Sermon May 17: Up, Up, and Away

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Faith United Methodist Church

May 17, 2015

Ascension Sunday

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture: Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11

Prayer of Illumination:

In the words of Scripture we hear of the power of Christ and the promise of the Holy Spirit. Today the ancient story comes alive in our hearts. We await your Spirit from on high, O God. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit, into our lives. Amen.

Sermon:  Up, Up, and Away

Ascension Sunday doesn’t get a lot of press. Tucked in between Easter and Pentecost, it’s kind of like the Preakness to the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Yet we wouldn’t have Pentecost ~ or Easter ~ without it. Jesus wasn’t resurrected only to die again. Jesus was resurrected to be lifted into heaven and live forever with God, so that we can know that there is life beyond this life. And Jesus also had to ascend so we could experience the Holy Spirit and get on with spreading his message throughout the world. “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

One reason the Ascension gets short shrift may be because it is difficult to understand. It’s a little bit like science fiction-y. Jesus lifted bodily into heaven, rising like a helium balloon into the sky. At Lectionary Group this week we had fun thinking of sermon illustrations for these particular Scriptures. Greg recalled the 1960’s song by the 5th Dimension. Do you know which one I’m talking about? “Up, Up and Away in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon.” John tried to remember which superhero’s catch phrase was “Up, Up, and Away!” Turns out it was Superman. And I remembered the Disney film about a man who makes his house into a makeshift airship using thousands of helium balloons. Anyone know this movie? “Up.”   Despite the fun we had, it turns out none of these illustrations are particularly helpful in understanding the Ascension.

Perhaps the disciples had an easier time understanding it than we do. This was only the latest extra-ordinary event they witnessed while in Jesus’ company. Strange things seemed to happen when Jesus was around. The blind saw. The lame walked. The dead came back to life. Jesus presence alone seemed to elicit all sorts of supernatural happenings. Voices from heaven. Visits from prophets. Vacated tombs. So, perhaps, watching Jesus lifted bodily into heaven wouldn’t have been so unexpected.

Yet, for us, separated by centuries and scientific facts, this story can be a little hard to swallow. We get caught up in the ‘how.’ How did it happen? How could it have happened? Perhaps it was easier for these early disciples, heads titled skyward, to believe. We know too much. We need proof and explanation. We like to follow the scientific method. We need to be convinced. This whole Ascension thing makes a good story, but come on! Stuff like this only happens in comic books and at the movies!

We know from Scripture that Jesus told the disciples ~ had even explained to them more than once ~ that he would have to leave them. Yet, even in his absence they would not be alone. In his absence he had given them instructions ~ commandments ~ on how to live. Abide in my love. Love one another as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command you. Today ~ Ascension Day ~ is when the rubber meets the road.

Maybe the real miracle isn’t the Ascension itself, but what happened after it. The disciples, first with their eyes fixed upward, begin to look side-to-side. And looking side to side, they begin to form real community. A community based on what Jesus taught. Luke, in his Gospel account, describes what happened next saying, “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer described what it means to be a community of faith. He wrote, “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but lively people who will follow him.” It seems to me that Ascension Day is not a call to look up. It is a reminder that God’s promise is down and in and around us. (Barbara Lundbland)

And, just as Jesus promised, we don’t have to do it alone. What first appears to be an abandonment is really an opportunity. Jesus’ absence makes room for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.   “You will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And, filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples’ vision expanded. Looking side to side, they saw not only those next to them, but those a little farther away. They saw those who were different from them because of race or class or religion, but were in need of God’s love nonetheless.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pentecost isn’t until next Sunday, and I don’t want to ruin the story! The truth is, being here this morning is an affirmation that we are willing to expand our vision ~ to not only look up, but also to look side-to-side. It is an affirmation that we are nothing without community. As Catherine Taylor preached, “We live in an era and in a nation which is deluded by the notion that everything is up to us. To join a church is to stand up and heckle that idea…”

Maybe the most unbelievable thing about the Ascension is that the disciples didn’t simply return to their old jobs and homes and routines after Jesus was lifted into heaven. If they had only been out for themselves, that is exactly what they would have done. Instead, they took a chance, looked each other in the eye, and waited together for whatever was to come.

How did Jesus get into heaven? I have no idea. Maybe someone can explain it to me, but I doubt it. Do I believe that it happened? Absolutely. But perhaps the more important question is, did Jesus’ ascension change the world?

When we see Christians gathering together supplies for health kits… When we see Christians sharing talents and resources rebuild devastated parts of the world…. When we see Christians offering time and money to reach out to refugees and children through community partnerships…. When we see Christians seriously considering how their giving can make a difference…. we see people willing to not only look upwards, but side-to-side as well.

Up, Up, and Away! Maybe that’s not the best catching phrase for us as Christians. Sure, Jesus ascended into heaven. Sure, the disciples were amazed at what happened and looked forward to joining him. But it all took place so that we could practice what Jesus had taught us here on earth. As the angels asked, “…why do you stand here looking into the sky?” The mission-field Jesus calls us to is down here, in front of us, to our right and left.   As United Methodists we claim the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Here at Faith Church we understand that as a call of serving, encouraging and supporting others in living Christ-centered lives. It’s amazing that Jesus trusted us enough to leave this mission, this important work, in our hands. Let us pray:

Jesus, you have ascended into heaven and have given us the Holy Spirit to guide us in spreading your message throughout the world. Help us to be faithful disciples, praising you always, and looking around us for where we might share your love, your justice, and your mercy with those we meet here on earth. Amen.