The Seventh Sunday after Easter, May 13, 2018

The Seventh Sunday after Easter
Ascension Sunday
May 13, 2018
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

From the Acts of the Apostles, “… Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, ascendedSon, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     As a teenager, my Saturday mornings were typically spent helping my Dad with various tasks and repair projects around the house. Such might include planting shrubs, repairing and painting shutters or gutters, some light carpentry work, and so on. And also typically, my Dad would show me what to do and get me started, and then head out to work on another project on his own. Well, there was an amazing phenomenon at our house: Murphy’s Law was incredibly prevalent. Murphy’s Law says that whatever could go wrong willgo wrong given the right circumstances. And that was certainly true for me. You see, no matter how hard I worked – and I really did work hard – as soon as I took a break, Dad would appear of nowhere. And every time he would look at me and bellow, “What are you doing standing around? There’s work to be done!”

Today, we observe Ascension Sunday: one of the most under-celebrated and yet, most important feasts of the Christian faith. Ascension Day occurs on the 40thday after Easter which was this past Thursday. But, for most Christians, Thursday passed without even a thought about the power and meaning of the Ascension of our Lord. In fact, for many, even though the Ascension is important enough to be mentioned in our Creeds, its meaning, and the depth of its impact, seems lost.

Now, we know what happened on that day. Our reading from Luke’s gospel is quite clear that Jesus, having restated that his life, death and resurrection was necessary in order to fulfill all that the scriptures had said about the Messiah, and to ensure forgiveness of sins and new life for the penitent, raised his hands, blessed his followers, and was “taken up into heaven.”  In many ways, the Ascension completed that work begun on Easter morning. For the past 40 days Jesus has often appeared out of nowhere just as he has also walked, taught, and even dined with the people and, thereby, showed them that he is, indeed, very much alive. But now, he who came as the Word made Flesh is gone. God incarnate, fully divine and fully human, has ascended into heaven still fully divine and still fully human. And there, the scriptures tell us, he continues to intercede for us and will continue to do so until the day when he shall return to judge the living and the dead; a day when God’s kingdom – our spiritualreality right now – will become a physicalreality forever. That is our Christian faith and our hope.

So, in many ways, the Ascension of our Lord affirms that all of us have been left behind, but in a good way. Not in fear or without hope, but rather, left behind with a divine purpose. We have work to do. And that work is simply to embody everything that Jesus taught his followers while he lived among us.

That work is what Luke refers to in the opening verses of today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Luke says, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” In other words, Jesus has told and shown his followers exactly how we should live, what we should value, how we should speak and act. Jesus has offered a clear way of life. It is like an anchor for us that continues to ground our daily lives. And this way of life, this anchor, affirmed in allof the gospels, is steeped in the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor – all that God created – love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-28) We know, Theophilus, how we should live and now, Luke says, it’s time to do it.

See, our reading from Acts concludes with the words of two men, two angels, present at Jesus’ ascension who ask that same question my Dad would ask me, “What are you doing standing around? Why are you gazing up into Heaven? There’s work to be done.”

As we have discovered in our Journey Through Acts Adult Christian Education series, the early Church really struggled to do allthat Jesus taught his followers. See, loving God is one thing, but loving our neighborcan be incredibly difficult at times. That’s why I always gulp when I affirm my baptismal promises, to “seek and serve Christ in allpersons, loving my neighbor as myself … and respect the dignity of everyhuman being.” I struggle with that because I know that if I am honest, loving my neighbor takes work, takes focus, and requires being intentional in my thoughts, words, and deeds. You know as I grow older, I become more and more convinced about just how hard it is to consistently walk the Christian way of life. Oh, I can do the Good Samaritan thing, I can be forgiving and more, but those commands to constantlylove without exception, without condition, is hard work because it goes against our human nature to seek and do only that which is good for us.

A careful reading of the entire Book of Acts affirms what we, as Episcopalians, believe about faith and being people of God. Our faith is never static: it is always growing and doing new things - things that astound and confound us at times. The early Church often reeled at how God continued to work among them and work among outsiders, especially the disenfranchised, the unwelcome and unclean. And what emerged was a community of inclusivity where all were eventuallywelcomed. But that took time … and a genuine change of heart.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle affirms that Church is growing in God’s grace, but notice that he never suggests that growth will come to an end – that they will achieve perfection. Paul writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may knowwhat is the hope to which he has called you.” Paul will go on in Chapter 2:13-18 to call the church to unity of purpose, the purpose of Christ’s reconciling work in this world. And again, in Chapter 4:16 he will remind all of us that the church, while recognizing and valuing its diversity, must always seek to build itself up in love – God’s love.

Ours is an active faith, a faith that requires focus and energy. It is a faith that urges all of us to frequent re-examination of our priorities and actions and then repent and embrace again God’s ways and values. There is always more to learn about God’s grace. And that was the experience of the early Church as described in the Book of Acts and continues to be the experience of the Church still today. And all of this was made possible when Jesus ascended into heaven and left us behind to continue his mission, to be his reconciling presence, and be his light in this world.

Being that reconciling presence, that light to the world, loving God and neighbor, doing everything that Jesus taught and said, is hard work and comes with a price. Ours is not an easy road. This past week, a bomb exploded on the front porch of an Episcopal Church in Texas. Fortunately, no one was physicallyhurt, nevertheless, her people were and are frightened. A look at their website reveals that church is not teaching or doing something heretical or anything that would instill fear in the greater community other than seeking to love God and neighbor, seeking and serving Christ in every person they meet, and upholding the dignity of every human being. I find it uncanny that bombing took place on Thursday, the Feast Day of the Ascension of our Lord. 

Brother Curtis Almquist, from the Episcopal Monastic Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA summed up this feast day best when he asked, “Where is the ascended Jesus to be found today?” He answered, “Inyour presence, throughyour words, withyour touch, in your heart. It is no longer you, just plain you who lives under your skin; it is Christ who lives within you.”

 “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” There’s work to do: The incredible work of our calling as people of God: to love as God, in Christ, has loved us and continue Christ’s redemptive mission in a world desperate for good news: a world desperate to know what it truly means to love and be loved.

Let’s pray. In a paraphrase of this morning’s collect, “Almighty God, help us to perceive that our Savior Jesus Christ continues to abide with his Church on earth not through our gazing upward into heaven, but through and by how welive and act, how weembrace, embody and demonstrate allthat Jesus taught and did. We ask all this in the Name of our Risen and Ascended Lord, Jesus Christ.” Amen.