Ascension Day, 2019
Once, when I was 8 or 9 years old, my parents left me at church. They didn’t mean to. They thought I’d ridden home with our next-door neighbors, the Johnsons. But I sat on a bench in front of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, angry and scared and sad until they realized their mistake and came back to get me.
I’m guessing that some of the disciples might have experienced a similar sense of abandonment when Jesus ascended into heaven. Maybe, like a kid on the church steps, they were angry and scared and sad. Even though Jesus leaves them with the promise that the Holy Spirit is coming, they weren’t comforted. They had had no experience of the Holy Spirit; they knew Jesus. They knew that when they spent time with Jesus, they were better people. From him they learned about justice and mercy and compassion and generosity and forgiveness. They didn’t know who would show them what to do or how to be now. They were grief-stricken.
So it is in the company of saints who have felt the same longings, confusion and discouragement we know, that we gather here today in a place of grace and forgiveness and mercy. It’s good that the Bible reminds us that no matter how forsaken we feel, or how messed up our relationships are, we have a God who will never betray or abandon us. Jesus knew that in order for the disciples to be who they were called to be when he left, they’d need some help. So Jesus promised, “I am not leaving you alone. I am sending the Holy Spirit to be with you. You will receive power from on high. You will be able to be my witnesses to the whole world; I will help you.”
And then, “While they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'” Why are you looking up at where God used to be, when it’s clear God is not there anymore? This question echoes one that two strangers in white asked the women at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Then, as now, the disciples must have wanted to strangle them: “We aren’t looking for the living—we’re looking in this GRAVE for the one we loved who died. Now we are looking up because that is where we just lost all we know of God.”
Eventually the disciples stopped looking up, which forced them to look around. Jesus said they would announce to the whole world what he’d said and done. But my guess is that they are dubious about the possibility that the motley crew surrounding them could do anything so bold or important. We are fishermen and tax collectors! We are selfish and misguided on our best of days! We are not very bright or very faithful or even very clean. You think this group of sinners is going to bear God’s voice in the world? Really?
Why do they stand looking up into heaven? Maybe because for them—and for many—it’s easier to look for a pure world “up there” than it is to embrace the possibility that the church around us is the Body of Christ. We cringe at many of voices that claim to be Christian, professing to be witnesses to the truth of God. They are the ones that sometimes cause me—when I say I am a follower of Jesus—to feel like I have to add, “But not THAT KIND of Christian.” It’s crazy to have to explain that loving Jesus doesn’t mean hating certain types of people. Some days it feels crazy that Christianity perseveres despite such heretics. Other days what feels crazy is believing that God could embrace even me, even us, whose lives do not always preach the faith we profess.
Whether the accusing voices are outside us or in our own hearts, it can be hard to look around at the church without focusing on its many blemishes.
Yet, no matter how mixed up and messy it is, God has chosen to fulfill God’s mission on earth through the church. As St. Teresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
So are we going to stand around looking up into heaven, mere spectators, or is it time to trust Jesus’ promise that we, the complicated, imperfect, flawed church, are to be his witnesses? We aren’t ideal choices. We may abandon or be abandoned by those closest to us. But in baptism we have become God’s people, and those family ties impact everything we do and everything we are. For better or for worse, we are connected to God and to each other by water and the Holy Spirit, empowered to love not only the people we like or are related to, but the whole world that God so loves. In all the ways that count, water is thicker than blood.
So we can stop looking up, stop waiting for the perfect relationships and the perfect church. We can do what we are called to do and be who we are called to be. Following the footsteps Jesus made in the mud of this earth, we can bring hope to the hopeless, food to the hungry, comfort to the sick and sad, forgiveness to the guilty, belonging to the lonely, and a voice to the voiceless. We won’t always have pure motives or good follow-through, but God can work through anything and anyone, no matter how flawed. We are part of God’s forever family, and we have both the freedom and the responsibility to behave accordingly.
Let us strive to be Church in the way the Ephesian Christians seemed to be, so that people will perceive us in the way Paul describes them: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” To that end, let us pray for each other along these lines: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
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