Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ascension Sunday sermon--Jesus Walks

Acts 1: 1-11
Ephesians 1: 11-23

What do we make of this strange testimony? In our day and age, the idea of our savior flying away in the sky strikes us as somewhat fanciful. How do we envision the scene—does Jesus peek over the edge of the cloud as he is wisked away like Alladin on a magic carpet? Does he raise up one fist and take off like Superman? The ascension is part of the creeds of the early church. What is important about this anyway?
A closer look at our scriptural tradition shows us that it is customary for God’s most important prophets to be lifted up from the Earth rather than perish and placed in the ground. Elijah and Enoch are said to have ascended into heaven. Elijah was wisked away on a fiery chariot. The famous Rabbi of Alexandria, Philo, who was a contemporary of the Gospel writers and a favorite theologian among early Christians, wrote that Moses also ascended. John’s gospel speaks of Jesus being “lifted up,” as an implication of Christ’s death on the cross, lifted up in agony, an implication of Christ’s resurrection, lifted up in mystery, and Christ’s ascension—lifted up in glory. There is clearly more to this story than what is literally written.
The cloud that takes Jesus away is an allusion to the Shekinah—the presence of God formed in a cloud that can be found in the story of Moses receiving the law, and the presence of God in the tabernacle on route to the promised land, among others. In fact, Luke’s own gospel reports the descent of a cloud that covered the mountain at the Transfiguration of Jesus. And at this event, Moses and Elijah—both of whom ascended according to Jewish legend, are speaking with Jesus at that moment about what? Luke 9:30 tells us that they were speaking of “his departure, that would soon occur in Jerusalem.” All of these elements are linked together by the symbols chosen by Luke to report this story.
Ascension of Jesus/ Neo at the end of the Matrix. The Matrix is about Neo’s Mastery of the world that he used to know as reality. Through the help of others, Neo sees the world for what it is—the a complex computer program that occupies the minds of every human on earth while machines use the energy from their body to power their society. Over the course of the movie, Neo voluntarily enters the Matrix and learns to manipulate it. At the end of the film, there is nothing—not even death in the Matrix, which confines Neo to the laws of the world. The last scene of the film shows Neo taunting the rulers of the Matrix and then flying off—an illustration of his newly found power.
Ephesians tells us that our Christ was able to achieve a similar mastery of the world. “The world is under his feet, and he is above all power of the world.”
Are we to gaze up at the sky and imagine similar glory for ourselves? The two men in the sky tell us no—we are to wait for the power to come from on high down to us. How did Jesus master the world? The Holy Spirit came on him in the form of a dove at his baptism—he expressed this mastery in a no-holds barred Love for the entire Creation. He then said that he had come to baptize the world by fire. Next week at Pentecost we will talk more about this fire. It is a fire of Love. He Mastered the World by loving it. He conquered his enemies by loving them. This is not mere “fluffy teddy bear love” this love is called dynamis. Greek for tangible, visible power. Fire in souls. Fire of love so tangible and real it can be seen and heard by witnesses.

And so—instead of standing there gaping at the sky—the utter mysteriousness of our Lord should not inspire us to be navel-gazers on an individual hunt for enlightenment—We are to manifest this power in community. Paul commends his followers in Ephesus for their enlightened hearts—that they have seen Christ in his glory. And what is the most glorious aspect of Christ? Look on the front of your bulletin at the painting of the Ascension by Salvador Dali. What is it you see? His feet! Isaiah 52: 7 says, How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Feet are important to God. There are many references to feet in the Bible. In fact, a search of the word feet in the Bible turns up 229 results. Foot turns up 100 more results. When Moses met God at the burning bush—God instructed Moses to take off his shoes—that he was standing on Holy Ground—God wanted God’s creation touching God’s creation. His bare feet and the solid ground. There’s the story of the priests crossing the Jordan on the way to the promised lands. The text says that everywhere the priests lay their feet, the water dried up and the people crossed on dry land. God told the people to take 12 stones that the priests feet had touched and make them into altars. One for each tribe. The gospels tell us that on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. The last and most important thing he did for his disciples was to wash their feet. A woman anointed Jesus’ feet and then washed them with her hair—when the disciples objected, Jesus praised her.
Yes, feet are most important in the Bible—the spot where the ascension is said to have taken place is marked by a rock with what is reputed to be Jesus’ footprint in a rock. I bet almost every person has the anonymous poem “Footprints in the Sand” committed to heart. We long for a footprint of Jesus—one to show us where he’s been. One to show us where we’re going. The disciples ask for an answer—is it time for the Kingdom to Come—are we going to be raised up as well? Jesus doesn’t give them that information—and he forbids speculation by saying It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
It seems that Jesus wants us to pay more attention to the footprints he left all over the Gospels. Yes, Christ’s feet take him to some surprising places—and he asks us to follow.
* Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness? Each time he was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of Torah. One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God. * Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people? * Can you see Jesus walking up to a sycamore tree, then looking up at Zachaeus, the tax collector, perched in the branches? "Come down, Zachaeus," Jesus said, "let's walk over to your house for dinner." * Can you see Jesus walking, then riding, into Jerusalem? * Can you see him stumbling toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end?
We have not yet referred to what is perhaps the most striking single phrase in the lessons for today, however. We read it in the very first verse of the book of Acts! That opening verse is startling. It must be read with the “enlightened eyes” to which Paul refers in the Second Lesson. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . .” Now there is a verse to bring a discerning reader up short!
Did Jesus not complete everything he was sent to do? Is this not the very meaning we have just suggested that is contained in his ascension? He has finished his work! He, himself, cried out, “It is finished” when he died on the cross. What more is there to do?
Yet Luke speaks of that which “Jesus began to do and teach . . . “ Has he made a mistake in his reporting . . . or has he seen more deeply into that of which he is writing than we are prone to see at first reading? Is he not speaking of that which Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “[He is] head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”? There is every indication that Luke, beginning his account of the “Acts of the Apostles” (also properly called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”) is telling his readers from the start of this second volume that “the body of Christ” is now hidden within and among and through those who will go forth in his name, bearing that Good News of Salvation as his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Meanwhile, we are reminded by the two men in white that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Between now and then we are to keep in mind that which Jesus, himself, had emphasized in his last words recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20b) In short, although he is gone from any one place in this world he now becomes available to his people everywhere and anywhere. His presence is not to be sought here or there, in the sacred places or in the secular places, in the expected places or the unexpected places. He is not to be identified by location any more, but he is present everywhere at once, to every person as though he / she were the only person in all of creation and yet to all of creation as though no place were without him.
Where can we look to guide us? Sometimes the footprints of a ubiquitous Spirit are hard to determine. It is easy to hear about and read about the doings of Jesus, but not as easy to apply in our own lives. Perhaps one place to look is at more recent footprints. At those of our loved ones who have passed beyond the veil of death. It is a fitting weekend to do so—We might remember the saints of our faith family who clearly followed the footsteps of our Master. We all remember Joe Huie—who used to stand in the back of the congregation and welcome anyone and everyone who came through the doors—yes his footsteps are there! They are following the Master’s we can all tell! We could look at the footprints of Dale Miller—footprints that from what I understand were made without shoes as he faithfully attended church even when the radiation therapy burned him so bad that he could not wear shoes—but he still managed to come to worship—without shoes! How fitting it is that I memorialize him today as I stand here and preach without shoes on. I actually found out that tidbit of information after I had planned to take off my shoes for the children’s sermon. How beautiful were his feet, indeed—and his footprints follow the Master, who exalted God in the midst of execution!
And in fact—it is not only from those whom we memorialize that we should look for footprints. We should watch the feet of those in this congregation now as well. We can see the footsteps of Christ guiding them as well. We don’t just come to worship to gaze up at the sky—we come to applaud each other’s efforts to follow the footsteps of Jesus. This is much more efficiently done if we use our mouth to actually reach out and encourage one another when we see our brothers and sisters following Christ. You might have to get out of your comfort zone to make a sincere statement to someone you don’t really feel like you know that well—but our “comfort zone” might actually be another term for “barrier” if you ask me.

So bring the Good News—bring it with the enthusiasm and the passion of our Captain! That is what Christ proclaims right before he ascends to heaven. It is in this moment that his disciples become apostles. Disciples are those who follow Jesus—apostle means “sent.” Those who are sent to spread the good news throughout the land. Paul echoes Isaiah in Romans 10:15—How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good news!” In short—our feet can look like Jesus’ feet. Our feet can become his feet. We need to keep the tracks fresh so that others may follow! Jesus’ footprints lead us toward Pentecost—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—and we must set our faces toward that destination!


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