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Following the Instructions, Following Jesus: Sermon for Ascension Sunday B May 12, 2024



 

--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire


Readings:


We are in the midst of a season of transitions. We've had some several changes in our own parish in the last few months: beloved parishioners whose health required them to move closer to relatives; others who have had hospital or rehabilitation stays; parishioners who have passed away. I will preside over my uncle’s burial tomorrow, and this summer we will lay my brother to rest. Yet there are also wonderful transitions happening all around us. We have new members who have come to join us, as well, or who are seeking baptism, and we are blessed by their presence and their commitment to walking the path of faith alongside us.

 

For those of you who are students, or who have children or grandchildren who are students, there's prom, which my sister helped supervise at her school district last night, and I hope she is soundly asleep right now. And after prom, of course there are graduations. My dear friend Pamela's daughter Annabel graduated last week with her juris doctor degree from the University of California at Davis, and I look forward to seeing how she will use her knowledge of the law to make the world a better place, for I am certain that that is her intention. There are high school students preparing in a few short weeks to head off to college, and college students who are preparing to come home for the summer.

 

And thus, we also face some practicalities: the taking apart and putting together of dorm rooms and apartments and living spaces. So I have a question: Who here among us has ever attempted to put together a piece of furniture from IKEA, or from any foreign country in which the instruction manual, if you have one at all, reads as if it was written by a Martian?

 

I asked this because our daughter Lauren recently regifted us with an IKEA bed that we had originally bought for her when she was living in Chicago. She gave us this bed about a month ago. It may surprise none of you to know that this bed is still sitting in pieces in one of our spare bedrooms. Why is it in pieces, you might ask? Because even though we made sure that we had every doodad and doohicky, peg and washer that we needed for the bed’s structural integrity, we forgot about the special tools, and we forgot about the instructions. And since it has been years since we last put that bed together, we no longer have the memory of how we did it the first, second and third times we assembled it.

 

We've got all the pieces we need, but it is possible we may spend the rest of our lives trying to put this bed together. And every time I walk past the open door of that bedroom and see that bed in pieces, it occurs to me that it is the perfect metaphor for our lives as disciples, made especially more poignant on this Ascension Sunday.

 

In our readings today we hear Luke's two accounts of Jesus bodily ascension into heaven. Now, unfortunately, we get them in reverse chronological order. As you may know, the author of Luke wrote both a gospel, and then a sequel: the Acts of the Apostles. Both of these documents were addressed to a person Luke called “Theophilus,”-- which is a symbolic name that literally means “Lover of God.” So, these two works are addressed to all of us.

 

With a strict economy of words, Luke's gospel account ends with reminding us that Jesus, one last time, explained all the scriptures to his followers, and then took his disciples to Bethany, a town two miles outside of the gates of Jerusalem, said farewell, and ascended into heaven. In the gospel account, they respond to this shocking event with great joy, worship, and witness in the Temple.

 

Apparently, Luke was dissatisfied with this terse description, for he begins his sequel with that same event, but in more detail. The account in Acts specifies that Jesus’ post-Resurrection sojourn among his friends lasted 40 days, 40 always being a significant number of periods of learning and transition in scripture. We also hear Jesus’s instructions not to leave Jerusalem just yet, and actually informing us, his readers, about political questions the disciples had for Jesus. Then Jesus ascends on a cloud, while his friends and followers  stood there gaping and staring up at the sky for so long that God finally had to send two angels to nudge them out of their shock. Our reading closes with the implication that the angels are telling them to get to work.

 

With that, the incarnation of Jesus in human flesh is complete here on Earth. Yet Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven is a pivotal point, because he continues as both human and divine, seated at the right hand of God. In ascending, Jesus brings his embodiment into the community of the Trinity. Human experience, human joy, human suffering, now enter into the very existence of God. When Jesus intercedes with us when we pray, for instance, he does so as the Son of God and the Son of Man.

 

But Jesus’s ascension is also a huge turning point in the lives of those who are disciples of Jesus, who call themselves followers of Jesus, for those who were yet living to witness it and those of us in the centuries since who have only second-hand accounts like the reading from the Book of Acts to go by. What does the Ascension mean for us today, symbolically and practically? And that leads us to the heart of the matter for us to consider yet again: why was it necessary for the Son of God to become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth in the first place?

 

Over the first few years after the recounted events, when people expected Jesus back at any moment, the answer was very particular and specific. Jesus came to take our sinful nature upon himself in a transaction: Jesus took on our sins supposedly so that we could go to heaven when we die—heaven, where, Jesus reminds us in a gospel passage commonly read at funerals, God’s mansion has many dwelling places and Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. And that was fine—when, like children, Jesus’s followers depended upon Jesus as their teacher and their savior to do everything for them.

 

Yet even during Jesus’s earthly ministry, he repeatedly insisted that his presence among us was NOT merely transactional. In fact he came to demonstrate to his followers that God’s love for us and for creation is NOT a transaction, that God was NOT keeping a great big ledger book ticking off every unkind thought that entered our heads. One of the greatest concepts Jesus emphasized was that we can’t earn our way into salvation. The insistence that grace, not merit, brings us within the embrace of God was a core teaching of Jesus—one that unfortunately gets drowned out too much in the loudest parts of Christendom, where depictions of hellfire and brimstone are excellent ways to distract us from the WORK we as disciples are called to do right here on Earth.

 

Jesus ascends bodily into heaven because HIS specific work here was finished. That may shock us—how can it be, with all the wars, and disease, and suffering, and genocides, that Jesus’s work on Earth is done?

 

The answer is simple: because Jesus’s work was NEVER just transactional. Jesus’s work was transformative, and relational. ALWAYS. And the transformation he most centered on was with US. To teach us how to LIVE, and live with each other. Not how to continue on in the ways of the world turning a blind eye to the need around us. The transformation Jesus calls us to continue as his followers is now, because eternal life is NOW.

 

The heart of Jesus’s ministry on earth was not to teach us how to die, but how to live. Specifically, Jesus’s own life among us was meant to show us how to live a God-centered life—and most of the time, that didn’t simply mean spending time in worship—in fact, during his life Jesus dissuaded his followers from worshiping him. Instead, he called his disciples to FOLLOW him—to emulate him as they could. Jesus insisted that a faithful life was not about separating people into camps of the worthy and the unworthy, sinners, and saints, but to go out and DO as Jesus did in the world to the best of our ability. To both embody Christ’s love and compassion in ourselves, and to see Christ’s face in others. Jesus gives us both the proper tools, and the complete instructions.

 

The fact that much of the world claims not to see that same love and presence is an indication that we, as Jesus’s followers and witnesses, need to take Jesus’s instructions to us more seriously. The instruction manual has been right there all along. It’s up to us now. But luckily Jesus is still with us, for he is still a Risen, living Savior, calling us to keep learning, to keep growing, to keep being symbols of hope and reconciliation contrary to the tug and pull of human systems based on oppression, exploitation, and callousness that washes over our modern societies in all their structures. The instructions are simple: to oppose systems and leaders who build their power and influence on oppression, dishonesty and contempt, and instead embody God’s love for the life and hope of a better world.

 

The Ascension reminds us that Jesus’s instructions were quite clear, and that Jesus’s Ascension has real significance for us as disciples. Those instructions, as we were reminded last week, were, are, and aways shall be based on one commandment: LOVE. Not as an emotion, but as an action and a way of life, not just for those we know but for those we don’t know, not just for those WE decide are worthy but for everyone, especially those we would like to turn our backs upon. Turning our backs on people  or on the care of the world is NOT God’s way—it is exactly the kind of thing Jesus repeatedly told us to STOP doing.

 

The Ascension removes our training wheels and anoints us to continue Jesus’s work of reconciliation and healing in the world, of witnessing physically in all we do to the goodness and love of God. Jesus has given us all the knowledge we need, and modelled for us a concrete example of what a God-centered life, a fully human life, entails. That life is 99% witness and living and loving as Jesus did, which is the hard but oh so rewarding and transformative part of a Christian life. Worship, as important as it is, means nothing if it does not energize and empower us to build our lives around Jesus’s instructions.

 

Christ has risen, and has ascended! Alleluia! Now we get to follow the instructions and BE Christ for the sake of the world and for the sake of living lives of wonder, purpose, and transformation. Thanks be to God!


Image: Early Medieval depiction of the Ascension of Christ, ivory plate known as the Reidersche Tafel, c 400 AD, Munich.

 

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