A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017
Ascension Sunday/A • May 28, 2017
Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached
You sit in the dark, tears still drying on your cheek, the kind you don’t want to admit to having cried, just a little ashamed that something as simple as a movie could move you so. But it has moved you and now you sit still, not wanting it all to end, and everyone sits still in the darkness, as the credits roll by, still staring, as if genuinely wondering who the second grip was. You are too moved to move.
Maybe for you it was a concert: music that made your soul soar and you stand at your seat with hundreds of others cheering and clapping, hoping for a second encore, hoping the whole thing can play on just a little more because you are too moved to move toward the exits. Perhaps for you it was standing on a train platform or at the airport, catching that last glimpse of someone. We all have these moments, I think, moments that hold us and prevent us from moving on because they are too perfect, or too deep or too precious.
Too Moved to Move
So it shouldn’t be hard to understand the disciples at the Ascension. If you grew up in a church like this one, you probably didn’t grow up with this story; Protestants didn’t talk much about the Ascension for a long time. But here it is: the last stop on the trip from Easter to Pentecost.
Can you imagine the scene Luke paints? The thunder and lightning of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Romans with the Jewish authorities collaborating. The fear of the disciples and then the unimaginable joy of his resurrection. Luke provides more stories of the risen Lord than any other gospel; he couldn’t get enough of them, apparently. There he is: in the upper room, walking through the door. There he is: on the way to Emmaus. There he is over and over. I imagine the disciples must have thought this time would go on and on and on.
Our family has lives that scatter sometimes, so it’s hard for us to celebrate things that happen on a particular day sometimes. We’ve solved that by extending days like birthdays. One day you get a present, another day someone has sent a card—”sorry it’s late I sent it on time”—and then there is dinner a third day. We call this Birthday Extravaganza. I wonder if the disciples thought this was Easter Extravaganza.
Clearly they expected more; they ask, for example, in the midst of the whole thing, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” like a supervisor asking of a project has been finished, knowing it isn’t but using that subtle way to remind Jesus to get busy and do what they want.
There they are, altogether again, just like the old days. I wonder if they thought Jesus would preach or perform some sign or miracle, maybe heal someone—just like the old days. I wonder if they expected him to say something inspiring to lift them up, help them see God at work after all—just like the old days. They’re far enough from Good Friday that the harsh cutting edge of the cross is dull; far enough from Easter so that what once seemed miraculous is now everyday. Gathering with Jesus on a mountain isn’t new for them; it’s just like the old days.
A New Moment
But this is a new day and the Ascension is a new moment. So in the midst of asking about the restoration of the kingdom, of hoping the old days can come back, suddenly Jesus is gone. Whoosh! It’s usually imagined as ascended into the clouds, but actually that’s not what Luke says: he simply says Jesus disappeared into a cloud. We don’t have to accept Luke’s directions to understand Jesus’ intention. That is clear, unmistakable. He’s been telling them all along he means to send them out and now he tells them again. Their job is simple: go be witnesses.
When the whole scene is over, they’re left standing there, all of them, wondering, I imagine, “What now?” It takes a couple of angels to come and ask the obvious question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you standing still standing around: Jesus has left.
Looking in the Mirror of the Story
This story is a mirror for us. And I want, I hope, you’ll take a moment to look into it with me. I want you to see here the tension between the tenses. Throughout the story, the followers of Jesus are concerned about the past. They want Jesus to restore the past; they want the old kingdom back. That’s natural; don’t we all want our best days back?
I’ve spent most of my career helping churches develop and grow and in every single congregation, I’ve asked about the best days of the church. The answer is nearly always some moment in the past and often the real hope of the church is less about growing into the future than re-enacting that past. I suspect every generation of Christians has been like this and here we see it for the for the first time: restoration Christians who just want to go back.
But all the tenses in Jesus’ preaching are future.
“You will receive power,” he tells them. It’s not here today but you will receive it.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” It’s not here today but you will receive it.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They haven’t been to the ends of the earth yet but they will go.
The new church is all about the restoring the past: Jesus is all about the future.
Now the problem is we don’t live in the future or the past, we live in the present. We live connecting the past and the future. I think the key to learning to live that way is first what Jesus teaches: an abundant forgiveness. He comes back to this theme over and over and another day we will come back to it as well. Forgiveness stands where we are, at that connecting point between past and future. Forgiveness takes the past and unlocks it so that our future can be the new life, the abundant life, Jesus means to give. Forgiveness connects our past lives to a new life in Christ.
The second clue to connecting to this future is prayer. This story of Jesus’ ascension is part 1 of a two part story. They haven’t received power yet; they haven’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They aren’t ready to be witnesses yet. There is preparation required and that preparation is prayer. We are so much about doing, it’s easy for us to forget being, so much about preparing for events, it’s easy for us to forget the power of prayer. The disciples leave this moment and begin to pray together and it’s in the place of prayer that they receive power, inc the place of prayer they receive the Holy Spirit, in the place of prayer they become witnesses.
The third thing that connects the future here is faith. I wonder what these people were thinking when Jesus was lost to sight. Eventually, we do go home from that powerful movie; we do return from that ringing concert, and they are going to have to go home from this moment. Can we go home with faith in the future of Jesus? For that’s what they’re summoned to do. The angel doesn’t just ask why they’re still standing around; the angel also says—again, future tense—that Jesus will come again.
Hope is powerful. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy DuFresne, a man wrongly convicted of murder serving a life sentence, is talking to his friend Red, another lifer. Red has been his guide to surviving life in prison and now Red tells him that hope can kill a man inside. But Andy replies, “Remember, Red hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
The power of hope flows through Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” which says, in part,
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Today is Ascension Sunday. It offers us two choices: we can come to the end of the Easter Extravaganza and ask, well what shall we do now that that’s over—or we can hear the powerful testimony of the resurrection, the concrete evidence of Jesus: still I rise! and ask not just what now, but what now, Lord?