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Look up, look down, all around

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Ascension of the Lord (May 28, 2017)
Acts 1:1-11 – “Look up, look down, all around”

The feast last Thursday on the liturgical calendar was the Ascension of the Lord. When major holidays fall on a weekday, we have the option of moving the feast to the next Sunday so, happy Ascension Day! The text for today is slightly different than the one listed in your bulletin, verses 1-11. I should tell you upfront that the sermon title has little to do with its content; the lyrics from the Dave Matthews’ song “Satellite” just popped into my head while I was reading the story!

In any case, a little context: Remember that the author of the gospel according to Luke is the same author of the Book of Acts. It’s actually meant to be a two-volume series read together, even though the Biblical canon splits them up by inserting John’s gospel in the middle. Luke has written this letter to keep telling the story of what God has done in Jesus and what God then began to do through the Holy Spirit’s presence among the early church.

Let’s listen for God’s wisdom and word…

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

When Sue and I were putting the bulletin together, we found there is an infinite number of depictions of the Ascension. You’ve probably seen this scene fixed in stained glass or painted in oil. I’ve got to tell you, though, that there are some pretty funny cartoons about it, as well. One that I love is kind of irreverent, to the point that Sue double-dared me to put it on the front, which I couldn’t because hey, even I have limits. I wish I could show you one of the two versions. There’s one that is sketched like an illustration in a book before there was color printing and there’s another that looks like a cross between a cartoon and a religious icon. In both depictions, Jesus is ascending into the clouds, arms stretched up and the disciples are gazing into the sky, looking bewildered. But there on the ground with them is the crew from the movie Ghostbusters. They’ve got their proton packs strapped on and their blasters out and they’re trying to pull Jesus down from the clouds!

The cartoon is funny, of course, because it points to our subtle, lingering discomfort with this episode from Jesus’ life. It’s a fantastical scene, if you stop and think about it. Jesus is zapped up into heaven right in front of the disciples’ eyes. It reminds me of Captain Kirk from Star Trek transporting back to the Starship Enterprise: “Beam me up, Scotty!” I think we have trouble with this scene because we no longer think of heaven as literally up.

Someone told me that, before I came here, the author of the book “The Collapse of the Three Story Universe,” visited St. Mark’s. It contrasts the model of reality that, according the author, Daniel Wolpert, the writers of Scripture had in mind–in which there is heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell (or the realm of the dead) below–with how we now know reality to be structured; we know that Earth is a planet that orbits the sun, in the corner of the galaxy, in a vast and expanding universe.

So then, given the dissoance between these world views, what do we do with this story?

The Ascension is probably one of the most important holidays on the church calendar, yet also the most overlooked. We’ve got Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and then… what? Pentecost? We skip right over the Ascension. But even a core statement of the Christian faith, The Apostle’s Creed, mentions it as essential: “the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” The ancients put a lot of theological stock in the event because it meant that the crucified and risen Jesus had became the ascended Christ. The Galilean rabbi who preached “good news the poor and release to the captives” was now exalted in glory to reign at God’s right hand, to be the Loving Lord that Caesar was not. The Teacher, who touched and healed lepers, was now with God to pray for all of us, constantly. “The Word who became Flesh and dwelt among us” absorbed our human nature in the very heart of God. The Ascension meant (and means) all of that.

So if we can push past our scientific qualms for a minute—not ignore them, but suspend them for just a bit to look at the meaning of the story—there’s a profound truth here.

Picture it: there the disciples were, basking in the glow of resurrection. “He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s reign,” Luke says. And then poof… he’s gone. And two men in white robes say, “Why in the world are you looking up? Look around you.” Of course they wanted Jesus to stay. “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” But Jesus, for whatever reason, puts the onus back on them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”

As Peter Gomes put it, “I know that Heaven is not a place so much as an attitude… We are not permitted the luxury of gazing at Jesus’ feet. No, we must get on with Jesus’ work.” [1]

That’s not to say that there is no heaven, or that it’s wrong to be curious about what happens to us or our loved ones when we die. The point is that Jesus re-directs his disciples’ attention from heaven to earth.

I’ve heard an expression before (maybe it’s Southern) that some preachers who are always talking about God in a pie-in-the-sky sort of way, are “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” That’s been a temptation of the church for a long time—to focus on eternity so much that we forget Jesus’ central teaching of loving God and loving neighbor with all we’ve got here and now.

And I remember my introduction to theology class in seminary when it came time for Q&A with the professor. Someone asked the professor, I think it was a Unitarian Universalist student, “Cindy, I hear and see that you’re so passionate about Christian doctrine, but what’s something that you like the least?” I’ll never forget her answer. “When people treat Christianity like an escape hatch.” Many people who want nothing to do with the Christian faith today level the critique that it is essentially escapism, and I think emphasizing the afterlife at the expense of this life contributes to that. What did Karl Marx call religion? “The opiate of the people.” [2]

Did you hear in the news that the President met with Pope Francis this week? I was pleased to learn that His Holiness gave the President a copy of his encyclical on creation care, Laudato Si. I don’t know if he meant this or not, but I’d like to think that the Pope was trying to remind this professing Christian who enjoys a majority of white evangelical support that what really matters to God is how we treat the most vulnerable among us, including the planet itself, now. There’s a hunger out there for that kind of faith, a faith that’s more about life on the ground than the clouds.

A group of people were on a work trip with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that storm that all but destroyed parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The group was cleaning up a woman’s mobile home, with trash all strewn about in her yard, debris everywhere in sight. Two of the volunteers were off to the side having a debate.

“Do we remember these kinds of tragedies when we get to heaven?”
“No, I don’t think so, because it’s a place of perfect bliss.”
“But maybe we do remember and we’re grateful we’re not suffering that stuff anymore.”
And the two turned to another person in the group. “Barbara, what do you think?”
“What do I think? I think y’all ought to pick up a rake!”

Jesus said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The Ascension, this odd, but important story from Scripture, is less about ether and more about empowerment.

May it be so…

[1] Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (2002), p. 96, emphasis mine.

[2] Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).