I am preaching at Dover UMC again this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for Ascension Sunday. The Scriptures for today are Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 – 53.
4 July 2015 — This has been edited since it was first posted to modify with a bad link.
I have spent the better part of the week thinking about how I could put the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven into a modern-day perspective. How would we have reacted if Jesus had been with us these past forty days as He was with the disciples and the others some two thousand years ago and then ascended into Heaven?
Would we have done as the disciples and followers did back then? Would we have watched in wonder and amazement? Would we have returned to our homes and celebrated as they did? Or would we have cried out in anguish? Would we have reacted with fear and trembling? Just exactly how would we have reacted?
There have been instances in the Bible where someone ascended into Heaven. The first is recorded in Genesis 5: 24, “Enoch walked steadily with God. And then one day he was simply gone: God took him.” The only problem is that nothing else is said. This does not help. But in 2 Kings, we read
And so it happened. They (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire came between them and Elijah went up in a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it all and shouted, “My father, my father! You—the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” When he could no longer see anything, he grabbed his robe and ripped it to pieces. Then he picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him, returned to the shore of the Jordan, and stood there. He took Elijah’s cloak—all that was left of Elijah!—and hit the river with it, saying, “Now where is the God of Elijah? Where is he?” (2 Kings 2: 11 – 14)
In this passage the prophet’s mantle is transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha’s response could be categorized because of what is happening and because of what it means. No longer will Elisha be the student and follower; now he is the teacher and the leader.
It can be a frightening thing to have to go out on one’s own and to do the things that others have done for you. In Elisha’s case, it was the acceptance of the role that Elijah had played. Elisha was afraid of the change. Elijah was Elisha’s mentor, prophet, teacher, and father-in-the faith. But now it was time for Elisha to move on and take charge of the ministry entrusted to him. Yet, he was afraid to do so. As the student, there was a degree of comfort and a manner of protection. But as the prophet, there was no comfort, there was no protection. Harvey and Lois Seifert put it this way,
In an atmosphere of security and trust, persons are likely to be more ready to change. The child who trusts the mother lets go and takes the first unaided step. A social prophet is better received when listeners have learned to appreciate his or her integrity and friendship. Healthy growth more easily takes place when all participants interact in a mutually supportive environment rather than when some manipulate others to secure the ends of the manipulators. (Liberation of Life)
It is easy to understand Elisha’s response, of not wanting to let Elijah go. Fear makes it easy to cling to the past or to familiar traditions. But that is why faith becomes so strong. While fear would have us cling to the past, faith has us look to the future.
What Elisha was most afraid of was that God would leave him, that he wouldn’t be there. In verse 14, Elisha cries out in despair and loneliness, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When Elisha hits the River Jordan with Elijah’s cloak, the river parts; in effect, God said to Elisha, “I never left. Life goes on. Elijah’s journey may have ended but your journey continues.”
The same is true, I think, for each one of us. What the Ascension means is that we are now left without Jesus physically present – that means we have to do it now – we have to do the work that he has been teaching about and teaching us. We no longer have any excuses; Jesus is not here to do it for us. Jesus’ ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.
The problem, I fear, is that we, as a society do not want to hear about the troubles of the world. If we do not hear about them or are forced to face the problems, we think that they will quietly go away. With the exception of those individuals who make the trip to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast, very few people know that the damage from Hurricane Katrina, some three years ago, is still there. Because it is not in the news, it must not be happening.
It is quite likely that many people do not know how many of our military personnel have died in the Middle East in the past seven years; we certainly do not have any idea how many civilians have died. Yes, our lack of knowledge is because the media does not report the death toll with the same fervor and intensity they reported the dead during the Viet Nam war. Yes, the present administration has gone to great lengths to prevent the public from seeing the dead come home. But, as a society, we are not asking or demanding that the truth be told.
We say that we are a Christian country and that we have strong moral values. But when does concern for the lives of the unborn have more value than the environment into which they will be born and have to live? What are we to say when our “family values” are devalued by the very people who proclaim them to be the most important value in today’s society? Why is it more moral to declare homeland security a priority in life while ignoring or denigrating global warming? Where is the morality in extolling the virtues of democracy while at the same time undermining the right of free speech? How are we to judge those who would exclude many from society because of their religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or racial identity when Jesus Himself walked and ate with those whom society excluded? (Adapted from God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan)
We have become a society where others do our thinking for us and tell us what to say, what to do, and more importantly, what to believe. We are quite comfortable with a religion that allows our fears to dictate what we will do and not do. Instead of resolving our fears, we use our fears to build walls. When faced with the problems of the world, we turn the other way and hope that the problems will go away.
I wrote a piece the other day about the state of education (see “The Bottom Line”). After I wrote, there was a op-ed piece in The New York Times about a report on the state of education in this country today (there is a link to the article in my piece).
This report from Common Core points out that nation’s children are increasingly less prepared for the world outside the classroom than any previous generation. What does it say for our future when fewer than half of the nation’s 17-year-olds can place the Civil War in the correct half century or forty-four percent think that the Scarlett Letter was a piece of correspondence?
But this ignorance is not limited to just high school students and current studies. In a report last year, sixty percent of Americans could not identify five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book that is definitely not one of the four Gospels. But don’t ask too many Americans because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34) And our understanding, or rather our lack of understanding, of what we say is our religion extends into a lack of understanding of the other religions of this world. And the lack of understanding, as history has time and time again shown, leads to violence and mistrust. And violence and mistrust invariably lead to conflict.
It is time that we begin to change the world that we live in. It is time to begin flying on our own, to begin doing what we are asked to do. You cannot be a Christian if you are not willing to lead a life as Christ would live it nor are you a Christian if you are unwilling to share that life.
I have struggled with the idea of evangelism and what that means in today’s society. The meaning that I give to the word evangelical does not seem to match the meaning that society has given it today. And the meaning that society has given it does not seem to match what it meant that day on the hill in Bethany some two thousand years ago.
What does it mean to be an evangelical? There are those today who define evangelism in terms of bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But the word evangelical is derived from evangel which means “the gospels” and that means something entirely different.
If you believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all and your words, actions, thoughts, and deeds reflect that, then you are an evangelical. If your words harmonize with the examples given to us by Jesus, then you are an evangelical, whether you claim to be one or not. (Duncan) Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that he has heard of the faith of the people of Ephesus. He has heard of their faith, which means that the people are living the faith and they are evangelicals.
Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels, said that evangelism was declaring the Good News about all that God is doing in the world. While he emphasized that evangelism includes challenging individuals to yield to Jesus, to let Jesus into their lives, and to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them into new creations, he also made it clear that evangelism is much more than that. It also involves proclaiming what God is doing in society right now to bring about justice, liberation, and economic well-being for the oppressed. It was a call to the people to participate in this revolutionary transformation of the world.
For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action. His work in founding the Koinonia farm was his way of showing the world how to put words into action.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to god. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”
But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)
There is a distinct likelihood that what I have written will make some people mad. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.
There are those who say that religion is superstition and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.
The other day, someone posted a comment to my blog in which they say that I offered a “middle-of-the-road” theology. This person identified themselves as one who is on the left side of the Methodist theological spectrum and I thought it was interesting that what I write would be considered middle of the road. I have, in the past, been characterized as conservative and liberal so maybe I am in the middle of the road. But, as I responded to this comment, I thought that the only things in the middle of the road are dead armadillos.
To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is not middle of the road theology; it is a radical new way of life and it forces you to walk another way. But how are we to do this?
The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.
Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. The Wisdom of this moment and this day is that we are not expected to do what is expected right now and by ourselves; rather, we are told to wait ten more days, wait until the Pentecost when the Holy Spirit will come and empower us.
Harvey and Lois Seifert in their book wrote,
This internalizing of openness to God and concern for neighbors is what it means to be a Christian, rather than simply to act like a Christian. That the church can produce this kind of person is a persuasive recommendation for the church.
Within the fellowship of the church, we help one another become such Christians. Here we can become comrades of our better selves. We support one another in our highest resolves. An entire searching congregation turns our attention to the liberation of unrealized possibilities as we respond to the upward call of God. Even one other person or a small subgroup within the church can sustain our determination to spend more time at devotions and to act differently in society.
In such a combination, we are to love both God and neighbor. We cannot fully do either without the other. We reach the ecstatic heights of a devotional life only as we also act creatively in society. Full creativity as consumer, worker, citizen, and friend is possible only with the vision and power that comes vital devotion. To “turn on” is to “turn up” toward God and to “turn out” toward neighbor. The two wings of soaring, liberated life are indeed devotion and action. (Liberation of Life)
When I began working on this sermon, I thought of the song “On Eagles Wings.” It is a song that speaks of the trust that we can have in Christ; it speaks of the empowerment that we will gain through the Holy Spirit.
An ancient saying suggested that there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God. As Allan Hunter has said, “Those who picket should also pray, and those who pray should also picket.” The same combination of devotional vitality and social action is also emphasized in the two great commandments of Jesus — to love God with all one’s being and to love other persons as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36 – 40). (Harvey and Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life)
We have declared our faith in Christ; we have opened our hearts to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we have gained a trust that we cannot find in the secular world. It is the one thing that will allow us to gather together as a community; it is the one thing that will allow us to go out into the world and showing through our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions that Christ is alive and that there is hope and peace possible in this world.