing very well. I could say the Holy Spirit is alive and well here and you are doing your task as a church well.
Maybe I am avoiding talking about the ascension, so here goes. They say that the first sentence of a novel is the hardest to write. The first thing is to avoid the hackneyed start: It was a dark and stormy night…” But endings are even more difficult. The question is, how to end a long story? George Orwell ended 1984 ominously: “He loved Big Brother.” Virginia Woolf ended her novel, To the Lighthouse, with “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” Perhaps the most suggestive ending for today is the last line of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
For Luke, the ascension is the last line of the Jesus story, for it is where his gospel ends. It occurs to me that, in over 25 years of preaching, I have preached very few sermons on the ascension. I suppose that is because I have always seen this strange account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as strangely otherworldly—especially for the normally worldly Luke. Was the ascension a literal event, or was it the only way Luke could imagine Jesus’ departure? After all, you couldn’t have the Christ riding into the sunset, Lone Ranger style, with the bystanders asking, “Who was that masked man?” You couldn’t have Jesus die at the end of the story, for he had already died once and defeated death. And so, Jesus floats upward, presumably toward heaven thus ending the story of the life of Jesus.
Moreover, it is an uncomfortably strange text, and that’s probably why I’ve shied away from it. Even biblical scholar William Barclay, thinking of all the strange artistic depictions of the ascension, wrote, “No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” The ascension is hard to depict in art, let alone in sermon. So, the point of the ending is not how Jesus ended his earthly ministry but how we are ‘going on’ without him. Don’t look up, look around you and get to work.
Getting to work has nothing to do with duty or responsibility, but with sincere devotion to the truth that Jesus conveyed and the deepest desire for that truth to continue being spread throughout the world. The ending has to do with the way the church and the people of the church pattern their lives after the life of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ life testifies to Jesus’ faithfulness to God and confirms him as Christ. The absence of the earthly Jesus leads us to search for a God who is present in the world. I don’t think many preachers talk about the ascension in our church. I remember as a child that I thought Jesus was still here on earth and wondered, why isn’t he dead. If I had heard that Jesus went to his glory, I would have had less fear about Jesus watching my every move. Maybe the birth of Jesus began with dazzling light and the resurrection of Jesus with shining light in the tomb opens the door for the end of the story. Maybe the ascension is that moment when the light itself recedes into the background so that Jesus becomes the one through whom we see the rest of the world.
Here, then is the payoff. Because the future is now safely in Jesus’ hands, I have more courage to face the challenges of today with hope and dignity. We all do, really, I suppose. The ascension is the assurance that the battle is over and has been won. We live in the in between time: between our final victory and the consummation of the reality that is already present in Jesus Christ.
How many stories have we heard of the aftermath of World War II. Some Japanese held soldiers were cut off from any word that the war was over. They continued to fend for themselves and hide from others, particularly the enemies that nearby, out of a sense of duty to a future freedom. One by one, the ones that survived stumbled out of the forest only to discover that the war was over, and they were free!
Because of the ascension of Jesus, we too now see a future in which we are no longer slaves to a community and a war that still needs to be fought. We are free to live in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have dominion. We are free to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this good and wondrous news. We can live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us, perpetuated by those who have not yet heard that the battle has been decided. We are free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world giving himself to us anew in the washing, the teaching, the eating and the praying. We are called to live this future into the present as well. We don’t know where Jesus IS, so much as we know that Jesus is WITH US. We don’t know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And finally, we too can return to the world after our encounter with the Risen One, hearts and heads held high, rejoicing and worshiping and blessing God. Amen.