Posted by: dacalu | 6 June 2011


Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension


Acts 1:6-14

John 17:1-11


Much humor can be found in scripture, if we can step back and appreciate it.

Today we celebrate Christ’s ascension into heaven.

The Nicene Creed has us say that Jesus “ascended into heaven”

and I think it bears consideration,

both as something miraculous and implausible

and as something rather humorous.

So, I’d like you to clear your mind for a moment and listen to this,

not as a piece of Divine Scripture,

but as a piece of literature.

“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?’”

Now it’s entirely possible that this was a profound and serene moment

wherein the blessed disciples gazed devotedly upon the risen Lord.

I prefer to think of it as a bunch of guys standing around

with their mouths hanging open,

wondering what in the world just happened.

Despite the PR, most of us do not respond to miracles

with rapt attention and devout heart.

We swear.  We rub our eyes.

We turn to the person next to us and say,

“Wha?  Agh!  Did you…? Did he…?”

“My head hurts.”

Two thousand years ago was probably the same.

Meanwhile, two angels with a sense of humor

walk up behind them and say

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

It’s a fairly common occurrence,

people standing around looking up at something you can’t see.

Somebody new comes up and wants to know what’s going on.

How would the apostles respond?

I suspect it was something along these lines:

“Jesus… he… Didn’t you see it?

I mean he was right here and…

like whoosh.

It was incredible.”

They may well have followed up with the first century equivalent of

“Du – de.”

I’ll bet that they didn’t even notice the white robes.

Mark goes out of his way to tell us how oblivious the apostles were

even at the best of times

and this was not the best of times.

So what are we to make of the story?

I’d like to propose that it is a very good metaphor

(or type if you prefer)

for the church.

We, as a body, stand around pointing up at heaven,

saying wildly inarticulate and implausible things about God.

People wander by, notice where we’re looking and ask us

“What’s up?”

And we clumsily try to explain,

often – sadly – oblivious to the people asking the question.

Sound about right?

I think we can take a few lessons from the comparison.

First:  God is beyond everyday experience,

so yes, the appropriate response is going to sound inarticulate.

If we were more comfortable talking about it,

it could not be as significant as it is.

As we get older, many of us lose the ability to stare at something in wonder,

to be overcome by awe and delight.

Children know how to spend hours looking at new things,

trying to figure them out

enjoying the experience of diminishing ignorance.

It’s a marvelous thing to find out you’ve been ignorant –

and that you need not remain so.

The horrible thing is staying ignorant,

which is not the same thing at all.

So, lesson number one:  God is beyond understanding,

pay attention and enjoy the ride.

I guarantee you there is enough cool stuff out there

that you can learn something new every day.

I recommend spending at least 5 minutes

agog at something.

Revel in a color, or a smell.

Listen to new music.

Look for God in strange places.

He’s there.

Second:  Stop worrying about being inarticulate.

No-one expresses this stuff well.

The best we can do is express our amazement and do our best.

When God wants people to understand,

God gives us the words.

There is no shame in not being able to conceptualize, comprehend, and verbalize God.

The shame only lies in not trying.

Third:  Pay attention.

While God is walking away in one direction

(even if that direction is up)

God may be tapping you on the shoulder from behind.

The world is full of wonders greater than you imagined.

It would be a mistake to think that the people asking us about God

know less about God than we do.

That is not – I cannot be clear enough about this –

that is not a reason not to tell them about God.

It is a reason to share so that everyone comes to a better understanding.

In the book of Acts, the angels go on to say:

“This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,

will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Cool, he went up like a balloon.

He’ll come back again the same way,

but staring after him with your mouths open

won’t make that happen any faster.

Be incredulous, be stunned, be skeptical even,

just so long as that doesn’t stop you from paying attention,

from looking and listening and sharing.

I am a scientist, after all.

Some of you know that.

I haven’t done experiments for a couple years now,

but I still think like a scientist.

I still think that understanding is about

open minds, open eyes, and discussion.

“What did you see?”

If we spent less time in judgment over how we should find God

and more time actually talking about how we did

maybe the church would be a healthier place.

In my life, God shows up often,

and usually with a profound sense of humor.

What else would you expect from someone

who teaches by breaking expectations,

who brings surprising health and joy,

who walks with us as a friend.

Don’t take things too seriously.

This sermon would not be complete unless I said something

about the whole question of God going “up” to heaven

as though heaven were someplace above us.

Some of my more skeptical friends would say that’s ridiculous,

the scientists because they know that up means

atmosphere, stratosphere, solar wind and debris,

followed by the vacuum of space.

the historians because they know that’s an outmoded view of the world,

like a giant sandwich with heaven and hell spread out

like bread with the earth just a giant piece of cheese.

I could argue that ancient and medieval Christians

never really thought that way.

Indeed I have done so in my blog.

Would they be happier if the Bible said,

“And Jesus suddenly disappeared into another dimension,

one in which heaven exists physically.”

OR perhaps

“Jesus stepped between seconds and turned sideways,

so that he no longer appeared in our reference frame.”

Don’t be silly.

Not only is it un-poetic,

it doesn’t really make any more sense.

Jesus ascension into heaven was a case of Jesus

departing in a way that we could not follow (at least not yet).

I can’t think of any better or clearer way of putting it.

Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father

and was obscured by a cloud.

The appropriate response to something like that

is confused incredulity.

If, however, you were not the only one who saw it,

If, as is probable, you couldn’t forget it,

maybe you’d want to talk to people about it,

people who saw it,

people who didn’t see it but have some ideas

about these sorts of things,

people who could give you a reality check.

The Ascension is not a science story about the verticality of the Cosmos.

It is a story about God with us,

and how he left in a way that we couldn’t follow (at least not yet).

It’s a story about how the world has more dimensions than you thought it did,

and maybe, just maybe,

if we keep our eyes open,

we will find out that things are more incredible, more implausible,

more wonderful,

than we imagined.


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