April 19 : Ascension of Christ

 Hans Suss von Kulmbach The Ascension of Christ, 1513

Confession and Forgiveness 

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

By our baptism we are united to Christ and raised to new life. In this pause for reflection and self-examination, let us confess to God all that awaits resurrection in our lives.

God of love,
we find it hard to believe the witness of the resurrection: we resist your unfailing love for us and for others, and we turn our backs on the gift of new life, choosing too often the way that takes us away from you and leads us back toward death. Free us from this power of sin, guide us by your Spirit, and help us in our weakness, that we may live as your children, restored to new and everlasting life.  Amen

By God’s grace you are forgiven and born anew.  May you be strengthened daily with the power to walk in God’s light and love.     Amen.

Bell

Acts 1:1-14

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught 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.”  

14th century manuscript illumination by Jacobus da Varagine

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.  When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.





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Sermon

Acts is written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. This is Book Two as we heard in the first lines Henrik read. So it picks up where Luke ends, not Mark who we have been reading since Christmas. 

Still, whichever gospel account one reads, the disciples are the same.

 While he was with them, for those three years, Jesus taught the ‘kingdom of God’ in parables, in healing, in preaching, in the choice of his friends and the unusual, inclusive guest list of people with whom he dined and visited and conversed.

Jesus was crucified. The men perhaps felt too conspicuously aligned with one condemned to the cross and stayed in hiding, but the women witnessed it, and could describe his death. The crucifixion would have been all the buzz in Jerusalem. And the disciples knew well that crucifixion kills.

They gathered together for comfort and safety in an upper room  – and on the morning of the third day, the women come racing back from the tomb, breathlessly telling them that Jesus was raised, alive, sort of, I mean he is, but…. At first the others thought this an idle tale.

Then Jesus comes to them himself.

He reappears “presenting himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing over a span of forty days – speaking about the ‘kingdom of God.’” 

And now, gathering them for the last time, their burning question is if he is going to reinstate the kingdom of Israel before he takes off. What? Can you ‘not get it’ to any greater degree than this? 

Oh, disciples.

He replied, “For Christ’s sake!” (I added that bit) 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.” “Lord have mercy!” (I added that, too)

And as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. God did have mercy. “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Detail of a miniature of the Ascension of Christ.  France, N. (Rouen)

After all they had heard, all they had seen and experienced in their years of living and traveling with Jesus, they still have the same expectation as the crowd who shouted, “Crucify”. Jesus hadn’t met the crowd’s expectation of a Messiah. He didn’t intend to overthrow the Roman empire by military or political might. He was not about the business of reinstating the physical kingdom of David. Jesus had a bigger, more inclusive kingdom in mind. And the disciples’ very last words to him – even after resurrection – were about the geopolitical, earthly, defunct kingdom of Israel. Sigh.

There’s a nice flip flop detail at this point.  The disciples are standing agog with their mouths open, apparently, based on many examples from classic art, staring at a pair of feet dangling from a cloud that has absorbed the rest of Jesus.

And who could blame them. It’s not something you’re likely to see again.

But two men/messengers/angels in white robes appear next to them. We might have met these two before in Book One.

“… on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’”

“Men of Galilee,” the two men ask, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” 
“Ah, well, look!!” They respond.
“This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  

I suspect that didn’t clear things up for the dazed disciples. I picture them wandering around in confused little circles until the angels herd them onto the path and give them a push toward Jerusalem. At some later point, they find themselves climbing the stairs to their little room. 

And there they waited for the wind to change. For wisdom and courage to come upon them. But that’s another story.

So the disciples, who wanted an earthly kingdom, were transfixed by a glimpse of the heavenly one, and it was angels who came from the heavenly one, who grounded the disciples and sent them back into the kingdom of Rome. So much for glory. It’s not their turn to bask in it.

One of the points made last week was that we don’t get the God we want, but we get the God we need. This is going to be a difficult and recurrent lesson for the men and women disciples – and, of course, it remains so for us.

None of this went according to plan for the disciples. Jesus gave them the promise (or threat) (or both) of the Holy Spirit coming in power and sending them out as witnesses of the good news in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. But they were fishermen and craftsmen and widows and wives. What went through their heads as they waited? They weren’t given a timeline. How long must they wait? The prevailing community ethos had demanded the death of their teacher, so it wasn’t safe on the streets. How would they earn enough to provide for their needs? They had seen this – well, so many extraordinary things. As days passed, did they start to wonder if they had imagined it? They must have gotten restless with nothing to do but pray. How long must they shelter in place?

We can tear this scene out of our bibles and paste it in our calendars. We have similar questions, similar fears and restlessness. As Christians, if we are non-essential workers, we likely have the feeling that we should be doing something more useful than prayer. In a time when we can’t “gather in place”, or visit house to house, how do we function as a church, worship, care for our community? We are trying various options to stay a flock, but it’s a challenge to keep track. Will we know if one sheep has gotten lost? How many are left out in this new “normal” of web-based worship and Zoom gatherings? In the wider community, how many are struggling?  Rural poverty and hunger are hard enough to see in the old normal. How many confined spaces are becoming dangerous “shelters” of abuse and violence? How many will be infected by COVID-19? How long must we wait?

The kingdom of God we want is not the kingdom of God we get. Jesus inaugurated it among us – already and not yet. We, too are witnesses of Christ, bearers of the good news in word and deed. But, all these generations later, has it advanced?  

It has. It is still not for us to “know the times or periods that the Father has set ‘by his own authority’.” But we have the advantage of hindsight and knowing what to look for. And our expectation is not for a victorious earthly kingdom. We know it will mostly be hidden – a pair of feet dangling from a passing cloud. The kingdom of heaven in the substance of earth, is visible in health care workers who gear up and enter yet another room, and another; visible in the colorful homemade masks; visible in the creativity of artists and manufacturers working “off-label” to fill gaps and meet unusual needs; visible in a new awareness of the elder or single person or large family living next door and the motivation to see how they’re fairing; visible in those who are not visible because they’re protecting their neighbor by staying home; visible in the animals free to roam into civilized space, in air and water able to clean themselves if given the chance; visible in the realization that whole nations can change – and so, what might arise from this ‘death’? Like the disciples, we need inspiration, and the power of purpose and hope. We may take this new normal as an opportunity to align ourselves with a new ethic, create a new ethos of community and oneness and health. There may be new political, economic will to create jobs in sustainable energy, to really address climate change which will be equally and increasingly more devastating to world-wide economies and health and life if the carbon curve isn’t flattened. There may be a resurgence of home gardening and home cooking and family time and realizing who and what really matters in our lives.

We wait in our rooms, in prayer and fear and hope, in anxiety and anticipation – waiting for the wind to change. And that’s a new story for a new day. But a story in which we trust the promise of presence of the Spirit of our living Lord.

  Pietro Perugino   Ascension, between 1496 and 1500

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