Last week as I was mucking about online, this statement caught my eye when I saw it posted somewhere: “We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by BEING the Church.”
In response to this statement, a friend of mine asked me about a claim she had heard from one of her friends, who is an evangelical pastor, saying that the Church needs to be more wide awake than ever so that it can continue to “run things” as it has supposedly done for the last 2000 years, to make America great again.
That pastor’s claim to a very specific wedding of national political power to the message of Christ is particularly interesting as we celebrate Ascension Day—the day when Jesus launched the Church out onto the vast sea of mission. And it was a question that was on the minds of the apostles too, especially after Jesus’s resurrection.
It’s right there in our reading from Acts. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples several times, urging them to stick close to Jerusalem and wait. The disciples, with their heads still spinning from the events they have been through since Jesus’s arrest, once again show that their heads are still in the same place as my friend’s friend: they ask when Jesus is going to assume political power and make himself an actual king, restoring the fortunes of Israel to become the pre-eminent power in the world. They want to know when Jesus is going to make Jerusalem great again.
And Jesus shuts that down, and once again reminds them what he’s been about all the time they’ve known him: he has been about making disciples for the life of the world, about awakening us to our potential to act as God’s beloved friends in the ongoing establishment of the shalom—the peace, justice, and integrity of all things living in relationship and mutuality-- that God wove into the universe at its beginning. And now he entrusts that mission to us. Especially today.
As disciples of Jesus in the year of 2018, our situation is this: after Jesus’s bodily ascension, until Jesus’s coming again, we ARE the Body of Christ in the world. As Christ's Body in the world, we are not meant to "be in control" in an imperious, political sense any more than Jesus was "in control" in an imperious political sense. (Hint: that means "not at all.") Indeed, Jesus's refusal to be a political or military leader may have been the reason why some of his followers, including, famously, Judas, became disenchanted with him. We are meant to love, not compel. we are meant to be the Beloved Community-- a community that transcends national borders.
No, as Christ's Body in the world, we are called to literally embody his greatest commandment, which is repeatedly made very clear to us: to love all persons, and to love God, who dwells in all things. And loving one another is not about "lording it over one another," as Jesus reminded his disciples in Matthew 20:26.
Jesus promises the apostles the power of the Holy Spirit, and then he ascends into heaven, and that’s often where we get distracted. Right there with the apostles, we tend to focus on the image of Jesus flying up into heaven rather than think about what that leave-taking means. It’s a scene that has been depicted in art thousands of times over the centuries, by everyone from Donatello (the sculptor, not the teenage mutant ninja turtle) to Salvador Dali, in icons, and paintings, and reliefs and stained-glass windows. One of the weirdest ways to depict the scene shows only Christ’s feet dangling at the top edge of the scene, as if he were doing an Olympic high dive in the wrong direction.
But even the angels who suddenly appear at that moment remind us that focusing on looking upward is pointless, a hindrance to getting about the holy charge that Christ has placed upon us of witnessing to his truth in the world. It’s an awesome responsibility and an honor. It's a sign of how very much Jesus loves us that’s every bit as breathtaking as his laying down his life for us on the cross. Jesus loves us so much that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he commissions each and every one of his followers to carry on his holy work of redemption, reconciliation, and healing into the world: to carry him and bear his image within ourselves for the sake of the world.
The question those angels ask is one that we need to hear today, too: "Why are you standing there looking up toward heaven?" And that may sound harsh—I imagine the apostles were once again feeling a sense of loss, and like most of us, didn’t want to tear their eyes away. But the Ascension does not represent Jesus’s leave-taking from the world. Rather, it represents a placing of the mantle upon our shoulders, and reminds us to redirect our orientation from receiving to giving.
Through our love—the love that we live, the love that we speak, the love that we advocate for the powerless and the marginalized—we are Christ in the world. Why are we looking up to heaven? Look within ourselves—Jesus is alive and well in our hearts and minds and souls whenever we live into the commandment to love and serve and honor each other.
Jesus speaks to all of us right here: “You will be my witnesses in St. Louis, in the hearts and the minds of our neighbors, and to the ends of the earth.”
What if we lived our lives as if we were the only representation of Jesus that others could know?
Because, often, we are.
Jesus’s ascension into heaven is not an end, but a beginning. It enables the true beginning of the Church being called to its mission to BE Christ’s body in the world.
The ascension of Christ into heaven does not mean that Christ is gone, or that Christ is remote, sitting enthroned in heaven and now aloof from our earthly concerns. Christ does not ever cease being incarnate, fully human as well as fully God. Yet his earthly ministry at the Ascension is translated into an act of true faith and trust in us as his followers. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus reminds us all of the divine image that rests within us, and all that he teaches us is meant to call us into living into the beauty of that image, to remember God’s ongoing acts of creation within us.
The gift of the Ascension is the gift of true discipleship. It’s the gift of living into the image of God planted within us. It’s the gift of Christ placing the yoke squarely upon our shoulders--in proclaiming the life-giving gospel, in healing the sick and the sick-at-heart, in revealing God’s love visibly and tangibly in the world, through who we are and what we do as Christ’s representatives.
As Christians, we can’t spend our lives gazing upward to heaven- we've got things to do.
And we don’t need to, anyway. Christ is right here, within the hearts and spirits of those who seek to do his will in actions and words and attitudes both great and small. By his earthly example, Jesus modeled for us God's love and mercy that we all can emulate, even to our enemies, to those who set themselves against us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, at his ascension Jesus empowers us to be a testimony to justice and peace, and to band together in the name of love, amity, and charity.
Take heart, Beloveds: Jesus, our Shepherd and Savior, is not gone. He abides in us and invites us to abide with him. He calls us to share in his priesthood by proclaiming mercy, reconciliation, and love throughout the world by our words and our deeds, and to serve the oppressed and the outcast for the glory of God.
“We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by BEING the Church.”
Don’t just stand there, looking up. Look within—Jesus is there, sanctifying us to be his Body in the world. Alleluia!
Preached at Christ Church Cathedral on May 10, 2018, at 12:10 pm.