Which Way is Up?
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, May 16th, 2021
Happy Ascension Sunday!
I know, it has something of a hollow ring to it. At best, this is an odd Sunday in the church year. It has none of the unfettered anticipation of Christmas Eve, none of the festive air of Easter, none of the wild pageantry of Pentecost. To make matters more bizarre, it is a holiday that actually takes place on Thursday, exactly forty days after Easter. This church holiday is not found on most calendars and many Christians have little to no familiarity with this special day, especially Protestants.
So why not skip Ascension Sunday? Most do. Why not move on to Pentecost, the feast of the Spirit when we celebrate the birth of the church? Why spend time with disciples who are confused and get a lecture for gazing up into the sky? There is a good reason why this is the most inconspicuous and neglected of church holidays. For on face value, the story of Jesus ascending into the heavens is just a little embarrassing.
Barbara Brown Taylor adds her own hesitancy about celebrating this day when she writes: “Almost everything else that happened to Jesus makes sense in terms of my own life. He was born to a human mother; so was I. He ate and drank and slept at night; so do I. He loved people and got angry with people and forgave people; so have I. He wept; me, too. He died; I will die, too. He rose from the dead; I even know something about that. I have had some Easter mornings of my own – joy found in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death.
“But ascending into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God? That is where Jesus and I part company. That is where he leaves me in the dust. My only experience of the ascension is from the ground, my neck cranked back as far as it will go, my mouth wide open, my face shielded from the sun by the cloud that is bearing my Lord away” (“Looking Up Toward Heaven,” Bread of Angels, Boston, Cowley Publications, 1995, 74).
Luke wrote the second part of his Gospel, known as The Acts of the Apostles, when people believed the world to be flat. God was thought to be on the other side of the clouds and heaven somewhere “up there.” It is hard enough convincing others that the Lord of all and the author of all hope was born in a borrowed barn or was later crucified by Rome as a common criminal. It is beyond belief for most to hear that God raised the dead body of Jesus to new life. Somewhere, rational, reasonable people have to draw the line. Jesus going up, up, and away is that “somewhere” for many, including many of us.
Maybe you and I have gotten so caught up in this ancient imagery that we have lost sight that “up’ in the biblical sense has little to do with geography. The story of the ascension in ACTS has little interest in how Jesus ascended and the exact location of his ascension. “Up” in the biblical sense is the direction where we find God, “up” is the way that points us toward the holy will and the holy presence of God in human affairs.
The angels knew more about ascension than we do. They ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up into the sky?” The angels knew that disciples would not see God by looking into the heavens, but by looking ahead. The problem in Scripture is not so much where to locate God and the risen Jesus; the problem is how to move boldly and faithfully in their direction.
Ascension Sunday is and will continue be a forgettable church occasion if it leaves us standing with the disciples gazing into the heavens. A real Ascension Sunday worth celebrating would be to live an Ascension life that sets our gaze toward the women, men, and children with whom and for whom Jesus lived and died.
Andrew Foster Connor invites us to pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses with his confused disciples in the Ascension story from ACTS: “do not leave” and “wait.” While these verbs sound passive, Connors wisely says, “Every pastor has marveled at the faith of the attentive spouse at the deathbed of her beloved, steeled to stay until the shadows finally lengthen and God relieves her of her post. Still others have testified to congregations that stayed to minister to forgotten people in their decaying neighborhood, knowing it would most likely lead to the death of the congregation. More prophetically, history is replete with people like Rosa Parks, who refused to be moved, trusting that a divine promise is stronger than any human threat” (Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 289).
The message of Ascension Sunday is that because God cares for us, we are to care for others, Israelis AND Palestinians, people with whom we agree and those with whom we could not disagree more. Why? Because each person is a child of God. We locate God not by gazing at the stars, but by reaching out to where and to whom God alone knows.
In this story, the disciples of Jesus are tempted to gaze into the heavens upon his ascension rather into the world that God so loves. Eric Barreto writes, “So intent is their gaze that they do not notice the appearance of ‘two men in white robes’ until they speak to remind the disciples what Jesus commanded. ‘Go,’ they say. The road is before you. The way has been laid out. ‘Go,’ because he has ascended, he is not gone. He is with you, and he will come back” (Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 288).
Frederick Buechner says it another way, “As surely as a sailing ship is made to sail with the wind, so are you and I and everybody else in this wide world over are made to live bound to each other as a brother is bound to a brother, [a sister is bound to a sister], giving and receiving mercy, binding up each other’s wounds, taking care of each other. If we really look at our own lives, seeing not what we expect them to be, but what they are, we cannot help seeing that.”
Whenever we close ourselves off from those who disagree with us, whenever we decide that we have no time for anything else than what is packed into our tightly scheduled lives, whenever we decide it is someone else’s job to witness to the faith, it would serve us well to remember this Ascension story. The disciples are cautioned not to “look up,” but to look ahead. Andrew notes, “They have work to do. The ascension, then is not so much an account of Jesus’ departure as it is a confirmation of his power, power that now accompanies the church that witnesses to his name” (ibid., p. 29).
So, the Ascension Sunday message is not finally “which way is up” but where is the risen Jesus waiting for us to catch up and what is the way in which God is guiding our feet, and will we trust in the power of the Spirit that gives us courage to live in that faith, even when the future is hardly clear.
I wish I could stand here and, in all honesty say, “follow me and I’ll show you the way. I’ll lead you in the way of the risen Jesus, in the footsteps God would have us walk.” I have stumbled far too often to promise you that and my sense of direction, especially divine direction, is not always so keen.
I can stand here, though, and say this: “Walk with me. Let us listen together to that voice telling us ‘which way is up’. When the pace gets too fast, we can help each other to slow our steps not to miss the work that God is doing or would have us do right in front of us. When the pace gets too slow, we can prod each other along, setting our sights on what God is calling us yet to do. When we get lost in taking care of only our own needs and losing sight of the needs of others, we can guide each other back to the risen Jesus who has no patience for such a parochial vision. When our hearts dry up from all the ugliness and bitterness around us, we can drink together from well of living water that our risen Lord promises will never dry up.
Yes, Barbara is right, the story of the ascension of Jesus is not about our life experience. It is odd and confusing and troubling. But, I would add: it is essential. You and I, and the world God so loves, are the losers whenever Ascension Sunday is forgotten and even omitted from our calendars. So, may we reclaim this holiday, a day not to look up, but to look ahead to see where the risen Jesus is leading, waiting to guide our steps out onto holy ground.
Happy Ascension Sunday, my friends! Celebrate it by giving a long, hard look ahead.