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Faith United Methodist Church

May 28, 2017

Ascension Sunday

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

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

Prayer for Illumination (Unison): 

Holy Lord, the gift of your hope and the power of your Spirit are given to all who worship here today.  Help us grasp the enormity of your gifts, that we may receive these gifts with open hearts and celebrate them joyfully as we serve you in every aspect of our lives.  Amen. 

And may the words that I speak and the thoughts that we form be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.

Sermon: On Earth, as in Heaven

It’s a little bit like science fiction, this thing we call the Ascension.  Jesus lifted bodily into heaven, rising like a helium balloon into the sky, feet getting smaller and smaller the higher he goes.  No wonder the disciples were ‘gazing up toward heaven’ as the Scripture put it.  Jaws dropped, they were probably dumbfounded, wondering what just happened.  What could possibly have just happened???

But at least they had a frame of reference ~ a little background ~ on which to draw to make sense of the experience.  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, come to think of it, being lifted bodily into heaven doesn’t seem so unlikely in light of everything else.

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?  We know ‘scientifically’ that heaven isn’t literally ‘up there’.  Up there we find planets and galaxies and black holes and supernovas.  So where did Jesus go when he ascended into heaven? 

Perhaps it was easier for those early disciples, heads titled skyward, to believe.  We know too much.  Stories like this are just too outrageous for educated, modern, cause-and-effect folks like us to take seriously.    This whole Ascension thing makes a good story, but really??   Stuff like this only happens in the movies with special effects and computer generated graphics, not in first century Jerusalem.

Now, I certainly don’t want to offend anyone but it is probably not a shock that science fiction movies aren’t really ‘my thing.’  Sure, I got into Star Wars recently, but that’s about the extent of my sci-fi interest.  You might convince me to watch for a few minutes, but I’ll probably be gone as soon as my popcorn runs out.  I bet you can guess what kind of movies I like best.  Chick-flicks, that’s right!  I don’t like the stereotype, but it’s true that I like movies about relationships.  And, lucky for me, I think that is what the Ascension is really about.

Today is the final Sunday in our “Rise Up” series.  (Which is fitting, since Jesus actually rises up in our Scriptures this morning.)  Over the past few weeks we’ve explored the Christian concepts of belief, salvation, suffering, judgement and, now, the Kingdom of Heaven.  We tend to think of heaven as a place and, theologically, that is supported.  My Dictionary of Theological Terms defines heaven as, “The place beyond earth that is the abode of God…it is the future eternal abode of those who receive salvation in Jesus Christ.”  In heaven there is no pain, no mourning, no crying.  Heaven is peace.

Yet heaven, or the Kingdom of God, is more than a place.  As Donald McKim puts it, “Its fullness is in the future and yet it has also come in Jesus himself.”  Heaven exists as a place we do not yet inhabit, and it is also here with us now, as Jesus is here with us now. That’s enough to make a Methodist shake her head.  Heaven is a place, but not a place.  Jesus is in heaven, but is still with us now.

One way to explain this is to look at Jesus’ teaching while he was, physically, on earth.  We know from Scripture that Jesus told the disciples he would have to leave them.  Yet, even in his absence they would not be alone.  He gave them instructions ~ commandments ~ on how to live and these commandments were all about relationship.  Following them would be one way to continue to experience Jesus in their midst.  Abide in my love.  Love one another as I have loved 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 toward heaven, began to look side-to-side.  And looking side to side, they begin to form real community.  A community based on what Jesus taught, they began to create a heaven on earth one relationship at a time.  Luke, in his Gospel account, described what happened next saying, “And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”  The Body of Christ was being formed. 

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer described the Body of Christ as taking up space on earth.  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 Sunday is not a call to look up toward heaven.  It is a reminder that God’s promise is down and in and around us (Barbara Lundbland).  On earth, as it is in heaven. 

Perhaps 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 began to create the Kingdom of God on earth, as Jesus had taught them.

Do we live for the heaven of some future day, or do we live to create the Kingdom of God right here, right now?  I think Jesus tells us that we are to do both.  Do we live in a way that reduces pain and promotes peace for our brothers and sisters on earth?  We are to rise up – not just on some future day when we go to heaven but rise-up in our every-day lives here on earth.  Rise up to love.  Rise up to compassion.  Rise up to justice.  We do not follow Jesus commands to love if we do not strive to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, to live on earth as if we were in heaven.  Maybe the point of this Ascension thing isn’t so sci-fi after all.

As I sang with our children this morning, heaven is a wonderful place.  Jesus ascended there and prepares a place for us.  Still, there is work for us to do before we get there, important Kingdom-building work.   May we work to do God’s will on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.