Say what? I’m preaching again, for the first time in 9 weeks, and I’m acutely conscious of how very rusty I am – especially when the assigned topic is the ascension…something I’ve never studied in detail and have reflected on very little in my lifetime. And I’m working off some painful comments from a friend who informed me, that while he remembers every sermon I’ve ever preached here, he thinks I’ve gotten too dependent on script and, as a result, have ‘tightened’ in the pulpit, rather than ‘loosened.’ Ouch.
Hmmm…I preach pretty sporadically – to be expected in the ministry of a part-time associate. And preaching is serious stuff – after all, you basically stand in the pulpit to proclaim the word of God. And at the end of the day, I am a dreadfully insecure and anxious person. Put it all together, and it spells WRITER’S BLOCK. Top that with soul-searching about whether or not to experiment with a completely new style/mode of presentation…and you have your basic 5-car pile-up.
Now I’ve made progress in the insecurity stuff. Grace has touched my life through scripture, prayer, therapy, good friends, loving family, words of affirmation here and there. But, if I cut to the chase – I’m still pretty much a basket case as I contemplate this calling God has sent my way. What in the world can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said and said a whole lot better elsewherer?? Nevertheless, the task is mine and the sermon must be written.
It never ceases to amaze me that the sermons I preach are always, and I do mean ALWAYS, preached to me first. Whatever the topic of the week may be – whether I’ve chosen the text or it’s been given to me – it seems as though the first work of the Spirit needs doing in me before I can even begin to contemplate unpacking the word for others. And this week has been a doozy – 3 car trips of 100 miles +, difficult crises in our wider family circle on multiple levels, tension and fatigue at home, most of it due to this crazy, over-long remodeling process, and interesting cross-currents at work. All of it combines to create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in me, a deep-seated feeling of abandonment, loneliness and weariness. It seems I need a good dose of the ascension to remind me who I am and who I am not.
Luke is the only gospel writer to include any description of the ascension in his account of Jesus’ life. Mark has the story end with the women running in fear from the empty tomb; Matthew has the disciples gathering on a mountaintop in Galilee to hear the Great Commission, John has an encounter at the beach, where Jesus joins them in a fish barbecue. Luke is the only one to mention Jesus floating mysteriously upward, disappearing into heaven from a hill near Bethany, as the disciples worship him and then joyfully return to Jerusalem. It is only in Luke’s second volume – the book of Acts – that a little more detail is provided. Because it is Acts that tells the story of the Holy Spirit and of the church, and the ascension is a key piece in that larger narrative.
As Luke says in verse two of chapter one of Acts, the first book (the gospel) was ‘about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven.’ All that Jesus began to do and to teach…implying that there is much more to tell, don’t you think? And somehow that bit about ‘until the day he was taken up into heaven’ is a kind of dividing line between that beginning (the gospel) and now (the book of Acts). Something happens in that strange, apparition-like moment. Something happens that changes the shape of the ministry of Jesus, but not the content. An important transition is being made, a re-formation of Jesus himself, in a sense, a transformation from a single adult male walking the dusty roads of Palestine in the 1st century world of the Roman Empire to a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-multi organic union that surrounds the globe and transcends time.
I have a new Macintosh laptop computer, courtesy of the church. It is a wonderful little machine, the operative word for this story being ‘little.’ I am a large person, with big hands, and not a particularly light ‘touch.’ So I find using a pad to move the cursor awkward and difficult . I invested in a wireless mouse, which comes in two parts – the part you plug into the laptop that provides the signal, and the small mouse, which moves the cursor in a way that is easier for me to manage. Last night, I packed up my computer and took it home, thinking I might get some work done there. I packed up the plug-in device for the mouse, but not the mouse itself. The wireless sending device did nothing for me without that mouse, I’m sorry to say. It was back to the touch pad if I wanted to do anything on the computer. This afternoon, I came back to the office to work because it is quieter than the hammering going on at home. The mouse was right here, sitting on my desk. But….the sending device didn’t make it back into my bag, I am also sorry to say. I need both pieces to effectively work on this machine with ease and comfort, the one that sends the signal and the one that receives it.
In a very crude, analogous way, that’s what the ascension is at least partially about. The work of salvation for which Jesus came to the earth was completed by his ministry, his death and his resurrection from the dead. He accomplished the ultimate expresstion of God’s love for our broken and fallen humanity both on the cross and through the empty tomb. “It is finished,” Jesus cried from that cross. The job is done, the debt is paid, the love of God is spilt for the whole world to witness.
He did not say, “I am finished,” because he is not. Jesus is still at work in the world – only now the more hands-on part of that work is being done by the Spirit, in and through the church and the individuals who make up the body of Christ in this post-ascension age. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he must return to the Father (read ‘ascend to heaven’) so that the Comforter can come. And several of the epistles tell us that Jesus, in his resurrected and ascended humanity/divinity, is now seated ‘at the right hand of God,’ interceding for us, his church, as we continue to do the Jesus-stuff he commissioned us to do – announcing the kingdom of God, making disciples and working toward that day when God’s kingdom will be fully realized.
And how do we do this work? By the power of the Holy Spirit, that sweetly personal and fearfully omnipresent third person of the Trinity, sent with love by both Father and Son, to fill the saints with light in every generation. There is a beauty and a symmetry to this plan – a wonderful way in which the persons of the Trinity work together to make sure the ‘signal’ is made available to all of the body of Christ. You need the mouse, you need the transmitter, you need the computer to make it all work well. I’m going to stop there, rather than trying to pair images and lapse into either blasphemy or triviality! But i think you get the picture.
Jesus, in his magnificently glorified humanity (worthy of crown-wearing) breathes his life and teaching into the church through the Spirit, who moves unhampered by the limits of flesh in and amongst the millions of persons who together form Christ’s body here. And that together part is pretty key. In former times, the Spirit of God lit on individuals, anointed for specific, often short, periods of time to do special work. (Each of the judges, all of the prophets, an occasional king or two are noted as having the Spirit of God anoint them for very particular purposes.) Only after the completed work of Jesus, eternally incarnated in form, could the Spirit be released in multiplicity and in perpetuity to continue doing the work that the incarnate Jesus began. There are 11 of them gathered on that hillside in Bethany and there are at least 120 of them gathered in the upper room 10 days later when the Spirit descends in power to ignite the newly forming church of Jesus Christ. Wow! What a picture, what a truth.
So, after a particularly hairy week, this is very good news for me. Jesus is King, sitting at the right hand of God, praying for me (and, of course, the entire body of Christ :>). Praying for my daughter and her husband, praying for my mother and my brother, praying for our church, praying for all of the burdens I carry around, so often under the impression that they are mine to solve, to fix, to rescue. The ascension of Jesus reminds me, once again!!, that there is a God, a God who is sovereign, a God who is engaged with creation, a God who knows what it is like to wear this frail human frame, a God whose frail human frame has been transformed into that of an eternal co-regent with the Father who prays not only for me, but for all the church in every corner of this world, praying for the coming of the kingdom in each one of those corners.
And the ascension also reminds me that I am not alone, that I am never alone. God’s Spirit is with me – through the Word, through prayer and through the gathered body of Jesus, the church – that community that is flawed, imperfect, sometimes recalcitrant, often shortsighted and frequently prone to wander, yet still wondrously, miraculously, by the grace of God, the church, the together-people who form the body of Jesus to do the work of the kingdom on planet earth. Thanks be to God!