But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
(Preached on Sunday, May 28, 2017)
Did you celebrate last Thursday? It was a holiday. Anybody have the day off work in celebration of Ascension Day? I didn’t think so. It is clearly the forgotten holiday. Most of us probably weren’t even aware of it, and we are good church folk. It’s no wonder the rest of the world did not take notice.
Truth be told, we have several problems with Ascension Day. First, the story of the Ascension of Jesus makes most of us modern, scientific minded people, uncomfortable. In our world, nothing goes up but rockets and the cost of healthcare! And since we started shooting people into space on those rockets and they began circling the earth and traveling to the moon, we are not sure anymore where “up” is and where Jesus might really have traveled to on those clouds. The other problem, which is actually somewhat embarrassing to mention, is that we don’t quite know what to make of the ascension because we’re not quite sure what it has to do with us. It’s awkward to confess such a self-absorbed approach to theology, but such is our nature.
We are like the King of Siam. Do you remember the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I? The original production and the movie made from it starred the charismatic actor Yul Brynner as the proud king of the country of Siam in the 1860s. (Dianne and I enjoyed attending the Lincoln Center revival production on Mother’s Day at the Arsht Center recently.) One of the points of conflict in the story between the King of Siam and the English teacher he has hired to teach his many children is over the use of a map. She has brought with her a map of the world with which most of us would be familiar, in which Siam is a tiny country in Southeast Asia. The King is not happy she has replaced the traditional map used in his court. His map has Siam as the center of the world and it is much larger than all the other countries. This is actually a fairly common human perspective to view the world and life through our own self-interest. In our own nation this is expressed as American exceptionalism and now with the motto “America first.”
This is the view to which the disciples of Jesus continued to cling. After all they have experienced with Jesus – his teachings, his healing of people, his extravagant welcome to people on the fringes of society, his death and resurrection – as he is giving them final marching orders they ask: “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” Here Jesus is speaking of the eternal and ultimate work of God and how God is sending them all around the world to tell his story, and they remain preoccupied with their own tiny little neighborhood.
In his commentary on the ascension, former campus pastor at Harvard University, Peter Gomes, insists that the event has both and upward vision and a downward vision. The upward vision is heave: Jesus being lifted up to a place of honor and responsibility eternally present with God the Creator, from where he can be always and everywhere present with all his followers and all people who need a shepherd. Amidst the troubles of this world, we want to be lifted up, too – we need an upward vision. But there is also the downward vision, expressed in the question, “Why are you looking up toward heaven?” In other words, there is more to do. Put your hand to the plow, be faith and Jesus will return. Immerse yourself in the daily life of this world.
Both directives in this passage expand the horizons of the followers of Jesus. First, Jesus directs their thoughts outward toward the mission they have to spread his story throughout the world. And then, when they appear frozen by leaving, perhaps not quite sure what to do next, the two messengers from God, angels, call them back to present reality, jostling them out of their stupor and directing their thoughts to the future.
The ascension is not about Jesus’ absence but about his presence in the world in a new way. Rather than turning our gaze to heaven to await Jesus’ return on the Mount of Olives, these earthly minded angels turn our gaze out toward the wider world. And what is it those angels invite us to see on the earth from the Mount of Olives? There’s plenty for us to notice. Today, at the peak of the Mount stand the Augusta Victoria Hospital. Administered by the Lutheran World Federation, hospital staff serves Palestinians who are living in the midst of occupation. So if you gaze to the south from the Mount you will see the families traveling from Bethlehem or Beit Jala, braving checkpoints to seek medical care on this mountain. Gaze east and you will see the Jordan River and the brown hills and Bedouin tents or Palestinian stone homes which are threatened with demolition today to clear the way for Jewish settlements. Look to the west and you gaze upon the city of Jerusalem, over which Jesus wept and weeps still, the city that is holy to three faiths often at odds with one another today.
The point is, whichever direction you look from the Mount of Olives, you look at real life with all its complexity, all its challenges, all of its beauty, and all of its potential. If Jesus’ ascension is to have meaning, it must be by way of underscoring Jesus’ presence still on earth. And that is through us. The ascension unexpectedly turns our gaze earthward – to the medical care on this holy site at Augusta Victoria Hospital, and beyond, to every place on earth where God’s people work as agents of hope and healing in the midst of struggle. That is the mission Jesus gave to us: to be his witnesses to the entire world.
Brazilian theologian Vitor Westhelle argues that this is the meaning of the statement of the angels – that just as we experienced Jesus first on earth and then departing to heaven, so will we experience him coming again from earth. Earth is the place to look for his presence.
Thomas Merton, the great mystical monk, suggest the same idea when he writes: One of the paradoxes of the mystical life is this: that a man cannot enter into the deepest center of himself and pass through that center into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love … The more I become identified with God, the more will I be identified with all the others who are identified with Him. His Love will live in all of us. His Spirit will be our One Life, the Life of all of us and the Life of God. And we shall love one another and God with the same Love with which He loves us and Himself.
When is the church most like the church? When it fulfills the mission that Jesus gave us – to be his witnesses. We are his witnesses through our words and through our deeds: sharing the story of what God has done to us and in us through Jesus – through the love and power of God at work through Jesus.
One Sunday the student minister was leading worship in the church where she was serving as an intern. It was this church’s custom, just after the sermon, to have a “prayer for others.” “Are there any concerns that need to be brought before the church?” asked the student pastor. “I don’t know what’s going to become of us,” said a young woman toward the rear of the congregation. There was a barely audible gasp from the assembly. “John left us last week. I don’t know what the girls and I are going to do.” There was a long, awkward silence. Then someone spoke, one of the older members of the congregation. “I know what you’ll do,” she said, looking back toward the young mother. “You will reach out to the rest of us for help. When my husband left me, I felt just like you do. But I recovered. So can you.” “I’ll be glad to help. I’ve been looking for someone to help out at my office,” someone said. “We can help with those precious girls,” said another.
That is the church, being the church. That is the church witnessing to the world that Jesus really has made possible a people who are different, distinctive, filled with the love and compassion of God.
In the early church there was a parable told that said when Jesus returned to heaven, amid the triumphant praise of the angels, Gabriel asked his master what contingency plan Jesus had left on earth. “Oh,” said Jesus, “I’ve spent a little time with some fishermen and social misfits and housewives, and they will take care of things now.” Gabriel was stunned. “That’s not very encouraging,” he said. “You were only with them for three years, and most of them ran out on you when things turned tough. Now you leave the whole mission of God in their hands? I don’t get it. What’s the backup plan?” But the early church knew Jesus’ response. He shook his head slowly, with a smile, and said, “There is no backup plan. They won’t fail. They’re my people, and I trust them. I trust them.” That is expanding our horizons. Jesus trusts us to be his witnesses, here in Miami-Dade County, in Florida, in the United Stated, and all around the globe.