It’s been a while since I have posted. I was charting out 18 chapters for a book (that I’ll seek to finish) when simultaneously a series of deaths in the parish, and a few outside the parish, took the wind out of me. It’s taken me a while to feel motivated, to rise up out of just-getting-through-the-day-to-day. So this morning I offer last Sunday’s sermon preached on/for Ascension. We transferred the Feast of the Ascension Sunday 5/28 rather than celebrate it midweek on a day that followed the funeral of a dear church member.
Consider Acts 1:1-11:
“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They 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.” (NRSV)
Writing On the Councils and the Church in 1539, Luther shows 7 marks that identify the church: 1) God’s Word, 2) Baptism, 3) Holy Communion, 4) consecrating ministers, 5) public and private Confession and Forgiveness, 6) prayer, public praise and thanksgiving, and 7) the possession of the cross, aka suffering. Those 7 marks if lived into by Christians make us chart-toppers, ‘cause then we answer Luther’s question,
“But how can a poor, erring man know where this Christian, holy people in the world is?”
Isn’t the answer to Luther’s question to be provided through living into and out of these 7 marks? And doesn’t this pattern of living into and out of the 7 marks truly fulfill Christ’s command to “Be My witnesses,” right? To this end, we Christians want to be faithfully living into those 7 marks so that we are chart-toppers on the iJesus Be My Witness charts, right?
Don’t singers trying to win the Voice want to top iTunes download charts? Don’t college students want to make the Dean’s List rather than academic probation? Don’t college football players want to win the Heisman rather than land a spot on 3rd string? Don’t we want to go up, up, and away rather than down, down, down, and the flames go higher?
Don’t we plan to scale up, rather than plummet down the social ladder? Wouldn’t we prefer to rise rather than fall? Isn’t that why Hidden Figures movie heroines, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson ascend the ladder in NASA, pressing against race and gender prejudice, to win the space race, to defy and break gravity, to make astronaut John Glenn ascend into space?
Let’s thwart gravity, live broken-free from gravity lives, thwarting what drag us down. Isn’t this our desire? To desire this is indeed right and salutary. Aren’t we called to rise up rather than tumble down. We want ascension lives, except our cockeyed notion of what ascension and ascension lives mean holds us down. Our cock-eyed vision blinds to the truth that flesh is already as high as it can get, seated at the right hand of the Father, the ascended Lord, Jesus the Christ. We’re blind to this truth and so get about our own process of elevating flesh—to create our own ascension.
This cock-eyed thinking keeps us misunderstanding God, buying into Bette Middler’s foolish lyric that, “God is watching us from a distance.” It’s a catchy tune, that make sit sound as though God peers at us from around the rings of Saturn, somewhere out there, way up there, from those all of us mortal folks way down here with the earthworms and dung beetles.
Because we buy into this notion, our poor purchase lands us scrambling around, hopping furiously, frequently, furtively trying to rise—after all the sky’s the limit, so let’s shoot the moon. Let’s use elitism, competition, judgment, comparison, and pride. Let’s compete and compare, pull ourselves up as we push others down— after all, they must go lower so we might go higher. This keeps us jumping up and down in judgment of others and self, busily jumping to the new rung on the ladder, pulling ourselves up into the next high, no matter the cost to self or others.
We jump full force into making our ascension life never counting the cost to relationships, kinships, and intimacy—pushing wedges of separation between self, others, and God; all the while going down as we jump higher and higher to go up, totally missing the truth that our ascension life is already ours through Jesus Christ.
We’ve no need for all this jumping around because the ascension of Jesus shapes our hippety-hoppety life—just as his cross is the cure for our living so his ascension is the cure for our pushing wedges of separation. Jesus has the only real ascension life—the life of the One who “lays it down for the sheep,” takes that life up to Father all for the sheep—all this for me, all this for you.
Our Lord’s ascension is about presence rather than absence, about Jesus filling all this ith his fullness. This isn’t about being left behind, but about Jesus, Jesus everywhere! And this is a relational everywhere rather than a locational everywhere. Isn’t this what fuels the question, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” Isn’t about abundant presence, fullest relationship, Jesus everywhere for everyone. The question propels us to realize that all our cockeyed notion that compels to jump and hop about in order to create our ascension life actually obscures its view, causes us to miss the gift—the complete gift of it all.
The resurrection of Jesus is victory over death. The ascension Jesus raises humanity to the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ ascension jumps up human flesh, your flesh, my flesh, to the highest station. There felsh experience the splendor and glory of the Divine. Ascension completes resurrection.
This is about releasing, not about grappling. “How do we ascend,” it not our question. That one has been answer in Jesus. “What hold us down,” that’s our question.
What should we, what must we, release? Malice, guile, anger entitlement, insincerity, envy, slander, entitlement, addiction, having to be right, seeking to control, striving to show that we’re enough, pride, indifference, jealousy, perfectionism, apathy, self-righteousness, whining over minutia, and poutiness? These forces form gravity which pulls us down.
What gravity pulls you down? Causes you to miss your part in the ascension of Jesus?
Gravity is a force that doesn’t come from without, from creation, from the chances and changes of life? Gravity comes from within.
What gravity pulls you down? Holds you down? Prevents your flight?
Where’s the gravity that pulls you down, takes you down, lays you low? A grave pulled Jesus down, and grace raised Jesus up! From the dusty downing tomb, Jesus had only one direction to go—UP! Even in our dusty downing tombs, God gives us the grace to rise, to go up, to ascend; what pulls you down brings with it a grace that shows you the way to go up. What pulls you down shows you the way to Christ’s ascension life for you. And therein lies hope, for you can trust that whatever pulls you down, grace will pull you up; just ask Jesus—hard to get further down than a tomb, and surely can’t get up any higher than the right hand of the Father, either. Find that gravity, come to terms with what you see, and grace will make a chart-topper out a bottom feeder. But know that we’ll never be chart-toppers if we’re standing around here looking up, so what if instead, we stand around here looking in? What might that look like? What might we see? To what ascension might God’s grace propel us?