May 17, 2015 – Going up

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”   Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 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.”

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Ascension Sunday   May 17, 2015 Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11                   Going up

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Every job seeker hoping to get hired, every entrepreneur hoping for help with launching a business, is supposed to know – “have your elevator speech ready.” In case, somehow, you’re ever in an elevator with a person who can make or break your hopes and dreams – always be ready at all times to make your case in the 30 seconds or two minutes you’ll have together in that elevator…

Jesus always has his elevator talk ready. As he’s about to start his ascension in Luke’s gospel, he gives his flock a quick review of the basics of discipleship – telling them – keep studying the bible – pray – always be ready to testify. All the law and prophets and psalms are talking about me. I’m fulfillment of all the word of God. Be ready, because now you’re going to be teaching my word. Proclaiming repentance and turning to God for forgiveness and salvation. You’ll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then you’ll be my witnesses to all the ends of the earth. Get together, wait together, pray and study my word together…

Luke can take some time telling the ascension story in his gospel account, because readers who’ve been with him all this way want to hear every word they can from Jesus before he goes… And it feels like a slow elevator ride as Jesus goes up at the end of Luke’s gospel…

Whereas in Acts’ opening chapter, St Luke narrates the same ascension, but now we only get to hear the 40-second version of the elevator talk. We only hear Jesus saying, “It’s not for you to know God’s times and seasons. But when you receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit you’ll be my witnesses, starting here in Jerusalem, then heading out to metro Judea and Samaria, then to all the ends of the earth…”

And soon as he’s said this Jesus is heading up into the heavens… And a pair of angels abruptly shuts elevator doors in the face of disciples still on the ground floor, saying, “what are you looking up into heaven for? This Jesus whom you’ve just seen going up… will come again, the same way you’ve seen him go…”

Disciples are left behind, scratching heads, wondering what it all means…

As St Luke opens up his book of Acts, Volume two of Luke’s gospel, talking about everything Jesus began to do and teach from the beginning – to the day he was taken up to heaven…. Now as Jesus is lifted up into the heavens… while disciples are gazing up as he departs, angels ask, ‘why are you looking up?’ Jesus who’s been taken up into heaven will come again, same way you saw him go…

Taken up. Lifted up. Gazing up. Looking up. Taken up… All these going up phrases keep us (and all who hear the gospel) looking up also. That’s the idea. St Luke’s introductory verses of Acts work like an elevator pitch to get us involved in the story and keep the conversation going… Christian elevator speech only works when communication continues and leads to real relationship with Jesus.

And Jesus and St Luke take a lot of care with the telling of this elevator speech (told twice, from different angles) – because in the ascension of Jesus we have a biblical mega-transition that needs to be communicated carefully… This is way too big a download to be explained all at once, in a hurry. But human attention spans are notoriously short… for the most part…

So St Luke has arranged for us to be watching and listening from several angles, as Jesus is ascending on high and angel attendants shout“Going up!” as elevator doors metaphorically shut – leaving us here below looking up to Jesus still…for instruction in how to get to where he’s gone… when our time comes… And meanwhile keep learning from him…How we can help him reach and teach others here below… to go up (not down) along with us… when it’s time to go…

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In Luke’s gospel we see the ascension in slightly slower motion – Jesus recapping again how all the law, prophets and psalms are fulfilled in him…Commissioning us to be his witnesses… Concluding with Jesus going up, blessing disciples with hands outstretched…

And disciples suddenly now starting to see who Jesus really is… Worshiping Jesus now with great joy…Blessing God as they’ve been blessed… Remembering the words of Psalm 47 probably – a psalm the early church heard as an example of what Jesus was talking about when he said ‘the psalms are talking about me – and I’m in the psalms, talking to you.’

The psalm does say – God has gone up with a shout… Letting us know that going up is not about physical geography, it’s about spiritual geography… There’s probably not really any up to go to if you are God and you already fill the heavens and the earth with your presence… But there is surely a spiritual up to which we are all drawn by Jesus… And our psalm testifies about passionate worship as a proper response to God’s grace, saying – Clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome – a great king over all the earth…. Underlining the King Jesus theme that we hear in more detail in Ephesians, saying again, Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our king, sing praises! For God is king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.

Ephesians ramps up all this joy and worship and kingship, telling us that now the church, the body of Christ, is the fullness of him who fills all in all…(and…)

The only way I can understand the church as the fullness of Jesus is by envisioning his church as including all living creatures anywhere, everywhere, who have ever believed, received, and loved Jesus. Including especially all those living now in Life-after-life… Who’ve gone up above… following Jesus…

And our reading from Ephesians is all one prayer – that we shall see and know what God is revealing in his ascension… In his dominion now over all things seen and unseen… Dominion over things God alone has dominion over, like the sun, moon, and stars… And dominion over things God has delegated at least some authority over to people made-in-the-image of God as in Genesis 1, where God says “be fruitful, multiply, have dominion over the fish… and Psalm 8 (which reiterates Genesis … Of course, as the letter to the Hebrews notes, we don’t see all things submitting yet – not submitting fully even to God… Which is a longer sermon series for another time…

In one sense, though, the victory of God has indeed already been accomplished… Yet in other ways this victory is still a work in progress… The New Testament is all about God’s victory over death and sin, won decisively in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension… Yet also still to be completed…By God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) working through us…

(And I know…) It isn’t easy to believe (always, at all times…) God’s really offering us, the church, this awesome power – the same power (Ephesians says) by which God raised Jesus from the dead – the same power by which God raised Jesus above the heavens and seated him over and above every other power in earth and heaven. Yet – this is the power – Christ now gives his church.

Where (I wonder–) does Jesus ever get the idea that we frail, fragmented, fallible people can handle all this power… and continue all this work he’s left us with? Isn’t this flying in the face of all the evidence of human history?

And yet… Bible scholar and teacher William Barclay (whose work I admire and respect) tells this story:

“There is a legend which tells how Jesus went back to heaven after his time on earth. Even in heaven he bore upon him the marks of the Cross. The angels were talking to him, and Gabriel said: “Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there.”

“I did,” said Jesus. “And,” said Gabriel, “do they all know about how you loved them and what you did for them?”

“O no,” said Jesus, “not yet. Just now only a few people in Palestine know.”

“What have you done,” said Gabriel, “to let everyone know about it?”

Jesus said: “I have asked Peter and James and John and a few others to make it the business of their lives to tell others about me – and the others still others – and yet others – until the farthest man on the widest circle knows what I have done.”

Gabriel looked very doubtful, for he knew well what… stuff (people) were made of. “Yes,” he said, “but what if Peter and James and John grow tired? What if the people who come after them forget? What if way down in the twenty-(first) century people just don’t tell others about you? Haven’t you made any other plans?”

And Jesus answered: “I haven’t made any other plans. I’m counting on them.

And Jesus is counting on us… To continue his work… of making known all the fullness of the good news…of Jesus our Savior and Friend…

Jesus is counting on us to keep studying the word of God together, seeking the Spirit’s guidance together, learning to tell his story better and better, together…

Because Jesus is still counting on us… to continue to do and teach… all he began to do and teach long ago…

Jesus is still counting on us…

And we are still counting on him.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.