Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 28, 2017

2017.5.28 “The Torch is Passed” Luke 24: 44-53; Acts 1:1-11

Central United Methodist Church
The Torch is Passed
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 24: 44-53; Acts 1: 1 – 11
Ascension Sunday
May 28, 2017

Christ_RioJaniero

“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: 9 – 11, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Here we are at Memorial Day. Perhaps it is only in my head, but Memorial Day weekend has a special feel to it, unique to holiday weekends throughout the year. It is hard for me to begin the Memorial Day weekend without hearing the trumpets from Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, as though calling us to attention to remember the sacrifice American heroes have made.

Most often, through the years, I have participated in Memorial Day services, in one way or another. In my former congregation, only a fence separated the parsonage from Oakwood Cemetery, where the town Memorial Day celebration was held, so my commute was about as short as here. A crowd of townspeople would gather, and the gray-bearded members of the VFW and American Legion would lead the ceremony, with all the young children startled and crying at their 21-gun salute. I remember with great fondness a former town mayor, Gene Rennels, a Korean War veteran, and the fine Memorial Day speeches Gene delivered. The Community High School band would play, and one year my son, Chris, who plays the trumpet, played Taps. On a lighter note, it was often a warm day, and – dressed in their wool tunics – inevitably a few members of the band would pass out. We would drag them under a tree, take off their coats, and cool them down. It was a slice of Americana if there ever was one.

Last year I marked an item off my bucket list by attending the Memorial Day service in Arlington National Cemetery, led by President Obama. It was impressive to hear the 21-gun salute by Army howitzers to signal the Commander-in-Chief’s arrival. Even more, how all former members of the military – in uniform or not – snapped to salute as the Army Band stuck up the National Anthem.  It was a Memorial Day I’ll never forget.

What makes such experiences not just memorable but sacred, whether in small town cemeteries or Arlington National Cemetery, is not what happens above the ground but the presence of the honored dead buried there, those who gave their lives in service to our country.Even though they are gone from this mortal life, it is their presence that makes it a sacred place.

This was never better described than in the poem Flanders Field by John McCrae, the brigade doctor, who spoke for those who died in the Second Battle of Ypresin World War I (1914 – 1918):

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

While all this is true and stands by itself, here’s the point I want to make: in what sense are the honored dead present in those cemeteries? The remains of their mortal bodies are interred there, some from as far back as the Civil War, some in freshly dug graves. Some have no living family or surviving relatives who remember them, some have family who visit their graves weekly and even daily. We would like to think there is a place where their spirits are with God, though we cannot comprehend where or how that would be. Yet even though we cannot comprehend it, their presence is real to us, commanding our respect and even affecting the way we live in the world; as McCrae put it in his poem; we take up the torch they carried.

On this Memorial weekend, but also on Ascension Sunday, I believe this also stands as an example of how we might think of the Ascension of Jesus, and how that also is a reality in our lives. Just as with these honored dead, we may struggle to understand exactly how and where Jesus lives, but because we believe he lives, it changes the way we live.Now it falls to us to take up the message and ministry Jesus began in his mortal life.

The Gospels describe Jesus’ Ascension in different ways. Today, for example, we have two accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, one from the end of Luke and the other from the beginning of Acts – two different accounts, though written by the same author. In both, Jesus floats upward, toward heaven, which was the way those who wrote the Gospels understood “returning to God,” whom they thought of as resident in the heavens.

Du Greco à Dali

The Ascension of Christ – Salvador Dali

The late Biblical scholar William Barclay, speaking of 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.” Isn’t that the truth? If you google “Ascension” you will see all those paintings and pictures of Jesus looking like Mary Poppins, or as if gravity has just been suspended. Perhaps none is more jaw-dropping than a relatively contemporary one, that of Salvador Dali, in which we look up to see Jesus from below I should add, if the ascension is difficult to depict in art, it is even harder to explain in a sermon. And yet – because it is an important part of the Jesus story –we try to understand.

 

Practically, Jesus’ Ascension explains the answer to the question, “If Jesus rose from the dead and is alive forevermore, “Where is he?” “Can I go see him?” The answer is no, because the Risen Jesus is now longer physically on earth, confined to one time and place, but now he is with God, accessible in every time and place.

Theologically, Jesus’ resurrection would have no meaning without his Ascension;essentially they are two different ways of describing to the same thing. Because the point of Jesus’ resurrection was not that he experienced a resuscitation, he is not a zombie come back to life wandering around out there somewhere; it is that because of who he was and the message he preached and practiced, the message of love – even in the face of sin, evil, and death –God raised him up from lowest place in death to the highest place in the universe, to the right hand of God. From there, with scars in his hands and side he reigns in love, and even though we cannot see him or even imagine where that place might be and what it looks like, even though there is no argument or instrument on earth with which we can “prove it,” we believe from there Jesus reigns, that he is Lord of Heaven and Earth. And we pray that someday God will receive our spirits, that we might be where he is.

Meanwhile, now – as long as we live – just as our perception of the sacred dead affects our lives, so does the Reign of the Exalted Christ. If the sacred dead invite us to take up and hold high the torch for which they lived and died, so the Exalted Christ invites us to take up his message and ministry in the world. This is what we promise in our baptismal vows: we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, promising to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

If tomorrow we find ourselves in a cemetery or ceremony, remembering the honored dead, today we find ourselves in Church, remembering and worshiping the Exalted Christ. We honor him in our hearts and exalt him in our lives, through what we say, what we do, how we live, and how we treat others in the world.

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

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila

“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.”

As tomorrow on Memorial Day, today on Ascension Day the torch is passed, let us hold it high, exalting Christ in our hearts and honoring him with our lives, as we continue Jesus’ work on earth, his hands and feet in the world. Amen.

 

 

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