Sunday, May 17, 2015

Be My Witnesses -- Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11
May 17, 2015

            One of the many questions I had about church as a child concerned the weekly offering. Why did we have to give money to the church? My parents would try to explain to me that we gave the money to help Jesus. That actually confused me more, because the understanding that I had of Jesus was that he lived in heaven and watched over us from there. So the only thing I could figure was that after everyone left the church and it was dark and quiet, Jesus came down from heaven, gathered up all the money from the offering plates and took it back up with him to heaven. The picture I had of Jesus was of a kindly looking man with a beard and blue eyes sitting with his arms outstretched in welcome. So that’s what he looked like when I saw him coming down from heaven – Jesus with arms outstretched. On his return trip to the sky his arms were full of the money that was obviously needed in heaven.
            First, this is a vivid example of why you don’t use abstract concepts to explain things to children who think in concrete terms. Second, without even realizing it, I had formed my own mental picture of Jesus ascending into heaven. Mine was of Jesus doing this on a weekly basis with his arms full of money, but still, it was ascension. This past Thursday was actually Ascension Day. We don’t put much emphasis on this day in our tradition and in this country, but I know that Christians in other places and other traditions do. In some countries I believe Ascension Day is a religious holiday. People get out of work and schools are closed. This is the day that Jesus ascended into heaven, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  
            I doubt that Ascension Day will ever take on that kind of importance in our culture, but that doesn’t take away from the meaning of this moment in Jesus’ life on earth; his last moment on this earth. At the YMCA bible study this past week, we had a discussion about the literalness of this event. Was it like the prophet Elijah being carried up to heaven on a fiery chariot? Did Jesus just vanish, and the cloud was a cover? If it happened today, would Jesus have been picked up on radar or mistaken for a UFO – or should I say a UFJ? As with other supernatural happenings in Jesus’ life, I don’t worry too much about how this actually took place. Whether Jesus literally soared up into the clouds or was just no longer seen again, I think the ascension has a deeper significance than its logistics.
            In our Christian narrative, we seem to stop with the resurrection. Jesus was brutally crucified. He was willing to die for the truth he brought about God and God’s kingdom. But his resurrection changed everything. And it did. But in the ascension we find completion. It is the completion of Jesus’ life here on earth. But while Jesus’ tenure in the world has come full circle, the ascension is the beginning for the disciples. Several commentators refer to the ascension as the “passing of the baton.”  Jesus’ earthly life is finished, but the work isn’t. The gospel of good news about God’s love has to be told. Jesus brought the kingdom of God into our midst, but we have a responsibility to broaden its reign.
            Jesus’ words to the disciples are that they must “be my witnesses.”  The power and strength to do just that will come to them, as we will hear next week. But Jesus’ command is clear. “Be my witnesses.”  Just as in the stories of the resurrection, when Jesus is no longer in in their sight, angels are. Two men, dressed in white, appear to them. They ask one question, “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.”
            The men’s question focuses on the disciples looking up. But implied in their question – at least as I see it – is a second one. Why aren’t you looking out? Why aren’t you looking out into the world God created? Why aren’t you looking out at the people who are living in darkness? Why aren’t you looking out at the ones who are living in poverty and sorrow and hopelessness? Why aren’t you looking out?
            It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges we face as Christians is to remember to look out. It’s much easier, and often much nicer, to look up. If we’re looking up toward the heavens, we’re looking only at God. If we’re looking up, we can focus solely on when Jesus will return the same way he left. If we’re looking up, we don’t have to see the broken world around us. If we’re only looking up, then it’s just about God and us, God and me. Jesus died for my sins. He rose again for my sins. Let’s look up, shall we?
            But in the ascension, Jesus tells the disciples – and us – to “be my witnesses.” The only way we can truly be his witnesses is to look out. But it can’t just stop with the looking, we have to go out. When the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that is exactly what they do. They go out. They heed Jesus’ words to be witnesses. They know that they are sent, and they take that sending seriously.
            If you take a look at the last page of our bulletin, that send word is pretty easy to spot. It’s the last section of our worship service. We gather. We hear the word. We respond. We are sent. When I teach the structure of worship to youth or to adults, I always explain that the Word – the reading of the Word, the hearing of the Word – is the central point and focus of our worship. Our gathering points us toward the Word. The Word calls for our response. The Word sends us out. Here’s the thing, by the time we actually get to the sending, I feel like we’re losing steam. Let me rephrase that. I feel like I am losing steam. It’s not that I don’t love all the moments that we have in worship, I do. Yet, I have to be honest and say that I breathe a sigh of relief that I’ve made it through another sermon. So much of my focus goes to the sermon that the sending can be an afterthought. However the sending is as important and crucial as all of the other pieces of our worship. If we don’t take the sending seriously, then I think we’re just spending the majority of our time looking up, forgetting that we are also supposed to be looking out. It seems to me that Christians often divide themselves into two theological camps. There are those who focus more exclusively on the looking up, the personal relationship with Jesus, the devotion and worship of God. And there are those who see only the social justice side. But to me it is a both/and. Our worship together is the most important thing we do together. It is the heartbeat of our life together. Worship provides the foundation and the framework for everything else we do. We need time to look up. But being sent is also the most important thing we do together. We are sent to be witnesses. We are sent to strengthen the weak, feed the hungry, and be advocates for the oppressed. We are sent because we are called to look up and to look out. The baton has been passed from Jesus to the disciples, from the disciples to the early church, from the early church to each generation of believers that follow. The baton has been passed to us.
            A seminary friend of mine posts a cartoon on a regular basis called, “Coffee with Jesus.” It features different people drinking coffee and chatting with Jesus. Sometimes the people espouse questionable views of what they think being Christian is all about. Sometimes the folks ask questions. The one I saw most recently was a young man asking Jesus a question. His question was, “Why do you let so many bad things happen in the world? Why do you let people starve and suffer and live in terrible conditions?” Jesus responded, “That’s funny. I was about to ask you the same question.”
            Jesus has passed the baton to us. We are called and we are sent to be witnesses. Why are we still looking up?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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