May 29, 2022 The 7th Sunday of Easter, Ascension Sunday

May 29, 2022
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
“Ascension Sunday"
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Acts of the Apostles, “…two men in white robes stood by them (and) said, “… why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I speak to you in the name of God: the Father, the risen and ascended Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

     On the actual Day of the Ascension, observed this past Thursday – the 40th day after Easter - the Church, momentarily, lifts her eyes towards heaven proclaiming the ascended Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ while, at the same time, wondering, “Will he return in our own day?” I think that is a natural question for people of faith. After all, Jesus’ eventual return is an integral part of the Christian faith, an integral part of our Creeds. But for manyChristians, predicting that date and scouring scripture to find prophetic indicators of when Jesus will return has become an obsession that completely misses what it means to truly follow Jesus Christ. In fact, that obsession has birthed a whole industry in Christian literature and film warning people to get ready because you don’t want to be left behind when Jesus returns to take his bride, the Church, home to heaven because those of us left behind will suffer undue hardship and eternal death. But that is not what the Ascension is about!

     For me, one of the most discouraging aspects of the recent mass shootings, mass murders, in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX, has been the tendency on the part of many Christians to use these tragedies as opportunities to delve into scripture to find not a source of comfort or support or direction on what steps to take to curb rising violence and murder, but rather, to find proof and prophetic signs that Christ’s return is immanent. In so doing, they, we, miss what the Ascension means to those who truly follow the Christ. 

Perhaps it’s because beyond the occasional surprise party, the truth is, we prefer to know what’s happening and whenit will happen. We want to know the future and often grow discontent when we have to wait. Today’s reading from Acts speaks of that obsession with knowing the future. The disciples ask Jesus “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responds, “It is not for you to know the times.”

    Our reading from Acts tells us that having seen Jesus ascend into heaven, two men appeared and asked his gazing disciples, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus will return.” The Ascension of Christ assures that our future is secure. But it is Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus that brings the Ascension story into perspective – a perspective that applies still today. Paul affirms in his letter to the Church that our ascended Lord is, indeed, seated at God’s right hand where he lives to make intercession for us, and that we are not left on our own. But notice that Paul begins not by directing our gaze towards heaven, towards the future, but rather, to those around us right now. Paul says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards each other, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you.” He goes on to say his prayer for the church is that we will live into that which God has calledus to be and do as Christians. And what is that call? Our reading from the Gospel according to Luke, as well as our reading from Acts, says that Jesus calls us to be witnesses proclaiming the good news of the Gospel. And what is that good news? Well, it’s not an insurance policy from being left behind, but rather, it is the good news that because God so loved, and continues to love the whole world, repentance and forgiveness is possible through Jesus Christ who suffered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. We are called to proclaim and demonstrate God’s unconditional and welcoming love through our words and actions, our very lives right now so that all may come to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to lives of active faith Paul says, and to love as sacrificially, mercifully, and intentionally as Christ has loved us: loving our neighbors as ourselves.

   Yeah, but don’t all sorts of prophecies indicate that Jesus might return at any moment? “Lord is

this the time?” Jesus says the time of his return is not ours to know. Our focus, our calling, is to be on what is going on around us right now and be his living witnesses spreading the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ throughout the entire world. The men said to them, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” There is work to do.

    See, the Ascension story reminds us that as Jesus leaves, his followers, we, all of us, stay. This is the ultimate “Left Behind” story. But contrary to what many Churches teach, according to Jesus being left behind is neither a sign of imperfect faith, nor a chance to prove our worthiness. Rather, being left behind is an honor, an invitation, it is a commissioning to participate in, and be a part of, the ongoing work of Jesus Christ. That work of healing, caring, feeding, listening, sharing, speaking up and taking action in the face of evil, and through our words and lives affirm and manifest the grace and mercy of God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16).

     If there is anything the tragedies of these past two weeks have revealed is that we – all of us together - have a lot of work to do in this world. The love of Christ urges us to action, to mission and service both here at home and abroad seeking to meet the needs of others and sharing with them the good news that their sins, your sins, my sins, areforgiven through Christ and in Christ who, having ascended into heaven, continues to intercede for all humankind forever. If this is our calling then, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

     Imagine for a moment what would happen if every Christian – every true follower of Christ in this world - stopped gazing at the heavens, stopped trying to predict when Jesus will return and, instead, took the time to see Jesus Christ already in our midst. The Collect for Ascension Day prays that we might “perceive (and understand) that according to his promise, Jesus abides with his Church” – where? – “on earth.” He lives among us and in us to further the Gospel, not worry about when he might return. “The men said to them, ‘Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’” We have work to do as witnesses for Jesus Christ.

     Some Christians believe this life is simply practice for the next one. Others believe it is some kind of trial, something to be endured until a future glory. Still others think of this life as a test, a time and place to prove ourselves worthy of heaven. But that’s not what the Ascension of Christ affirms. Yes, there are trials. Yes, things are often difficult, confusing, and sometimes downright heart-breaking and discouraging. But the Ascension and our scriptures this morning proclaim the two-fold promise that God is forever with us to help us not merely persevere, but also to flourish (that's what the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is all about) and that God intends for us to be committed to this world, this people, this place, here and now. And as followers of Jesus, friends, we are commissioned and blessed to participate in this work so that all may share, know, and claim as their own those amazing promises of the living God.

     Beloved, our nation is in crisis. The timing of this year’s observance of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ couldn’t be more providential because it affirms that God’s people need to stop gazing upward and start focusing on what is happening around them, around us, today. To that end, let this congregation be known not only for our faith that our risen and ascended Lord will return, but more importantly, for our witness to Christ living in and through usright now loving our neighbors as ourselves, standing up for justice and common sense, feeding, clothing, educating, welcoming, and embracing all who are in need. Not gazing at the heavens while the world around us descends deeper and deeper into a hell of its own creation, but rather, let us be known for seeking and serving Christ in every person and striving to uphold the dignity of every human being, declaring that we will not leave them behind because, just like us, they are beloved children of God. For it is in so doing, we proclaim to the world the good news that Jesus Christ is the Lord who offers mercy and forgiveness and forever intercedes on behalf of all people. If such a way of life became the very fabric of every Christian Church, we could turn and say to our neighbors, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Come and meet Jesus Christ right here. Meet Jesus Christ who loves you, forgives you and bids you welcome home.”

     “…two men in white robes stood by them (and) said, “… why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” By God’s grace let us ponder that question and let our lives be the answer. Amen.