The Feast of the Ascension was last Thursday, so let’s talk about it today. The apostles are with Jesus on the mount called Olivet, or the Mount of Olives. It’s a chalky mountain about 2 miles east of the old city of Jerusalem. Because it’s chalky, it’s not suitable for building so it has been used as a burial ground for thousands of years. The Jewish belief is that when the messiah comes, the resurrection of the dead will begin there. At the foot of the Mount of Olives lies the Garden of Gethsemane. This is familiar ground for Jesus.
Jesus and his friends have come up the mountain and now they stand in the hot sun, looking out over Jerusalem. They’re talking and the apostles ask Jesus if he could please restore the kingdom of Israel. In other words, would he please just get these awful Roman overlords out of here and be a true, good king like David? Jesus answers, “No, I will not be an earthly king. Have you listened to a single word I’ve said over the time we’ve been together????”
No, he didn’t really say that, but I bet he wanted to. Instead he tells them that he can’t say when or how God the Father will do things. The apostles hang their heads in disappointment. But he cheers them up right away when he says: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you all be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!”
I think that now he hugs and kisses them and says a loving, tender goodbye. That just didn’t get written down. Because, quite abruptly, Jesus just gets lifted up into the sky until a cloud covers him. Boom! He’s gone.
There are many paintings of this moment. Sometimes Jesus looks like he is hiking up a very steep mountain to heaven. Sometimes the only part of Jesus we can see are his bare feet hanging beneath a cloud high in the sky.
And there are the apostles: craning their necks up and up, staring with their mouths open, scratching their heads in confusion. Jesus has come back before, so immediately they began to hope that this is like his death and resurrection; just a brief pause before they get to hang out with him again.
Two white robed men suddenly appear out of nowhere and ask: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?" Frankly, I think these guys ask dumb questions. Your friend has just risen up off the earth into the clouds and you can’t stop looking upward. Or maybe that’s a question for all of us: why do we stand looking up into heaven when we need to do God’s work here on earth?
Eventually, the apostles lower their faces, look around them and then down the mountain. They go back to the upper room where they are staying, the whole lot of them: Peter, John, James and Andrew, all the rest of them including some other women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and the rest of his family.
What do they do in this hot, crowded room? They pray and pray, they constantly devote themselves to prayer. They pray for the coming of the spirit of God so that they can be empowered to be Jesus' witnesses in the world. And maybe they just sit and reminisce about all the amazing times they had with Jesus.
I wonder about people today who are always looking up to heaven, looking for Jesus to come back down to earth the way he went up. Some people spend years studying biblical texts, then predicting the next coming of Christ (even though he clearly says we are not to know the time or place). These folks ignore the world around them, focusing only on how they and maybe some of their followers will be lifted up into heaven on judgment day while the rest of us jerks will be left behind to catch on fire. Isn’t that Christian?!
When Kevin was installing these bright new lights in church, I sat in the pews looking up and found some of them way too bright. Kevin had to keep adjusting them away from my upward gaze. That got us to wondering if the parishioners of St. Marks look up much and whether you all would be bothered by the lights. I exclaimed, “Of course we look up! We are looking for God!”
So are we looking up, looking ahead or looking down? Where should we be looking if we want to encounter Jesus?
Last year, during our service, a sweet old man walked into church. He was white, clean and had a lovely British accent, which made me think that surely he was God. So God was stopping in at St. Marks to see how we’re doing. God would be pleased by how we treated him.
On the other hand, many years ago, we were very busy preparing for a dinner of some sort at church. Everyone was bustling about, cooking and setting tables when suddenly, unexpectedly, a young man entered Calder Hall, looking nervous. He was disheveled, none too clean, and very anxious. I walked over to him with Dorothy. He asked for help so Dorothy sent him to the police station where they would vet him to get help from the ministerial association.
I’m doubting that he was eager to go talk to the police or that he knew what a ministerial association was. He left and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get any help that night. As soon as he walked out the door, I wondered why we hadn’t invited him to stay and share dinner with us. What if this dirty guy was Jesus? This incident has bothered me for years. I learned a big lesson: Jesus comes when least expected and doesn’t look the way you want him to look.
This week I saw a post on Facebook about ‘panhandlers’ in Aberdeen. All of the comments were about meth heads on every corner and very derogatory. I realized the extent to which I’ve come to believe that these folks sitting on the sidewalk in Aberdeen might very well be Christ. I take Mother Theresa’s command to ‘look for Christ in every person’ quite literally. Christ was homeless, hung out with prostitutes and criminals. Christ was in prison at the end of his life. He wasn’t a white guy with a British accent, he was a disheveled, homeless brown guy. So if we’re looking for Christ I think we’d better look down, not up.
John Holbert writes: “Ascension Sunday is about the dangers of looking high when Jesus asks us to look low at the people he has come to redeem, to look for the poor and suffering ones rather than to dream of earthly power and glory. In short, Ascension Sunday is a fabulous statement of the gospel.”
It is up to us to look for poor and suffering ones. It is up to us to do the work of Christ in our world today. Helping us remember the call of the gospel, we sing this gorgeous hymn:
He came singing love
and he lived singing love;
he died, singing love.
He arose is silence.
For the love to go on
we must make it our song;
you and I be the singers.