May 13, 2018

Ascension Sunday   May 13, 2018   Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11

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Talk about a group facing rather long odds for survival, as it’s founding leader departs… That would be the early Christian church, according to any conventional wisdom. Our leader has been crucified and buried. We remember his teaching and deeds of power. We believe he’s risen from the dead. But we’ve watched, now, as Jesus has risen into the heavens. And we’re left without the only one who held us all together.

Who could ever even possibly take over leadership after Jesus? Can we imagine anyone so impossible to follow? Can we imagine anyone other than Jesus  able to lead the movement that he began? Yes, the apostles have trained under Jesus. But their following… and witnessing for Jesus hasn’t been exactly stellar. And after three years of Jesus demonstrating God’s power at work… Still our committed core group totals only about 120 members. (We all still fit into one room together at the same time.) Without Jesus leading, what chance do we have to survive? (If faith was a horse race we’d be a thousand-to-one longshot…)

Except – Jesus has been reminding us all along – he’s the fulfillment of the law and prophets of Israel. So we’re reminded of Elijah who ascended into the heavens in a chariot of fire, leaving Elisha to continue his ministry. We’re reminded of Moses, parting the Red Sea waters, leading Israel out from slavery… Moses, who dies, yet in traditional rabbinic commentaries is lifted up by God into heaven.  Through the ages God’s people have always had to maintain subversive memories of God over-riding the conventional wisdom. The early church remembers Jesus, and in remembering, believes – the Ascension of Jesus into the heavenly realms is all part of God’s plan. As, in the closing words of Luke’s gospel – Jesus lifts his hands and blesses disciples as he’s lifted up into heaven. And disciples who fled in fear as Jesus went up to the cross now worship him, as he’s lifted up into the heavenly realms… as volume one of St Luke’s gospel concludes…

And now in Acts, St Luke’s volume two – we have the ascension story again, now from a different angle, as Luke tells us that his first book was about everything Jesus began to do and teach till he was taken up into heaven. (Where  Jesus now sits at the right hand of God, Ephesians tells us… and…) Jesus says it’s not for us to know God’s times and seasons… But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit is sent upon you… Wait, here in Jerusalem, for the Spirit…

And Jesus is lifted up in a cloud and a pair of angels appears asking “why are you looking up into heaven? Jesus who you have seen ascending will come again the same way you saw him leaving…’ Meaning… Clouded in mystery…

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Leaving us who’ve been left behind to ponder the second generation leadership model of the New Testament… Which, perhaps no surprise, is not exactly what they teach in Business School – or Church Administration class (though I think I somehow missed that class). No national talent search is conducted for qualified candidates to be next CEO of the church. And as we read on a little further in chapter one of Acts we notice – the early church has only two candidates to replace Judas Iscariot the defector, who has died. (No candidates, not surprisingly, to replace Jesus, who we know is irreplaceable.) And instead of interviewing candidates for the apostolic vacancy left by Judas’ departure, the church simply prays – and draws lots. (Drawing lots, prayerfully, apparently is considered more reliable than interviewing and voting. Go figure.)  A man named Matthias is chosen, but this will now be the last we hear of him…and almost the last we hear of the twelve apostles in Acts…(Again, go figure.)

From the Ascension onward, new leadership  emerges through the Spirit’s initiative, but… The way the early church goes about addressing it’s leadership needs in the wake of the ascension of Jesus and the loss of an original apostle looks perilously close to anarchy… There’s no five year plan. No clear set of goals and objectives. No committee structure. Just that last one-liner given by Jesus – taken now as our interim mission statement: Wait for the Holy Spirit. Then you will be my faithful witnesses – starting where you are – heading out in widening circles from close-by territory out to all the ends of the world.

Which could be chaos. Except the church, for once, is actually doing just what Jesus said to do. Waiting. Together. For the Spirit…

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Which once again is the word of God for us today. As the church, once again – as perhaps we always have been – is in a time of transitions. The times, as always, are-a-changing… The church, as always, is controversial. We have often been declared obsolete – antiquated – out-of-date…. Sometimes truthfully. Sometimes not. And it might just be me, getting older but – I believe the point of the Ascension, this mega-transition in the life of the church we’re remembering today – isn’t really about old or new – nearly as much as about being prayerfully faithful in bearing witness to Jesus… in every context, new or old.

For sure, sometimes we can be stuck – doing what we do just because we’ve always done it this way. That’s a sign that we do need to change.

Unfortunately pride, prejudice, and neglect still do sometimes obscure our witness and make it hard for others to believe the word of God. Last week two amendments to our global United Methodist Church constitutional charter – the first amendment simply affirming that women are just as certainly made in the image of God as men – the second amendment affirming race, gender, physical or mental abilities cannot be a reason for excluding anyone from membership – failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote of annual conference members globally. An update yesterday indicates there was a wording error in the first amendment which failed to get two-thirds by only a hundred votes out of 47,000 votes cast. It is now expected to be approved after a re-vote. But I’m still wondering – how can we not be 100% unanimous – in affirming what the bible plainly tells us in its first chapter – that we are all of us, male and female equally, made in the image of God? How can it be that only 61% of us believe race, gender and abilities cannot be reasons for excluding anyone from church membership? Haven’t we read the New Testament? Too often, we, the church can still miss the main point of the gospel as we dispute the details. (Details matter, but – let the main thing always be the main thing.)

And thankfully… Sometimes we are old school in healthy ways. When we continue life-giving traditions faithfully, we are bearing witness for Jesus. When we keep learning the gospel better and better… so we can teach it well to our children and grandchildren… we’re doing generational transitional work… as Jesus has taught us. One of our greatest joys has always been watching children in our churches learning the stories of God and Jesus and the church, and showing love for God through love of other people. It was great to hear about Tyler Weston selling lemonade to raise funds for Shriner hospitals outside our church. And it’s always a great blessing for her mother and me to observe our daughter Rohi’s joy in reading bible stories and singing hymns.

Similarly – When we commit to daily prayer for one another and for all our neighbors, including neighbors who are difficult to love – we bear faithful witness for Jesus. There’s a beautiful story in yesterday’s Cape Cod Times about the mother of Sean Gannon, the policeman murdered in Mashpee. Denice Gannon is a woman of strong Catholic Christian faith. She has forgiven her son’s murderer. She prays for him every day. She’s also committed to working to keep those who commit violent crimes safely behind bars, and committed to working to make it harder to obtain deadly weapons. She is a model of mature faith…

Likewise, when we serve the Lord by showing our faith at work in loving service, we bear witness for Jesus. When we volunteer in our children’s clothing ministry, bring food for backpacks for children, visit the sick and those in nursing homes… We bear faithful witness for Jesus… and…

When we make a joyful noise to the Lord we again bear witness for Jesus. There is healing power in our best hymns and spiritual songs when we sing from the heart. An article in the NY Times yesterday tells of a young Japanese pop singer, making hit records and making money while still in her teens, but in her mid-twenties suffering burn-out from touring and from the emptiness of the songs she was she singing, she quit music altogether, and moved on a whim to Brooklyn, New York. Next door there happened to be an African American church… She could hear the choir singing (rather well) through her walls. Eventually she had to visit the church to better hear the singing. She was not a believer but soon she asked if she could sing with the choir. The choir director said yes. A year or so later the choir, with her as a featured soloist, was winning gospel music awards. Best of all, as she sang she came to faith and was baptized… She’s still singing in the choir, not for money or fame, but for love… A story right out of the book of Acts…

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The Ascension of Jesus is a landmark in the life of the church – as we transition from the time of Jesus with us in the flesh, into the time we’re in now –  of Jesus with us still, yet now from another place – entrusting us, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – with the high calling of being faithful witnesses to the life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension and continuing presence of Jesus with us – as we do what he has called and commissioned us to do in his name…

Sometimes we’re probably still missing and lamenting the presence of Jesus in the flesh among us. But we’d be missing the main point of the Ascension – if we were to disregard the angel’s instructions – and keep gazing up into the heavens above…

For the word from Jesus is about serving God and neighbor here below… Where the world still, as desperately as ever, needs to see us all together living like Jesus… Giving God all the glory… Singing the Lord’s song with thankful hearts… Loving one another always… Saying together –

Thanks be to God. Amen.