Sunday, June 01, 2014

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension)

Acts 1
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” 12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk[a] from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

One of the value-added services we offer here at the church is a willingness to answer all questions of a religious nature.

Not long ago someone stopped me in the hallway to ask the difference between a disciple and an apostle. Rarely does an Advent go by without someone calling to ask the names of the three wise men. And just last night by brother called up to ask ‘what’s the deal with Ascension Day?’

As obscure religious questions go, he may be going after some sort of prize. Or maybe not. It turns out he was on his way to France to see his boss, and was having some trouble reaching everyone over there enjoying an Ascension Day holiday weekend.

“C’est un bon pays,” I said in my cereal-box French, and explained that truly civilized countries like France enjoy all the obscure religious days. Name another country that enjoys Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day and the Feast of Stephen. Add in a day to celebrate storming the Bastille, and you may be close to heaven on earth.

Now I’m not saying we might be better off if General Wolfe had lost that day on the Plains of Abraham, but by accident of birth or careless migration, we seem to have lost the statutory holiday lottery. So I may say ‘happy belated Ascension Day’ to you, but without the long weekend to go with it, it just sounds cruel.

Poor Andrew’s question remains unanswered, and perhaps you too are wondering ‘what’s the deal with Ascension Day?‘ Let’s take a look.

“Soon,” Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and beyond, to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

And that’s about it. Forty days after Easter is Ascension, fifty days after Easter is Pentecost (the French take the next day as a holiday) and then it’s barely a month to Bastille Day. Immigration forms can be found online.

And St. Luke, who is writing the Acts of the Apostles, must achieve a number of things in this first chapter of his sequel, since next Sunday it is on to Acts 2 and the wind and fire of Pentecost. Acts 1 opens with a segue from Luke to Acts, some last words, the Ascension, a brief and bloody description of what happened to Judas, and a special meeting to replace him. The lot fell to Matthias, and the eleven were twelve once more.

There are a few things to note in this important summary chapter, this bridge from the Gospels to the rest of the Christian story, and the first is a seemingly innocuous little verse that appears just in advance of the passage Kathy read this morning. There, as Luke sets the scene he says ‘After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.’

At first glance, this may seem unsurprising. While still with the twelve, Jesus spoke mostly in parables, and parables—as we learned in parables class—are always about the Kingdom of God. So if we track Jesus—in life, in death, in life beyond death—the topic is the same. Jesus only wants to talk about the Kingdom of God.

Surprisingly, this insight was more-or-less lost to the church for several centuries. Only in the nineteenth century did scholars and preachers rediscover this single-minded focus on the Kingdom of God, having been waylaid by questions of belief, practice, personal piety and national politics. Only in the period aptly named ‘the quest for the historical Jesus‘ did this emphasis on the Kingdom come.

The second noteworthy thing in this short passage is the appearance of angels, visitors who offer some much-needed advice. Their appearance is short and subtle—and almost easy to miss—but an important part of the story.

Just then he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

It’s a good question. But it’s the next thing they say that really gets their attention. Just as they return their gaze to the earth and these strange men in white, they receive an important message. ‘You know he’s coming back,’ the angels say, ‘the same way he left.‘

Now this might have come as a bit of a shock to the group, only recently accustomed to the fact that Jesus was not dead, only recently accustomed to the fact that he would ascend to God, and now learning (perhaps again) that he will be back.

I say ‘perhaps again’ because Jesus did mention that he would return on the clouds, with power and glory, but we don’t know if they understood (Matthew 24). Even in the midst of comforting his disciples, in that tender passage in John (14) he says ‘and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.‘ Could they hear this, in the midst of the passion? Perhaps not.

And this was the second great discovery of those nineteenth-century theologians, or perhaps we should say re-discovery: that the promise of return was a central theme of the early church, and a central theme for Jesus—a theme that seemed to be overtaken events. Some would argue that the promise of return was so immediate (Mark 13) that when it failed to happen it was quickly discounted. This may be the case, but for the early church at least, the promise of return was a real as looking up at the clouds passing overhead.

Now, not long ago I gave you one of those five dollar words that comes in handy at a moment like this, a moment that we’re looking in our Bibles and trying to connect the dots. The word is intertextuality, the practice where we allow one passage or idea suggest another passage or idea, in scripture or maybe beyond the scriptures too.

In this case, talking about the Kingdom of God, and talking about Jesus return in glory, we might be reminded of some other famous words that suddenly get more context: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus has them (and us) reciting a prayer with his entire program embedded in a single line. ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth’ is both the persistent Kingdom message of the parables and the abiding hope of imminent return. A single line that will guide the early church as they hold things in common, care for widow and orphan, preach the good news, and wait with one eye on the sky.

So now summer’s here, and summer is the time that many of us spend looking up at the sky. Is that rain coming? Isn’t that a lovely sunset? Look at that sun—I better put more sunscreen on. And now, courtesy of a couple of unexpected angels, maybe you’ll think about something else when you look up on a long summer afternoon or evening: ‘What are you looking up for? You know he’s coming back, the same way he left.’

The Kingdom will come, and Kingdom’s work will be done, and we will look up longingly at the same time we remember all the important work we have to do here. We live in that in-between place, that liminal space between future hope and the important work God has set before us. May we attend to both, with God’s help, Amen.


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