Ascension of Our Lord
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
While I have worshiped God in mostly smaller church buildings, I have had the pleasure of visiting some pretty big church buildings. Some of them have been large buildings or even cathedrals right here in the United States. But the biggest churches I have ever been in were the many shrines, basilicas, and cathedrals in the Holy Land, in Israel and Palestine. These buildings are truly HUGE.
Standing in the back of the Church of the Nativity, I couldn’t make out any of the features of the priest leading the Mass way up in the front. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is so huge, I got lost in it trying to find the front door to get back out.
One of the architectural and artistic features of many of these buildings was the way in which they drew my eyes upward. I didn’t even have to lie on my back to get a good view. When I walked in, my head naturally turned back as the room opened up before me. The ceilings of these places are just as intricately carved, painted, and built as the rest of them. Sometimes, the ceilings are domed and painted with beautiful depictions of the shrine’s patron saint, or of Jesus, particularly at the Ascension, which makes sense.
I could sit in one of the pews or seats in those buildings and just tilt my head back, looking at this art, while everything else happened around me. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally.
But what happens when the church itself tilts back and is content to simply stare up? What happens when, like the disciples, the church gets stuck, eyes turned up, unable to see anything around them?
The day of the Ascension falls on the sixth Thursday after Easter. This also, uncoincidentally, is 40 days after Easter. According to one account of the Ascension, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples for 40 days, until he was taken up into heaven.
The Feast of the Ascension, then, is significant in many ways. In one way, it is the end of the Easter season, the end of the extended celebration of Immanuel, God With Us in the person of Jesus Christ. Imagine if you suddenly at a second chance to speak to, talk with, and eat with a loved one who has died, and you’ll understand why the 40 days after Easter were so special to the disciples. I wouldn’t want to let go, either.
When a person like that leaves again, for the last time, it is hard to let go. Like the disciples, I would want to keep my eyes on Jesus as long as possible. They lost him once. Would they be able to handle losing him again? It wouldn’t seem real—I mean, they just got him back, and he’s leaving? Maybe if they just stand there a little longer, he’ll come back…
But Jesus doesn’t come back. And while he promises his continued presence by way of the Holy Spirit and promises to return, there is no denying that this chapter of history has come to a close. The Gospel According to Luke ends with this story, the story we heard read this morning, with Jesus leaving. The party is over, so to speak.
However, while the Ascension marks the end of one chapter in the story God continues to write, it also marks the beginning of a new one. The author of Luke’s Gospel is the same person who then followed it up with the Acts of the Apostles. And what is the first story told in this, the sequel to Jesus’s life? The Ascension.
During the 40 days in between the resurrection and the Ascension, the author reports, Jesus urged the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. And when it comes, on Pentecost, it comes with a bang.
The Spirit comes like fire, much different than when it comes like a gentle dove at Jesus’s baptism. The disciples go from clueless, incompetent followers to bold, charismatic leaders who inspire thousands to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It is a dramatic, earth-changing event, perhaps the most important event in the history of the church.
There is a reason that the author begins the story of the church with the story of the Ascension. In it is the promise for things yet to come: the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return.
But—and there’s always a but, isn’t there?–what about today? Today, we move out of Easter, but we haven’t moved into Pentecost. We are in one of those rare in between times. More so than Advent and Lent, seasons of preparation, the short time in our liturgical calendar between Easter and Pentecost marked by the day of the Ascension is a time of waiting. How are we to spend the time?
If we were to follow the lead of the disciples, our eyes would be continually turned upward, waiting for God, waiting for Jesus to come back and tell us what to do. It would like laying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. And as the kids this morning explained, the problem with looking at the ceiling is that you can’t see anyone else around you.
This is exactly what many churches do. They keep their heads tilted back, always looking for Jesus, focusing on their relationship with God. Like the disciples, they spend all of their time in their temple, offering praise to God. They stay in the same place, sometimes literally and physically.
Worse, there are churches that do the exact opposite—that look down, or ‘navel-gaze’, so to speak, who look neither around them nor to God, but are too concerned with themselves to take notice of anything else. They focus on what they want, their stuff, their building, their traditions, as if those are the most important gifts God has ever given to the world.
That’s not the point of the Ascension. There’s a reason that, when the disciples are caught standing around doing nothing but looking for Jesus, two messengers from God show up and, in different words, tell them to get moving.
Ascension time may be a time of waiting, but it is by no means a time of waiting passively. This is a time of active waiting, of actively preparing for Christ’s return, of creating space for the Holy Spirit to continue the work that God started and that Jesus made intimate.
In this way, Ascension is a blueprint for how the church should live in the time in between now and Jesus’s return. The church cannot look up so often that it neglects the people around it, both inside and outside of it. We as the people of God are called to work in the in between time, to be the presence of God for those who need it.
It is appropriate to turn our eyes to God. It is necessary to do so, in fact, if we ever hope to keep our eyes on what’s important. But it is also necessary to turn our eyes to the image of God in our neighbors, to recognize the Spirit moving through them, and to engage with that Spirit.
This summer, there will be new faces, new neighbors, new people in our community. Will we be too busy looking up to notice them?