Ascension Sunday June 2, 2019

Ascension Sunday   June 2, 2019

Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:48-53, Acts 1:1-11

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The book of Acts begins with a retelling of the last scene in the gospel of Luke –  Luke, our narrator’s way of letting us know that Acts is volume two of the story of Jesus and the early church. In Luke’s gospel, first, then again in Acts, Jesus shares quick reminders and final instructions with disciples… then vanishes into clouds of holy mystery… as…

In the last scene of Luke’s gospel, disciples worship Jesus, now, for the first time. I imagine them singing a first century version of the Charles Wesley hymn:

Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!

To his home above the skies – Alleluia!

Christ, awhile, to mortals given, Alleluia!

Re-ascends his native heaven, Alleluia!

Jesus tells his followers – wait here in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom you’ve heard me talking about… The Spirit will fill you with power and equip you for ministry. Then you’ll be my witnesses, starting here, moving out to Judea and Samaria – then to all the ends of the earth, as the Spirit leads…

Meanwhile, wait right here, till God the Father sends the Holy Spirit.

I’ll be watching over you from my Father’s house…

And we can almost hear the angels sing as Jesus comes to sing with them –

….Christ has conquered death and sin, Alleluia!

Take the king of glory in, Alleluia!

Ascension is a joyous celebration, now, in retrospect, for the church. But at the time, and again, maybe even more so now, as pollsters tell us – the fastest growing religious group in America is the so-called Nones ( N-O-N-E-S) – people who say they belong to none of the religious groups they know of – this huge transition in the story of Jesus and the church that we call The Ascension needs unpacking…

And it may seem a stretch for our imaginations, but – to follow the story line we need to mention the role of angels. The word angel meaning literally messenger. Angels keep showing up at key moments in Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts. (Today let’s skip over other appearances to remember just in the last chapter of Luke, two angels in dazzling bright clothing appear at the tomb of Jesus early on the first Easter morning – asking the women who have come to anoint the body of Jesus – “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Don’t you remember what he told you – about him being handed over to sinners who will crucify him – then, on the third day he’ll rise again?” The women do remember now – but – the disciples they tell the good news to don’t believe…Till they see Jesus for themselves, still bearing the marks of the cross…

Now, as the story continues, just as we see Jesus rising into the heavens – two angel messengers, again, in bright clothing, again, appear – asking this time – “Why do you stand looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has just been taken up into heaven will come again the same way that you’ve seen him go into heaven…” And –

“Why are you standing looking up?” is I suppose, technically a question – though – it sounds to me more like instruction – a rephrasing of the same question angels asked the women at the tomb – like – “Why are you looking where he used to be?” Like – Don’t you remember how Jesus wouldn’t stay dead in the tomb? Is this how to remember Jesus? Gazing into heaven won’t bring him back any sooner – or get you better seats in heaven…

And – why act as if the kingdom of God has been put on hold til Jesus returns? Remember Jesus tells us in Luke’s gospel – the kingdom of God is near at hand (10:9) and the kingdom of God is here among you (17:21). Even after he heads off into the heavens, Jesus continues to show up in the book of Acts – giving instruction and encouragement and correction to his disciples through visions and especially through the Holy Spirit – who, Jesus tells us in John’s gospel (14:27) will remind us of everything he’s told us.

Reminding us now to notice St Luke telling us in his first sentence of the book of Acts – which is my second book, now, he says – and this is the continuing story of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…after giving instructions to the apostles he had chosen.”

A reminder for us that we, the church, still all-too-often forget and/or disbelieve many of the instructions Jesus has given us. Some forgetting or not believing what Acts says about Jesus “appearing many times to disciples to prove to them he that he was alive…” Turning resurrection into just another metaphor for new and different…

Others forgetting and disbelieving in other directions – some re-imagining Jesus as a punishing judge – or a cosmic sheriff – whose main job is supporting and enforcing cultural, religious and political powers-that-be. From this imaginary Jesus it’s woe to illegal immigrants and those who welcome them, and woe to dissenting Christians who question the powers that be… In this re-imagining, Israel’s time as refugees and slaves in Egypt and the holy family of Jesus’s time in exile, fleeing persecution by King Herod is all just ancient history now, with no application today.

And sometimes the church, liberal and conservative alike, has misinterpreted the Ascension of Jesus as being about “Jesus is on vacation, so now we’re in charge” – when what the scriptures actually say is – followers of Jesus are always a work in progress. Even the apostles Peter and Paul are still learning on the job in Acts… and so…

Bearing witness for Jesus is yes, all about sharing the good news of Jesus with all people. And – also all about recognizing ourselves as people always in need of hearing the good news again and again… As Martin Luther said, the gospel is about beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Everyday messed up people who often fail to remember God’s ways – helping other everyday messed up people who often forget God’s ways… with remembering how to believe… love… and… walk together with Jesus.

Which reminds me of a story in the NY Times a day or two ago, about a group of young spiritual-but-not-religious Nones (N-O-N-E-S) – and more experienced nuns  (N-U-N-S) – living together in a voluntary experiment, initiated by young activists – who, the article says, are all deeply committed to working for a better world – and – also all becoming increasingly aware that changing the world is hard, slow work… Work that  requires community, assuming we’re in this for the long-haul… A pastor’s suggestion to one young activist led to the idea of checking in with nuns (N-U-N-S) – many of whom have been practicing faith and working for justice and a better world for a long time. So after some get-aquainted conversations, a group of young people actually moved into the monastery basement…of an order of nuns…Where, now, I quote:

The sisters were not sure what exactly the young people wanted to know about them, and the first meeting came as a shock.

“I was stunned, and I said to the other sisters, ‘You will never guess what the millennials want to talk about: the vows,’” said Sister Patsy Harney. “Everybody laughed. It was kind of like a joke, you know?”

          But the millennials were nothing if not earnest.

Sister Harney found a book on the vows — poverty, obedience, chastity — that she had bought once but never read.

“I saw Alan creeping around with his cellphone to take a picture of the cover, and then next time I saw it Sarah had been reading it and it was full of Post-it notes all over,” Sister Harney said. “Millennials were looking at it like this is the glue. They were looking for the secret sauce of how we do this.”

The sisters began to see that the millennials wanted a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system. On one of the first nights, Sister Judy Carle said, one of the young people casually asked the sisters, “So, what’s your spiritual practice?”

Consider the question: What is our spiritual practice? Think about this being somebody inquiring about our faith’s very first question. Not – What do you believe? But – what do you do as people of faith – to help you be mindful of God’s presence? What spiritual practices help us to love God and neighbor? Equip us to believe and work on a sustained basis for salvation and healing of the world?

Welcome back to the story of Jesus… The story of all types of everyday people learning to believe and live and work and play together for God’s kingdom… All manner of people of God remembering together… all Jesus has begun to teach us – about sharing together in ongoing holy conversation and transformation and conversion as we follow Jesus together…

The story of Jesus, part two – that begins right here in Acts chapter one…

With Jesus taking time to be with God the Father.

Sending God the Holy Spirit soon to continue…

Coaching, teaching, leading us… to continue… teaching and doing…

Everything Jesus began to do and teach…

Our mission. May we accept it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.