Sermon, June 1, 2014
Gone but Not Forgotten
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Acts 1: 6-14
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, 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.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
John 14: 10-12, 25, 26
10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father…
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
I know you to be an astute and observant congregation. But unless I’ve missed my guess and have really misread you, I doubt that there are many of you who observed a religious holiday this past Thursday. Anybody? No one received an “Ascension Day” card in the mail? Today is the Sunday closest to Ascension Day and therefore when it might be observed, if at all. It is a little noticed holy day in most of Protestant Christianity, and although it is a day of obligation on the Catholic calendar, it is not considered one of the major observances. But here in this morning’s reading from Acts is the story. Jesus ascended. The ascension is mentioned only three times in scripture; one them is at the end of Mark’s gospel, and most scholars believe it was a late addition that was absent from the earliest version of Mark. Many translations list the final verses of Mark in a footnote. The other two references, curiously, are by the same author and they appear to contradict each other. In addition to this morning’s reading in Acts that tells us Jesus hung around for forty days after the resurrection and then ascended, the ascension is recorded at the end of Luke’s gospel. Acts and Luke were written by the same author, but in Luke 24, the writer reported that Jesus ascended at the end of his resurrection day. Perhaps he something jogged the writer’s memory. Previously, he forgot about Jesus’ forty day presence, but then suddenly remembered. I don’t know.
Whatever the case, the question is, “so what?” Just what does the ascension mean?
If taken literally, the ascension is hard to comprehend. Jesus tells his followers that he is going to the Father and then he lifts off. This might have made sense in the cosmology of the first century of the Common Era, but it does not for us. Our ancestors believed we lived in a three-story universe. Heaven was literally “up there.” Hell was literally “down there.” And we live on a plane in between. There are precious few on earth today who believe literally in this three-story universe – that heaven is literally “up there,” that if we flew a rocket ship high enough we would get there, eventually. But on the literal level, that is what this story presupposes. For me, therefore, the story must be understood metaphorically. We need to find the symbolic meaning. The question remains. Does the ascension mean anything worth considering? I had a colleague back in Denver who concluded, as near as he could figure, the point of the ascension is “Jesus has left the building!” You still might wonder, so what?
This morning I suggest that for Luke’s theology, the ascension plays a necessary role, and it is one worthy of consideration in our day and age. According to Luke, the point of the ascension is that Jesus had to get out of the way before the Spirit could come and equip us to be Christ’s body. That is the point, as jarring as it may sound. Jesus had to go. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you leave the nest, or the nest has to leave you. At one time, someone might have done things for you, but then it is time for you to do for yourself. There are, of course, those who for any number of reasons cannot care for themselves. And they are of inestimable worth. This notion that we now have to step up and take responsibility for ourselves is not the singular definition of human worth, but it is significant. For many of us it rings true. It was true for the disciples. They needed to learn to step up.
Do you remember the feeding of the 5000? Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They were flummoxed. “How are we going to do that, Jesus? The stores are closed, and our pockets empty. Why don’t you fix it for us, Jesus?” I think Jesus must have bonked himself on the forehead and wondered if his followers would ever learn. He had that feeling a lot, I think. This is the point of the ascension. As long as they were dependent upon Jesus, the disciples could not assume their God given vocations. And they certainly did not believe what is recorded in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel. Did you hear what Betsy read? You will “do the works that I do” and, in fact, “greater works than these” will you do. Jesus believes in us in a way that precious few of us believe in ourselves. “Greater things than I have done, you will do,” he says. “But it has become abundantly clear to me,” Jesus seems to be saying, “that you won’t do them as long as I’m hanging around. So I’m going to get out of your way and let you get on with it. I am going to ascend so that you can grow up.”
If I am right about this reason for the ascension, it has something in common with the notion put forth by Sheldon Kopp in his book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. Kopp’s image is troubling in its violent abruptness, but I think it tracks in a similar direction to Jesus’ idea of getting out of the way. Kopp argues that “a grown up can be no one’s disciple.” I don’t agree with this per se, but I agree with the direction that the assertion moves. The way I would say it is that a grownup can be no one’s dependent in the sense of unhealthy dependency. It means that is it time for us to assume the responsibility that we can assume. It is time for us to live into the fullness of the persons that God is creating us to be. If we are always waiting around for someone to come save us, to do for us, to do that which we can do ourselves, then we are not fulfilling our God-given potential. I believe that this is what the ascension is about.
This does not mean that we are cut off from support and assistance. The spirit comes, as John’s gospel says, to remind us of all the things that Jesus has taught us. Unlike Kopp’s overly individualistic, absolute assertion, it is not one or the other. It is not that we grow up and are abandoned, left completely to our own devices. It is that we grow up and we support one another and live empowered by God’s spirit. One example of this, at least in my understanding, emerges from a view of life that I have learned from the 12-step movement. The first step is to admit powerlessness and to confess dependency on a higher power. This is consistent with the basic Christian confession that is it God who saves us and not we ourselves. But as I talk with those who are in recovery, a phrase I often hear is “work your steps.” There are twelve of them and they take work. Your higher power is not going to work your steps for you. Each one works his or her own steps. The first step acknowledges your inability to save yourself, but you still take responsibility to work your steps. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. Jesus is gone, but not forgotten.
The great poet Maya Angelou died this week. So many of her powerful words have rung in my ears these past days as I have recalled her legacy. I saw one of her quotes posted online. I was not previously familiar with it, and I don’t know where or when she wrote or she said it, but according to ABC News she did, so she must have :-). The quote is simply, “Nothing will work unless you do.” We need to step up. This doesn’t mean doing it all by yourself. You are not supposed to. We are the body of Christ. Together we are created in God’s image to do the works that Christ does. Yea, even greater works! How amazingly bold Jesus was in declaring our capacity to live and move and be as the people God is creating us to be.
Jesus has left the building. He has gotten out of our way. His doing so lays the groundwork for next week, Pentecost, when the Spirit comes. Because Jesus left, we can make full use of the Spirit’s empowering presence. We won’t wait around for Jesus to do it for us. We will live into the words of Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks in compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands. Yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes. You are Christ’s body. Christ has no body now but yours.
God believes in us. We can do no less than believe in God’s believing in us. Let us so live.