Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 17, 2015

2015.05.17 “The Day We Were Left Behind” – Acts 1: 1 – 11 Ascension Sunday

Central United Methodist Church
The Day We Were Left Behind
Pastor David L. Haley
Acts 1: 1 – 11
Ascension Sunday
May 17, 2015

"Millard Sheets (1907-1989), Word of Life mural, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville."

“Millard Sheets (1907-1989), Word of Life mural, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville.”

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.” – Acts 1: 9 – 11, the New Revised Standard Version

When I was a child, one of the movies I remember was a movie that came out the year I was born – 1951 – a science fiction flick called The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Anybody other than me remember that movie?) It was a scary movie, but I loved to watch it, enjoying the state of the art special effects, laser beams shooting out of robots to destroy tanks and guns. I understand a remake came out in 2008, starring Keanu Reeves, which I didn’t see. I understand the 1951 version got better reviews, including the special effects.

Today, on Ascension Sunday, we remember not The Day the Earth Stood Still, but another important day, The Day We Were Left Behind. This was the day described in Luke’s Gospel – and again differently one page later in Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles – when the risen Jesus left his disciples and us behind for good, ascending into heaven, back to God from whom he had come.

As we have heard during the great Fifty days of Easter – there was a time following Jesus’ death and resurrection when his disciples experienced Jesus’ presence in a special way, a time of doubt and fear but also faith and joy. But that time came to an end and the story of Jesus’ Ascension is Luke’s version – in the terminology of his time – of how that happened.

After all, how do you end a story about someone risen from the dead? You can’t have him riding off into the sunset, Lone Ranger style, with his disciples asking, “Who was that masked man?” You can’t have him slip on a magic ring like Frodo in Lord of the Rings and disappear. You can’t have Jesus die at the end of the story, because he has already died and defeated death. And so he floats upward, toward heaven, in the way that they understood it.

It is to us moderns, with a different understanding of the universe, a strange story. The late Biblical scholar William Barclay, thinking of all the artistic depictions of the ascension, once wrote, “No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” If the ascension is hard to depict in art, it is even harder to explain in a sermon. And yet we try.

One way to understand it might be as the answer to a child’s question, who upon hearing the story about the Risen Jesus might ask, “Where is he?” “Can I go see him?” The answer is no, because Jesus is no longer physically here on earth, confined to one time and place, but now he is with God, present in every time and place.

Another way we might understand Luke’s story of Christ’s Ascension is as a way of explaining Christ’s absence, that we can relate to. For who of us has never had the sad experience of being left behind, by someone we wanted to be with, someone who was going some place we wanted to go.  Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor* says:

“Ascension Day is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten feast day of the church year. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Who wants to mark the day that Jesus went out of this world, never to be seen again? Hungry as we are for the presence of God, the one thing we do not need is a day to remind us of God’s absence.”

And yet, God’s absence is exactly what it attempts to explain. And so, says Taylor:

“Like a band of forlorn disciples, we return to this hillside again and again. It is the place we lost track of him; it is the last place we saw him, so of course it is the first place anybody thinks to look for him to come again.”

So, like those first disciples, here we stand on Ascension Sunday, staring toward heaven, wondering why we should sometimes feel so left behind and so alone, so bereft of Christ in the world.

But what the Ascension story makes clear is that it wasn’t that they would no longer experience Christ’s presence, it’s that they — and all future disciples, including us — would do so in a different way.

To make this point, two men in white robes (read “angels”) disturb the disciple’s reverie: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Meaning, if they wanted to see Christ again, it was no use looking up. Better they should look around instead, at each other, at the world, at the people in their lives, because that was where they were to find Christ now. Not in the way they used to know him, the old way, but the new way, through each other. It was as if Christ had not ascended but exploded, so that the risen Christ was no longer anywhere on earth, confined to one time and place, but now everywhere instead, present in every time and place.

If we get what they are trying to say, such an understanding can transform our spiritual life. As the medieval spiritual mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “The way out is the way in.” That means, when we talk about Jesus “ascending” and “being exalted”, what we’re talking about is not spatial (out there) but spiritual (in here). When we confess Jesus Christ as ascended and exalted what we’re saying is not that Christ is sitting on a throne somewhere “up there,” but that he is in here, at the center of our lives. As Christians, we acknowledge that when we make the commitment to honor Christ in our hearts and exalt him with our lives, through what we say, what we do, how we live, and how we treat others in the world.

Once Jesus’ disciples realized this, once they stopped looking into the sky and started looking at each other, no one would have guessed what would happen. They began to say things that sounded like Jesus, and to do the things that Jesus did. They became brave and capable and wise. Followers became leaders, listeners became preachers, the healed became healers, and disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing was ever the same again. Whenever two or three of them got together it was as if he was with them — the strong, abiding presence of the absent one — as available as bread and wine, as familiar as each other’s faces.

Still today, we come to worship, to acknowledge the Lord’s absence and to find the Lord’s presence, to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, to hold out the empty cups of our hands and be filled with bread and wine, to discover for ourselves the abiding presence of the absent Lord, not only in the bread and wine, but in each other.

That was not the way they (or we) would have planned it. If they (or we) had our way, we would have tied Jesus up so that he could never disappear from us, so that we would always know where to find him, like a rabbit’s foot in our pocket, or be our own plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of our car.

Only that is not how it happened. Christ did go away — was taken away — and they stopped looking toward heaven, looked at each other, and got on with their commission of being Christ’s witnesses, Christ’s body on earth. And yet to this day – many Christians still stand staring up to heaven, waiting for something to happen, when instead we are called to be the ones making things happen, in the name of Jesus Christ.

In illustration of this, almost every church with stained-glass windows has an ascension window somewhere, and our church is no exception. If we had reversible pews, we could flip them around now, and you could see it, as I do.

Christ hovers in the air, soaring over us, his hands upraised in blessing. Meanwhile we disciples below look up at him with awe and wonder. It’s a very beautiful window, of which our church should be proud.

However, I wonder if after 2,000 years we don’t need a different window to describe our situation: a window with just us in it — no angels, no Jesus, no heavenly light — just us, still waiting, still watching the sky, still looking for the One who left us behind.

Do we miss him sometimes? Do we long for an assurance that we have not been left alone, left behind? Then why stand looking toward heaven? Let us look around, at each other; because that is there we find him now.

Rubens -Teresa of Avila

Rubens -Teresa of Avila

The 16th century Spanish Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), put it this way:

“Christ has no body on earth but yours;

No hands but yours;

No feet but yours;

Yours are the eyes

Through which is to look out

Christ’s compassion to the world,

Yours are the feet

With which he is to go about

Doing good;

Yours are the hands

With which he is to bless now.”

Let us exalt him in our hearts and honor him with our lives, and continue his work on earth. Amen.

[*I am indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, in the May 18, 1998, issue of Christianity Today, (Vol. 42, No. 6, Page 46.]

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