Up, Up, and Away


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Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? (Acts 1:11)

When the one we had hoped for and relied on goes away, what are we to do? How do we stop looking up towards the heavens and continue to live life?

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him[Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 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? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

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In Christian tradition, Easter is not just one day. It is a season that begins with resurrection Sunday and ends on Pentecost which we celebrate next Sunday. And in the midst of these fifty days, called Eastertide, there is a significant event that has been celebrated and venerated in the church for ages. We don’t emphasize it much these days. But we may be familiar with it because it finds its way into art and stained glass windows.

In fact, the image on that stained glass window on the south side of the sanctuary, closest to the choir depicts this story. If you can’t see that window right now because of where you’re seated, check it out after worship today, or even better, on Sunday, June 25, learn more about it and the other art in this space by joining the church tour led by our own church historian, Joe Beyer.

He can tell you more about that than I ever could, but I do know, because I checked with him earlier this week, that that piece of art depicts the story of the Ascension when Jesus ascends, leaving earth and rising towards the heavens to presumably sit on the right hand of God.

Hear now this story as it is told in the book of Acts:

So when they had come together, they asked him[Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 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? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

So that is the story of the ascension. The day when Jesus, after having died and risen, goes “up, up, and away.”

That phrase, “up, up, and away” was first used on a radio show from the 40’s to describe Superman’s flight. Superman, for those of you who may not know, is an otherworldly power, sent by his parents to earth, and due to the superpowers he gains from the earth’s sun, he is able help save humankind again and again.

If you want to learn more about Superman, ask my son Austin. Between him and my partner Mike, my world is filled with random facts and stories and games about superheroes. My kid can’t tell you what day of the week it is, but he can tell you all about superheroes!

And, if I’m honest, there are some really good stories to be found in comic books and tales of superheroes, stories of triumph and pain, of good and evil and the murky line we sometimes seem to walk, stories that stand the test of time.

The more I’m immersed in this world, the more I realize how we all long for a superhero to save us, to save the world, to make it good and safe and secure again. Perhaps then, we wouldn’t have to hear news of bombings at concert venues, children drowning in the sea as they seek refuge, deaths through gun violence in Egypt, and violence and hate in our own backyard.

This longing for someone “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” is such an appealing concept. How nice would it be to have invulnerable heroes who are stronger, better, faster than we are to step up and set things straight with the world? I’d pin my hopes on a superhuman superhero any day.

And that’s kind of what the disciples did with Jesus. But then, he died, crushing their hopes and dreams. With his resurrection, however, these hopes resurfaced, and the promise of power, of safety, of things “as they should be” or used to be, all come back.

For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus teaches and preaches and meets with people, comforting them, and revealing his resurrected self to the women at the tomb, to his disciples, to people walking the Emmaus road. And they’re heartened and thrilled to see him, but perhaps it’s human inclination that once again, so many of them fall back to their superhero longings.

You’d think by now, that his followers would get it. I mean, yes, Jesus did defy death through the resurrection, and he is more than human; he is God. But on Good Friday, he showed them what he was really about, by standing up to the Roman authorities, not with power and might, but through humility and peace and mercy, by dying rather than fighting back.

And yet, today’s passage opens with the disciples asking, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They’re still asking the same questions they were three years ago!

They want to know, when will Jesus make Israel great again? Is it now? Now will you restore us to those good old days when we weren’t occupied, and we were this great, autonomous kingdom, at least in the way we choose to remember it?

And I’m sure this is not why Jesus left, but talk about some dense disciples!

After all this time, after all they have seen and witnessed, we’re right back to this question about political and worldly power and when it will finally be theirs. Well, that was never Jesus’ plan, and, in response, Jesus does what he does best, flip the script on what power means.

Power is not about being “great” whatever that may be. It’s not about all the ways we try to prove how strong or important we are or how dominating we can be. Power comes from the Holy Spirit when we are witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

One commentator notes, “Far from establishing a kingdom wielding the world’s power, he [Jesus] promises a community empowered to bear witness.” (Sam A. White).

Jesus did not come to be our Superman. Jesus came to empower a community, a humble, ragtag group of folks, to entrust them with the power of the Holy Spirit to bear witness.

And bear witness to what? To bear witness to a God who loves everyone, even those whom we would despise or ignore; to bear witness to a God who would forgive those who killed him even as he lay dying; to bear witness to a God whose patience and mercy extend to those who just don’t seem to get it, over and over again; to bear witness to a God who healed the sick, for free by the way, who proclaimed release for the prisoner and freedom for the oppressed; to bear witness to a God who presence and love and comfort never leave us, even when we feel afraid and alone and broken.

That is the good news to which we bear witness, to which Jesus commands us to go and share with everyone. These are his parting words, so what do the disciples do? They stand there. Looking up, watching him go.

To be fair, they’re probably in a bit of a shock; they’re probably not fully processing what Jesus has said. And they’re having to say goodbye, yet again, to the one they thought they’d lost for good just forty-three days ago. So I don’t want to be too critical of them.

Richard M. Landers says, “The book of Acts opens with Jesus taking leave of the apostles. The ascension of Jesus is a moment of loss and transition, as well as a moment of glory. …Transitions are a constant feature of our existence, but those transitions that involve losing and gaining people can be the most significant.”

So I get it. Jesus is leaving, and this time they don’t know when he’ll be back. I’d probably stand there, too, a little stunned and afraid, maybe even a little upset and indignant, looking at Jesus as he leaves.

But two men dressed in white, much like the two who were at Jesus’ empty tomb in the gospel of Luke (same author by the way- Luke/Acts), these men shake the disciples up, awakening them to a new reality, reminding them of the task at hand.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” they ask. The implication is, stop staring; stop standing around; you heard him; get to work!

Jesus’ departure is both an ending and a beginning: an ending of Jesus’ physical presence here on earth. But the beginning of our call as the church.

Landers continues his commentary by saying, “Ascensions and moments of divine encounter can dazzle us so that we forget the surrounding world. We glory in the moment, only to find that God has moved on, and so must we.” God has moved on, and so must we.

There is so much to do, so much work God has charged us with, that we cannot just stand here looking up. We can’t just sit in this sanctuary, removed from a world that is broken and hurting.

Our call is beyond these walls. Our call is to climb down from those mountaintop experiences, to walk down this height on Fillmore, and to touch and heal and love this world which God has created. And the world needs the body of Christ more than ever these days.

But Jesus has ascended. We are now his body. As Teresa of Avila says:

Christ has no body on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses the world.

There are no superheroes, but there are every day, ordinary heroes who stand up for justice and for those who are being bullied and oppressed.  We remember some of those heroes this Memorial weekend as give thanks for the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

And we remember three men this week who stood up in Portland on a train.  They saw a man, verbally attacking and threatening two women who seemed to be Muslim. And they stood up to him and condemned his behavior. And all three of them were harmed, two of whom died as a result.

They would not stand for his bigotry, and they suffered the consequences for it.  Ricky, Taliesin, and Micah: we remember those names. Three heroes without super powers, but who chose to do the right thing at the risk of their own lives.

The world needs people who will stand up and speak out against bigotry. The world needs people with courage and faith to point out and be with those who are being oppressed, and to say “No, we will not stand for behavior that is mean or evil or harmful.”  The world needs each of us to take part in what God has called us to do.

So let’s not wait for a superhero. Let’s not stand around and tarry, looking towards the sky hoping that something will change, that someone will come to be the answer to all our problems.

Sure, Jesus could come and set everything right again, but for the time being, God has chosen us, chosen to use us in all our humanness and brokenness, to partner with us, to help usher in the kin-dom of God.

“The Spirit-empowered church is to be the continuing presence of the Christ in the world,” (Blair Monie).  We are the continuing presence of Christ in the world.

So let’s get to work, living into this new reality which Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension has begun. Until it is complete, we have work to do.

Don’t look up, look around.

Look around and see Christ in one another and in the faces of strangers who need our love and care.

Amen.

 

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