Sunday, May 23, 1993

Sermon -- 23 May 1993

7 OF EASTER—23 May 1993
Trinity, Iowa City

Acts 1:1-14 Psalm 47 1 Peter 4:12-19 John 17:1-11

[Stare at the ceiling, until most of the congregation is also staring.]

One of the oldest practical jokes in the world! We’ve all done it, or wanted to do it, or had it done to us. And of course the joke hangs on the fact that there is something contagious about staring at the sky.

“Hey, whatcha lookin’ at?”

And, of course, today in the reading from Acts, a repeat from Ascension Day this past Thursday, the disciples are staring at the sky, and God says, “Hey, whatcha lookin’ at?”
Well, the text says it was two men in white robes, but we’ve always assumed they were angels; and since “angels” means “messengers,” and these figures were delivering a message from God, that makes them angels, whatever else they may or may not have been.

“Men of Galilee” (—by the way, if you were worried that we had lapsed here from political correctness, that’s what the original Greek text says: “Adult male Galilaeans”; “Hey, you guys from Galilee!”)

“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.”

I’ve always found these words—clearly a rebuke to the disciples by the angels—a little troubling. Because if Jesus is coming back the same way he went—and that’s what this verse has usually been taken to mean—then it seems to me that standing around watching the sky and waiting would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. And indeed some of the dispensationalist sects have developed standing around watching and waiting into a high art form! But when God’s messengers say, “Why are you staring at the sky?” the implication seems fairly clear that we ought to have better things to do. So maybe we’re missing something here.

[Art: L’Ascenzione da Christo]

Images of the Ascension of Jesus. Balloons. “We have liftoff.” [Stare at the ceiling again.]

Except that isn’t what the New Testament actually says. The Gospels and the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament say a fair amount about what the Ascension of Jesus to heaven means: Jesus in his risen, glorified humanity going to the Father, entering into his glory, the true High Priest into the true Sanctuary, transcending a particular time and place (first century Judaea) in order to be Lord of all times and all places. But the New Testament doesn’t say very much about what the Ascension of Jesus looks like; and actually, the distinct impression I get is that it isn’t really the sort of thing that can look like anything. What we see in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles today is Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. And he leaves them in such a way that it is clear to them that this is the final appearance. They aren’t to expect any more. They’re out on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, a place where they apparently often went, a hill overlooking the city but hardly a towering mountain. And there’s a cloud, which for the Jews is the standard sign of the presence of God. And then Jesus is gone. Archbishop Ramsey suggested that the ascension as an event can be understood as an enacted parable of a reality which is actually concomitant with the resurrection itself.

I am reminded of two other episodes in the Gospel narratives. One is the morning of Easter Day. The women come to the tomb, and find the stone rolled back, with an angel sitting on it (these guys in white robes do get around! Especially when God suspects, with good reason, that we’re too dumb to pick up on the subtext without prompting). And, as Fr. Parkin reminded us six weeks ago, the angel told the women, “Come, see the place where Jesus lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples.” “Come and see; go and tell.” That’s really the same message the angels bring today: “Okay, you’ve seen; now go and tell.”

The other episode I’m reminded of is the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John had a vision of Jesus transformed in radiant glory. You remember how Peter, the national poster child for the “Doesn’t Get It” Society, was all set to build three shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, so eager was he to remain basking in the glow of this tremendous experience. When the cloud (the sign of the presence of God) passed, Jesus—alone—was still there; he told them to keep this under their hats for the time being, and took them back down the mountain to continue the ministry of proclaiming and enacting God’s Reign. “You came and saw; now we still have to go and tell.”

This time, today, when the cloud passes Jesus is gone, at least in the way the disciples have known him until now. But the message is still the same one: “You’ve come and seen; now go and tell.”

Go and tell what? Aha, that’s a good question! Go and tell the good news! The good news about what? Go and tell the good news that Jesus the Messiah is risen and is ascended into heaven! But what does that mean? We know what it means, I trust; we know it well enough that we’ve forgotten how very densely packed full of meaning it is, and that for most folks, hearing it all still packed up, it’s just “religious stuff.” Actually, a lot of these folks believe that the resurrection and ascension are true as a matter of fact, but don’t have a clue why it makes any difference to their lives. So we must tell, not only with our lips but in our lives: that we can walk in newness of life because Jesus Christ is risen: Jesus, no longer just a figure in history but now and forever the Lord of all time and space; Jesus, who calls us into loving fellowship with him and solidarity with his cause: our sinfulness forgiven, our estrangement reconciled, our deathliness forever vanquished, our freedom and worth eternally ratified in the power of the Spirit! The Reign of God is upon us!

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