Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 5, 2011

Central United Methodist Church

Ascension Sunday

“Now What?”

Acts 1: 1 – 11

June 5th, 2011

       “Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said good-bye to the apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God.  As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon.”

       When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?

       He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business.  What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud.  They stood there, staring into the empty sky.  Suddenly two men appeared — in white robes! They said, “You Galileans! – why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?  This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left.” – Acts 1: 1 -11, The Message

Ever find yourself asking “Now what”?

I find I often ask “Now what?” at the end of events I’ve anticipated, thought about, and worked on for a long time. They consume so much energy, after awhile it becomes difficult to imagine what life will be like again, after they’re over. For example, I performed a wedding yesterday, which we’ve been planning for almost a year.  Now that it’s over, I feel like, “OK, now what?”

But, it’s not over yet, at least for Jeanne Parker and Cynthia Barron and me. Northern IL Annual Conference, which the three of us attend on behalf of our church, begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday, 8 in the morning through 9 o’clock at night.  Right now I’m not sure how I’ll get next week’s service and sermon done. We may have to do what one of my predecessor’s did in a church I pastured.  One of their big events of the year was not Christmas, or Easter, it was an annual Fun Fest.  The next day, on Sunday, you opened the worship bulletin to find one sentence:  “The Spirit will lead.”  Which might not be such a bad thing, for next Sunday, Pentecost. 

In my family, we have this running joke, in which we say, “Don’t worry, it’s going to slow down after this.” And then we laugh, because it never does.

Sometimes in life we’re forced to ask “Now what?” whether we want to or not, when life takes an unexpected twist. It may come through something like a downturn in health or finances, a car crash, a divorce, the loss of a job, even the death of someone we love. All the plans and dreams we had go right out the window, and we ask: “Now what?”

The day we read about in today’s Gospel was such a day. Jesus has been telling them he’s going away, and now, 40 days after the resurrection, that time has come. It’s the day we know as Jesus’ Ascension, the day he left them and ascended into heaven, to be seen no more on earth. “Now what?” they must have asked. “What do we do now?”

For us, it’s 43 days after Easter, and we may find ourselves asking the same question.  Summer is upon us, school is out, and we may be asking “Now what?”  

While we all know Easter, most of us know little about the Ascension. I know we’ve seen depictions of the scene, because we’ve got one right here in our own church, in the Resurrection window, which (I hope) we all look at when we leave each week.

CUMC Resurrection Window

Skokie Central Church Resurrection Window

Most such depictions show Jesus floating upward into the clouds in flowing robes while awe-filled disciples gaze upward in amazement or confusion. They often look a lot like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion waving to the not so great and powerful Wizard of Oz floating away in his hot air balloon.

Dali Ascension

Dali Ascension

Or how about this surrealist depiction by the Spanish artist, Salvador Dali? 

The story of Jesus’ Ascension is hard for us to understand, because, for one thing, we don’t live in a three-story universe, as they thought they did in Jesus’ time.  Heaven was up; sheol – or as we call it – hell, was down, and earth was in between, so when you when to heaven or hell, they believed you either went up or down. I know, a lot of people still believe that today, maybe even some of us.

But how do you end a story about someone risen from the dead? The Gospels try to describe – in the terms and language of their time – that there was a time after his death and resurrection when Jesus was present in a very real way, but there also came a time when that presence came to an end.

For them, it was an “in between” time: Jesus was gone, but the Spirit he had promised had not yet come, as it would on the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday.

In some ways, it is such “in between” times that are the hardest, when the past as we knew it has gone, but the new, which we do not know, has not yet come.

In so many ways, we find ourselves in such “in between” times today.  After gas powered cars, then what?  After the polar ice caps melt, then what?  After global terrorism is defeated, then what? After churches and denominations, then what? 

It’s so confusing right now to be the church, because while it’s clear that church as we knew it is dying, it’s not clear what church is going to be. Meanwhile, what do we do “in between?”  Should we be conservative or liberal?  Should we worship in traditional style or contemporary? Should we wear robes or dress casual? The truth is, nobody knows, and all or no answers may apply.  Right now, like Jesus’ disciples, we feel “in between: the old is passing, but the new has not yet come.

When we find ourselves in such times, here are three things Jesus’ Ascension teaches us.

First, Jesus’ Ascension proclaims the lordship of Christ. The ascension of Christ, though difficult to understand, was so important to early Christians that they made it a part of the earliest Christian creeds. The Apostle’s Creed, for example, says, “On the third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

      To say that the risen and ascended Jesus is “at God’s right hand” is to place him in the highest position of honor and authority.”  It is to affirm that One who knows us and who looks like us, one with a scarred human body, shares the throne with the God of the Universe.  

      So when we say “Jesus is exalted,” we are not talking about a place Jesus is, any more than when we stand and face the altar we believe that is where God is.  To affirm Christ as exalted is – above all else – to give him the highest place in our lives. 

      It is, of course, to do so in a world of conflicting allegiances.  It is not to follow the world’s agenda, but the agenda of Christ, regardless of what the world says. In many ways, to be a Christian is to be counter-cultural. As we all know too well, that’s not an easy thing to do, and that’s why we keep coming back here week by week asking for help. 

      The second thing Jesus’ Ascension teaches us is the universality of Christ. Jesus is no longer restricted or confined to time and space, as he was during his historical lifetime.  Rather, like the God whom he knew in his own experience, Jesus may now be known in the experience of his followers, wherever we find ourselves. It was almost as if Jesus did not ascend but exploded, so that the presence once concentrated in him now flies everywhere, flew far and wide, such that the seeds of heaven are sown in all the fields of the earth.  Now, wherever we go, whether in classrooms or workrooms, bedrooms or hospital rooms, streets or sanctuaries, Christ is present with us.

      Whenever and wherever two or three of us get together in his name, it is as if there is someone else in the room with us whom we cannot see, the strong, abiding presence of the absent one, as available to us as bread and wine, as familiar as each other’s faces.  This is why we do it so often; as often as we do it, we remember him.

      The third thing Jesus’ Ascension teaches us is one that not even his disciples understood, even at the end.  When the time came and they were together for the last time, they ask, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

      And Jesus must have gone: “Doh! (smacking his forehead.)” In spite of all he had taught them, they still didn’t get it. They were still looking for a national, political kingdom, which he (Jesus) was forcibly going to bring.” Just like a lot of Christians still stand staring up into heaven, wringing their hands and waiting for Jesus to bring the kingdom today.  

      What Jesus said was, “You don’t get to know the time. (Hear that, Harold Camping?) Timing is the Father’s business.  What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

      That was the part they didn’t get; that they would be the witnesses. The story of the book of Acts is what that is about. How the Spirit would descend at Pentecost, exploding the church, not only to Jews but to Gentiles, not only in Jerusalem but as far as Rome, and even beyond that to the ends of the earth, which is – in relation to them – where we are today. 

So it’s good to know, whenever we ask “Now What?” that if there’s any point made by Jesus in his ascension, it’s that – whatever form the church takes, we who are left have been given an allegiance, a presence, and a purpose, none of which have changed, from that day to this.

Whatever form church takes, we have things to do: to worship, to study the Scriptures, and to pray, but also to visit the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless, lift up the fallen, and in the name of Jesus, cry for justice.

The Ascension of Jesus is not the end of the story of Jesus, but the beginning of the story of the church.  It is a story begun by Jesus and continued – even today – by his followers. The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not something that happened way back then, nor is it a day on the church calendar we celebrate once a year. The Ascension of Jesus Christ is something we who are his followers celebrate every day, by exalting him in our hearts and honoring him with our lives.

Now what?  There’s an answer.

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