Sunday, May 26, 2019

Called to Witness: Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension, 2019

A German Shepherd, A Collie, and a Siamese cat appeared before God sitting on his throne near the gate of heaven.

“Welcome, my beautiful friends,” said God. “Before I welcome you in, I have a question for each of you so I can know where to place you near my throne.”

The three companions sat down. The dogs’ tails thumped on the ground. The cat began licking its paw and grooming its smoky ears.

God addressed the German Shepherd first. “Tell me, German Shepherd Dog, what do you believe?”

The German Shepherd immediately replied, “Ja--I Believe in Discipline, Training, and in the Protection of my master.”

“You ARE the Good Shepherd—well done,” said God. “You may sit at my left hand.”

Then God turned to the Collie. “Tell me, O Collie, what YOU believe.”

The Collie sat up a little straighter. “Och- I believe in the Love, Comfort, and Loyalty to me Mistress.”

“Excellent, my bonnie lass,’ God responded. “You may sit at my right hand.”

God then turned to the Siamese cat, still grooming its ears with its paw. “And you, O Cat of Siam, tell me—what do you believe?”

“I believe,” the cat said in measured tones, examining its paw carefully, “that YOU are sitting in my seat.”

Today we hear the story of Jesus’s ascension into heaven following his resurrection, where, according to the Nicene Creed, we are told that he sits at the right hand of God. That means that the Collie and the Cat will have to move over.

Biblical scholars believe that the same person who wrote the Gospel we call Luke also wrote the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. So it is interesting that today, as we celebrated Jesus’s Ascension, we have as our gospel the closing verses of Luke and the opening verses of Acts—and that they both recount the same event. Luke’s gospel closes with Jesus opening the apostles’ minds to the meaning and fulfillment of the scriptures, his final blessing upon them, and, in the midst of that blessing, his ascension to heaven.

We then hear Acts begin with the same event—but with some different details. The one that jumps out at me is the two angels appearing after Jesus has ascended. They bring the apostles back to earth, so to speak, with a forthright question: “Why are you standing around, staring up at heaven?”

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.

It’s so easy, I know, to look to heaven to solve all of our problems. But there is a reason why the author of Luke tells this story again in Acts, but with this different emphasis. The Gospels are about Jesus’s ministry on Earth. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is about the apostles and disciples taking up their own ministry, which is the birth of the Church. Jesus’s ascension is NOT about Jesus abandoning us to go back to heaven.

The story told in Acts is meant to build up our courage so that we may joyfully take up the mission he loves us enough to entrust to us: to take up our call not as observers but as disciples; to actively proclaim Jesus’s gospel of love and reconciliation in the world.

It’s about hearing that question directed at us: “Why are you standing there, looking up at heaven?”

This is a question posed in love and in encouragement. With Jesus’s ascension, WE are Christ’s Body in the world. It is up to us to literally embody Jesus’s gospel in our lives, our attitudes, our words, and our actions.

Being a Christian is NOT a spectator sport. Being a Christian calls us to not only transform OUR own lives, but to make visible to the world the possibility of its transformation and restoration. Being a Christian is a social and political act, and act of hope, bravery, and enduring willingness to see the potential and the beauty within this Earth and within every inhabitant of it.
Jesus’s reminder in Acts that, again, his kingdom is not about worldly power is a vital one. Too often worldly power is about coercion, about oppression of one group for the sake of another—that certainly was true in Jesus’ time. 

Instead, the Kingdom of Christ is about us taking up our work—all of us, lay or ordained, young or old, building the Beloved Community. Christ’s kingdom is about the power of love and reconciliation to draw all the world closer to God. It’s about living into God’s dream of eternal life, beginning right here and now, and about sharing the life and love with everyone. It’s about looking upon the world with the eyes of love—no exceptions.

We are not called just to watch and wonder. We are called to witness, and to love, not bully, as we do it. And it’s at this point that we remember that, in the life of faith, to be a witness is not just to be one who says what they have seen, but one who helps embody the truth they hold so that others can see it too. That’s how faith is handed down, generation through generation—that we, through the lives we live, lives transformed by Christ and his gospel, help others see God’s loving hand still active in their own lives and in the world.

Jesus spoke to the apostles about being witnesses, but speaks to us today too—we worship a risen, living Savior, and the Holy Spirit is seeking to move over us like she moved over the waters of creation, making all things new. We are given the honor of aiding this holy work of renewal and and reconciliation, of forgiveness and compassion.

Jesus speaks to all of us right here: “You will be my witnesses in St. Louis; you will be my witnesses in Missouri; you will be my witnesses in the hearts and the minds of all your 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 life of Christians is not inwardly focused but outwardly directed, and Jesus loves and honors us enough to entrust this holy work into our hands.

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 worrying about where we will sit near God in heaven. Eternal life begins now, and heaven can be beneath our feet if we are willing to take up our tasks as partners and friends of God in the reconciliation and salvation of the world for the sake of the world. We can’t just stand around 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 the human embodiment of 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, not passively but actively. Through this precious gospel, Jesus call to us 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. Let us begin.


Preached at the 505 on May 25, and at the 8:00 and 10:15 Eucharists on May 26, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Acts 1-11
Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

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