Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 1, 2014

2014.06.01 “After We Say Goodbye” – Luke 24: 44 – 53

Central United Methodist Church

After We Say Goodbye

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 24: 44 – 53

Ascension Sunday

June 1, 2014


Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24: 44 – 53, The New Revised Standard Version

We’ve come to that time of year when many people are in transition. It is the season of graduations, weddings, retirements, and the season when many leases are up, so some people are also likely moving.

Even if none of these is happening to us personally, we likely know someone to whom one or more of these is happening. As an example, I have recently been to all of these: our daughter Anna graduated from Lincoln Jr. High and my son Chris got his Master’s from Georgetown; I did a wedding for two friends two weeks ago; and the night before that we went to a retirement dinner. My son Chris and his family are preparing to move to a new house; and Heewon and his family moved to Dixon last Thursday. (From Evanston to Dixon; how’s that for transition?) If we don’t feel like these people feel, that we are in the hurricane, we may at least feel like we are in the eye of the hurricane.  That is to say, even if the changes are joyful and for the better, they are also stressful, leaving us anxious and even overwhelmed.

Have you ever seen the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale?  The Holmes and Rahe Stress scale was devised in 1967, as a way of putting a point score to stressful life changes, in regard to how they affect illness.  For example, on a list of 40 life changes, here are the first six:

Death of a spouse                                                                     100

Divorce                                                                                     73

Marital separation                                                                      65

Detention in jail                                                                          63

Personal injury or illness                                                            53

Marriage                                                                                   50

[To see the complete Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, see here).

So what you do is take note of the events on the scale that have occurred in your life during the last calendar year and add up the total number of points.  In any given year, regardless of your stress level, you start off with a ten percent chance of going into a hospital within a two-year period.  If you score between 150 and 200 points, your vulnerability for a serious illness within a two-year period increases to approximately 50 percent; if you score over 300 points, your chances rise to 80 percent.  So just remember that any time you make a major move (like we United Methodist pastors do when we move) and change your location, your house, your church, your job, and your friends all at the same time, you might as well call ahead and reserve a hospital room.

In church, we are also in a time of transition, on both a macro and a micro scale.  On a macro scale, all churches are trying to find the way forward in a time when the Church is no longer in the mainstream, but on the margins in society. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t read another church leader’s lament about how the numbers are down all across the board, for both Catholics and Protestants, even among the Southern Baptist Convention. Across all, attendance and giving are down, and institutional expressions of loyalty such as denominational loyalty and membership and tithing are almost a thing of the past.

For example, one of the most recent reports was from a new Public Religion Research Institute survey (brilliantly titled “I Know What You Did Last Sunday”), which found that even those Americans who do associate with a church, significantly overstate their church attendance to pollsters. (In other words, they lie.) When asked by phone, only 30% of mainliners admit they rarely go to church, but when responding online (where they are more honest), some 45% admit they never go to church. So, even those who say they do go, don’t.  Just one example of how the church is in a time of transition, from the mainstream to the margins.  With all the changes that are occurring, how are we going to continue to be “church,” in any sense that we have known it to be in the past?  No pressure!

But we are also in a time of transition on a micro scale. Just over 40 days ago, we celebrated Easter, and since then, we have been celebrating the Great 50 Days of Easter. The Gospels have given us stories analogous to where we are: attempting to understand what it means that Jesus is resurrected, and with that what it means to believe in the Risen Christ.  In recent Sundays, through Jesus’ words to his disciples before his crucifixion, we have heard that he is going away, and his promise that he will not leave us orphans, but he will be with us and among us.  What those words are really preparing us for is not Jesus’ death, but his final departure after his resurrection. For us modern day Christians, this is the only way we have ever known it: we were not there to meet Jesus of Nazareth; we did not experience his post-resurrection appearances; and since that time up until now he is not to be seen; so where is he?

What we celebrate in church today – the Ascension of Jesus – is an answer that question.

Now, if you find yourself like the man in colonial America who was who was heard to say – as he was being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail – “I didn’t say I didn’t believe in the Monroe Doctrine; I said I didn’t know what it is.”  So we might say, “I didn’t say I don’t believe in the Ascension of Jesus; I said I didn’t know what it is.”

I would be with you; I’ve been trying to understand the Ascension of Jesus for 40 years, and as I prepared for today’s sermon, I admit I find it more confusing than ever. What happened after Jesus’ resurrection?

Matthew tells us Jesus met his disciples in Galilee, and gave them the great commission (Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Luke 28: 19 -20). But he doesn’t say what happened next.  Mark ends with the women running from the tomb in fear, saying nothing to anyone; for most, a most unsatisfactory ending.  John’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ reunion with his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, but goes nowhere.  It’s only Luke who has an account of Jesus’ ascension, and Luke (who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts) has not one account but two different accounts, ending Luke with one and beginning Acts with another (both of which we read earlier).  What’s up with that?

And even then, what Luke describes, is Jesus floating away into the sky, kind of like Dorothy floating away in the balloon with the Wizard of Oz as the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion all stand below and wave.  For those of us who no longer believe in a three-story universe, as they did at that time, but a universe, where if you go up, you go out into space, this makes no sense.  If we take that account literally, where would Jesus now be?  Out there, baby, out there!

Look: what they what trying to say, in the language and concepts and cosmology of their time, is three things.

First, while there was a time after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection when his disciples experienced him as not only alive but present among them, that time came to an end. Such that, after his resurrection, Jesus the Christ is not still out there, walking around somewhere.

Secondly, and more importantly, what it means is this: where God is, is where Jesus now is.  Because he was willing to humble himself, becoming human, even to the point of experiencing death, in the fulfillment of his mission to restore all humanity and all creation to God, God not only raised Jesus from the dead but exalted him to the highest place, as they put it, “at the right hand of God,” the position of honor and authority.  There, with God, stands a Human One, in whatever spiritual form he exists, still marked by the scars of his earthly experience.

Third, what it means it this: Because the risen and ascended Christ is with God, he (like God) can be experienced anywhere.  No longer is Christ restricted or confined to one time and space, as he was during his short mortal life; now he may be known and experienced in every time and place, even as we – who are his modern day followers – have come to experience him for ourselves.

Really, don’t you love how Luke’s account ends?

“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

Does that sound right to you? You’ve just spent the last three years with Jesus, walking the countryside, sitting at table, at night around the fire; he has become not only the Master, but one of your closest friends. Then you saw him wrongfully arrested and brutally executed. Then he was back, even if in a different way.  And now – with this – he’s gone again, this time for good. Would you be joyful, as they were, or sad, because now that he’s gone for good, everything’s going to change, and in a big way?

I think of it like this.  When I was growing up, my family, like most of our families, had people scattered all over the country.  My Uncle Donald and his family, my cousins, lived in Detroit, and Aunt Martha and her family lived in Frankfort, KY.  So, wherever they would come to visit my grandparents and then go home, I felt like I spend a good part of my childhood standing in the yard, waving goodbye.  And then we would all go in the house, and carry on.

Finally, I came to be the one who would come and go, and they would be the ones standing in the yard, waving goodbye.  Sometimes I’d leave with tears in my eyes, because I knew eventually the day would come when they would no longer be there to wave goodbye. That day did come, and now, when I remember them, I don’t do so with such acute sadness, as I do with joy and gratitude, for all that they gave me, the one now left on earth to carry on their legacy, and live life for them, as we hope our kids will do for us.  And – in a very real way – even though they are gone, they are still with me.

The point is this: Like those disciples of Jesus who returned to Jerusalem with joy and thanksgiving, knowing that though Jesus was absent in the old way, he was present in a new way; let us turn to the transitions and changes we face in life and in church and carry on with joy and thanksgiving, knowing that through whatever changes we face, Christ will be with us, as surely as he was with them.  Amen.


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