Let us pray.
Gracious God, help us to be masters of ourselves that we may rightly be the servants of others. Take our eyes and help us to see the open possibilities you set before us; Take our ears and open them to the call of the Stillspeaking God in our midst. But most of all, O God . . . take our hearts and set them on fire for you. In the name of the Christ we pray. Amen.
If there was a Bible category for the seemingly most ridicules questions asked in a Bible story, this one would be near the top of my list . . . perhaps right after the question, “Who told you you were naked?”
With both questions, I have to believe that I am missing pertinent information. Something was lost across the centuries that would make these words make sense just as they must have made sense to the original hearers. So on Ascension Sunday what information is missing that helps this story make sense to you and me in the 21st century?
The biblical texts tell us that after Jesus’ execution, burial and resurrection, for a period of 40 days, Jesus appeared to his disciples in strangely mystical ways. Whether this was a literal 40 days or a period of time signaling completeness, we don’t know. Great pains are also taken to mention that Jesus eats with them during this time – perhaps to dissuade those who might discount these stories as merely stories of ghostly apparitions.
So, what truths are we to extract from these stories?
Let us remember that these followers of Jesus were mostly Jews who had been looking for Messiah to come and liberate them from Roman oppression.
Reeling in what must have seemed like total defeat at the death of Jesus whom many called the Christ, Messiah, Deliverer, The Promised One, they would no doubt turn to the Hebrew Scriptures for comfort.
The Ascension story suggests that they might have used Psalms like Psalm 68, as theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests, that envisions “God as metaphorically riding around in the sky on a cloud, supervising, monitoring, breathing life, and giving power to creation."
Giving power to creation!
Psalm 68:4 reads . . . “Sing to God, sing praises to God’s name; lift up a song to God who rides upon the clouds – whose name is the Lord – Be exultant before God.”
It is likely that the Ascension story is not about whether or not Jesus took flight and disappeared into the clouds before their eyes, but about one, even Jesus who rose from the dead to ride the clouds -- unleashing a new teaching into human history that would so change the world that time itself would be measured as before and after his time among us -- a teaching that is so much higher, more sophisticated, so much more effective and helpful than anything else before – a power that once set in motion, continues to transform – even though its powers have been barely tapped even after 2,000 years, despite its power to transform everything! Jesus’ message as so helpful – so effective that early Christians viewed the post resurrection Jesus, sitting at the “right hand of God and making it so!”
This liberating prophecy begins to come true with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the year 313 AD and Christianity becoming the state religion of Rome by the year 380 AD and it is a prophecy in process that is still unfolding to this day.
It is not a power that rules as the Romans once ruled over them – by conquest and oppression, but one in which God is . . . Father of the fatherless and protector of widows
God is a power who settles the homeless into homes and prisoners are led out to Prosperity.
This Jesus, born into a poor peasant family, who was crucified and laid in a tomb, has been raised . . .
beyond the reach of human cruelty,
beyond outcomes of weakness and defeat;
so transforming and reordering of the world’s powers as to be thought of as having ascended as mediator for humanity with God, the Divine unknown, informed by the human One filled with compassion, God with us! (Anyhow!)
In the Black Church in which I grew up, there were times when the preacher would touch upon certain topics. And a lone voice, often the voice of a close family friend, would rise out of the thick silence . . . with these words, “It’s true . . . anyhow!” she’d say.
Anyhow! When I point to you like this will you say it with me . . . “Anyhow!”
It’s true . . . (speaker gestures) “Anyhow!”
The NT writer of the Book of Hebrews writes that Jesus, having ascended is our great High Priest with ready access to God – an advocate for you and me, one not out of touch with our human reality – but one who suffered and died upon the cross to show us how to live and love – even under the worst possible circumstances . . . and to transform them.
Christ has been resurrected and Ascended, not into nothingness or a remoteness, but in the words of Walter Brueggemann into power that is deeply in touch with the reality of the earth where
money and power . . .
social leverage and differentiation of gender, race, and class
leave some dangerously exposed.
This God to whom we pray “our father” rides the clouds not as a joy-rider, but rather to be in a position to see and to know and to care and to intervene and to feed and to heal and to forgive and to reconcile and to liberate. It turns out that ascension, whereby God is celebrated in power, is a claim that the earth is ordered differently because of the one who loves and governs it.
Ascension Sunday is therefore the day in which we celebrate what God has done through Jesus, by mobilizing the church to serve the world as agents of God’s new Way – now ascended beyond the reach of human tampering!
God is gone up with a triumphant shout! Sing Praises!
Therefore let us imagine (with Brueggemann) on this Ascension Sunday:
“The ascended Lord Jesus, riding on a cloud of glory, keeping the world under God’s caring surveillance. . .
Imagine the press release headlines:
There is more than enough for everyone . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
Greed becomes obsolete. . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
Perfect love casts out hate and fear . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
“Do not fear for I am with you.” . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow
And so in the book of Acts when the heavenly messenger asks with urgency, “why are you standing here looking”, it is as if the messenger is saying, “Don’t you get it?” Don’t you get the new power at your disposal?
You will begin to “get it” when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, your eyes begin to open . . . though it will only be just the beginning.
Come everyone who hungers and thirsts – even you with no money . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
Young economists, Come! Develop profitable economic models with humane floors through which no human being on the earth falls . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
Medical researchers, Come! Cure Alzheimer’s, AIDS, Cancer, and Parkinson’s disease . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
Peacemakers and War protestors move beyond mere protest, discover ways to make war obsolete . . . Gesture . . . Anyhow!
So why? Why? Why do you stand here looking . . . God is still speaking, and there is so much work that can be done now more than ever before . . . Anyhow! . . .
Thanks be to God, Amen.