Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53
Up, Up, and Away!
Let us pray: Lord, source of inspiration and wisdom, speak to us through your Scripture this morning. Tell us what we need to hear, that we may hear your voice and go forth to live what we hear. In your Son’s name we pray, Amen.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Mary Poppins when I read our Scripture to prepare for today, about that scene at the end where Mary Poppins takes out her umbrella and sails away on the wind, watched by some of the people she’s touched.
To be fair, it’s a terrible analogy to the Ascension. Sure, Mary Poppins and Jesus both disappear into the sky, watched by some of the people who knew them, but Mary Poppins’ flight is magic, pure and simple, the kind of magic that fills so much of children’s fantasy: magic that is fun and whimsical and unexpected in a way that we shrug off with a laugh. Mary Poppins is almost normal, with only a few strange, magical edges. The Ascension, however, is not magic, not even close, any more than Jesus is a normal guy with just a few strange habits and strange ideas. Instead, many New Testament writers talk of the Resurrection and the Ascension in the same breath; that is, both are equally important to their understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for the world.
We know what we believe about the Resurrection, or I hope we do; after all, we talk about it all the time. In the Resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death by defying them, by showing that they had no power over Him. But what about the Ascension? What about this strange story, where Jesus vanishes into the sky?
Well, if you’ll permit me to take a step back in the story: it’s after the Resurrection. Jesus has been raised from the dead, and spent time with His disciples, teaching and performing miracles. One final time He reminds them of their mission now–to spread the Good News across the earth, to witness to who Jesus is–and promises that the Holy Spirit will come to strengthen and accompany them. Then He rises into heaven and disappears from the disciples’ sight.
Jesus is definitely in heaven now, then–the angels confirm it to the disciples–and He hasn’t had to die to go there. He is physically in heaven. Unlike us, He didn’t have to die to get there.
As Ephesians explains, the fact that Jesus is now in heaven means that Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That is, the fact that Jesus is in heaven is a sign that Jesus rules over all things: over kingdoms and nations, peoples and kings, corporations and presidents, the church and the very world itself, now and forever. By going to heaven, where He can sit above everything, He is showing His rulership. Jesus watches and rules over it all.
This moment as Jesus’ coronation, so to speak, would have probably been clearer to many of the original hearers and readers, for the Roman emperors liked to spread the news that when they died, their souls rose up into heaven, where they became gods. (Conveniently, their sons could then always claim to be sons of gods). Jesus goes above and beyond what the emperors claim to do, rising to heaven body and soul together, completely intact, and already God.
Just to reinforce the kingly shape of the narrative, before He goes Jesus tells His disciples to be His witnesses all across the world, just as Roman emperors sent out heralds to tell their empire of their new rule, and of course say that things were going to be better now. Except, of course, that instead of empty promises, Jesus’ disciples really were spreading good news that was offered to all. Jesus really is as good as He says He is.
This reminder of Jesus’ kingship is important. It reminds us that this is God’s world, that we are God’s people and God’s children, that any and every power we may face and tremble before pales in comparison to our God.
Which, I know, is all well and good. It’s easy to proclaim, to feel good about. Theologians love to talk about the Ascension and write about Jesus’ kingship. But what does that mean for us, today, living and working and going to church here, in Pittsburgh in the 21st century?
Let’s return to the book of Acts. The disciples, like most people would if their friend vanished into the sky, are still looking up, to where Jesus disappeared, maybe with amazement and expectation–is Jesus going to return right away?–until the angels come and say, “Guys, Jesus isn’t coming back right now. He’s in Heaven. What are you doing, just staring at the sky?”
The angels tacitly rebuke the disciples for just standing there, looking. Remember the conversation Jesus and the disciples had just before the Ascension: Jesus tells the disciples again to spread the good news across all the earth, and goes on to add, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That is, the disciples have things to do and places to be, a mission given to them by Jesus that does not include staring into the sky, waiting for Jesus to return.
And Jesus has not returned, so we still have a mission. As followers of Jesus, we have been passed down the same mission, to witness to who Jesus is with our lives.
And what does that look like? In the rest of Acts, we read the story of a church trying to figure that out: they go all across the Roman empire, teaching and preaching about Jesus. They heal the sick. They feed and clothe the hungry. They realize that this isn’t just good news for Jews anymore, but for any who will hear and accept the good news. In the letters of the New Testament, written by Paul and John and Peter and a few others, we read the story of a church trying to figure that out: how they act towards each other in the church is important, they decide. We should love one another, treat one another well. How individual Christians act–their integrity, their love, their fruit of the Spirit–is important, they decide. Christians should be honest and true, should love those around them the way Jesus loved them first.
And really, all of church history is the story of a church trying to figure that out. What does it look like to follow and witness to Jesus in our time and place? We most definitely don’t do it perfectly. But we try to love one another, and remember that God wants to include those we’d really rather not include. We try to show people who God is, without making God too much in our own image, without putting God in too many boxes that aren’t really there.
And that’s what we are doing here, in this church. Each of us is trying to figure out how to serve God’s kingdom, to serve Jesus and witness to Him, just as we as a church are always trying to discern how God is asking us to serve and witness and worship. And we do that because Christ is risen, and so we have hope. We do that because Christ has ascended, and therefore we know that Christ rules the world. No matter what happens, God is more powerful than our adversaries, than our circumstances.
And so let us love, and let us witness.