Luke 24:44-53/Acts 1:1-11
Today is Ascension Sunday. Our texts for today set that up for us. Jesus ascends into heaven while his disciples look up in astonishment.
However, this isn’t really the day. That was this past Thursday. Ascension Day is always on a Thursday. That’s because, as our reading from Acts tells us, Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after the resurrection. Forty days after Easter is always Thursday. And, as we’ll see next Sunday, Pentecost is ten days later, always on the 50th day after Easter, always on a Sunday.
So, did any of you observe Ascension Day on Thursday? Were you even aware it was happening? I barely was and I’m in the business. If churches observe the ascension at all its almost always done on the following Sunday – today. Who goes to church on a Thursday to celebrate the ascension? Which is why I was quite surprised to learn that in most European countries Ascension Day is a national holiday. Granted, probably only a handful of Germans or French went to church on Thursday. But everyone else had a free day. Go figure.
So it is, we have not made a big deal about the ascension. I don’t believe I’ve ever preached on the subject. It is not a big festival day in our church year. Yet, here it is. So let’s take look, shall we?
Through the centuries many artists have tried their hand at depicting the scene. There is Jesus floating up to heaven as the disciples look upward, mouths gaping open. One famous rendering shows the disciples but all you can see of Jesus is his feet at the top of the painting.
Now, what if the disciples had iphones? Could they have recorded the event? Could they have shared it on social media? Or, more to my point, was the ascension really a literal/historical/factual happening? Did Jesus literally float up to heaven with all the disciples looking on? Or was this maybe a metaphorical, more-than-literal account of what the disciples experienced?
Well, we get a clue that it’s most likely the later with the very accounts we have before us. As I mentioned before, the reason Ascension Day is observed 40 days after Easter is because that is the timeline in the Acts account. “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” However, the Luke account doesn’t say that. In the gospel account Jesus ascends to heaven the very day of the resurrection. Now, remember these books were written by the same person – Luke! And then there’s Matthew’s gospel, the only other one to record this event. He doesn’t say at all when it happened. But he has it taking place, not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee (presumably it took a few days for everyone to get from Jerusalem back to Galilee). Three very contradictory accounts suggest this was not a literal/historical/factual event.
If it isn’t, what did it mean to the early church? As a metaphorical story, its primary meaning was this: Jesus is now with God. A couple of points about this assertion.
One, it meant that Jesus is no longer here. The flesh-and-blood person that was Jesus is gone. Jesus is now with God, and since God is everywhere, so is Jesus everywhere.
Two, Jesus is no longer constrained by time and space. The person, Jesus, could only be in one place at a time. But now Jesus, like God, is everywhere and can be experienced anytime.
Three, the ascension story is about the abiding presence of Jesus. Jesus can be, and is, experienced as a present reality. We can say we have a relationship with Jesus, with the Christ, even as we might say we have a relationship with God.
In Luke’s use of symbolic time, it sets us up for the next event, Pentecost, which, of course, is next Sunday. Yes, the person, Jesus, is no longer here, but with God. It is in that sense that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit is about to descend and be with Christ’s followers. That is a way to understand the story of the ascension of Jesus.
Ah, but there is more!
As the disciples gaze up to heaven, two angels suddenly appear and say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Thus, is introduced The Second Coming! So it is that the Second Coming is an essential tenet of the Christian faith. It is one of the historical acclamations. We encountered it in our Call to Worship today: Christ has come; Christ has risen; Christ will come again. Its often part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving in communion.
Christ will come again! And that prospect as wreaked havoc on the church over the centuries. Particularly in America, for it seems that our American religious experience has been wrought with second-coming fever.
I have to confess that Linda and I have gotten into one of those cable TV series that just suck you in. This one is called “The Leftovers.” The basic premise is that for some unknown reason (and I mean no one knows), thousands upon thousands of people all over the world have just disappeared. The story focuses on how people, particularly people who have had loved ones disappear, deal with it. As a result a lot of weird religious cults spring up in an attempt to explain what happened. And because lots of good, devoted Christians didn’t disappear…well, it just gets weird. Looming is the seventh-year anniversary of the disappearance which, of course, must be significant, right?
It is a fascinating study in cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the notion that people hold on to contradictory beliefs and behaviors. In this case, because they invest so much belief and emotion and thought into something happening, that when it doesn’t happen they just readjust and keep on believing that it will happen, despite evidence to the contrary. It seems we have lots of cognitive dissonance these days.
One episode started with a song that took us immediately back to another time in our lives. The feeling was visceral – a song we both considered to be really significant. It was a song by Larry Norman from 1969. Larry produced the first all out Christian rock album. Which means it didn’t sell very well. Rock and roll fans thought it was way too religious; Christians thought it was way to rock and roll. The song? I Wish We’d All Been Ready! Amongst us very earnest Christians this was an important message.
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and ones left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The son has come and you’ve been left behind
I hope we’ll all be ready
You’ve been left behind
In our own particular Jesus-is-coming-again subculture, the idea was that it could happen at any moment. So, one must be ready, or you may be left behind. Despite our earnestness about the issue we could joke about it. “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” Or there was the manipulation-by-guilt approach. You wouldn’t want to be doing something untoward or sinful when Jesus shows now, would you? So, you’d better behave. Be having your personal devotions, not necking up at the overlook.
In this episode of “The Leftovers” all the people are getting ready for the day, the seventh-year anniversary of “The Disappearance.” In doing so they referenced one of the truly cognitive dissonant episodes in American religious history: The Great Disappointment! The year was 1844, William Miller had spent a decade calculating the time of Christ’s return. Utilizing verses and phrases from all over the bible, he had come up with the mathematical machinations that conclusively determined when Christ would be returning. And he managed to convince a sizable number of people, who sold all they had and joined him on the hillside to await the coming – The Advent. October 22, 1844 came and went. Nothing happened. People got really mad; several Millerite churches were burned down. But the upshot was that people merely recalculated and came up with reasons why it didn’t happen. Cognitive dissonance. Today, three different religious groups still exist as attempts to explain The Great Disappointment.
Still, “Christ will come again” is a part of our Christian creed. How do with live with that acclamation? Apart from these apocalyptic movements that we encounter on the religious landscape, the question is still asked: Will there be a second coming of Jesus? I suppose it depends on what we imagine that phrase to mean. One way to imagine it is that there will be an event experienced by everybody who is alive – and one that could be recorded on our iphones (although sharing it on social media might be a mute point because by then it will all be over).
To imagine such a thing really strains credibility. What would it look like? Where would it happen? Will there be a flash of light? When we try to imagine the second coming of Jesus in some space-time manner, it vanishes.
What did it mean when first-century Christians acclaimed that Jesus would come again? Indeed, some, like the Apostle Paul, were convinced it would happen very soon. In that, Paul was obviously wrong. It didn’t happen. But he wasn’t wrong in his passion for a vision of the world he saw embodied in Jesus and how this would play out in the future.
So, when first-century Christians acclaimed that Jesus would come again, it was an expression of their conviction that what had begun in Jesus would be completed. Jesus was not just the past, but also the future. They had a passion for the coming of the kingdom of God, the dream of God, for all humankind. They, indeed, sought to live out the coming of Christ in their witness, in their very living.
So it is for us. This is elucidated in the hymn we are about to sing. I encourage you to turn to it: #608, Christ Will Come Again.
Christ will come again, God’s justice to complete…
then let us passionately care for peace and justice here on earth,
and evil’s rage restrain with love till Christ shall come again.
Christ will come again and life shall be complete…
then let us passionately care for health and wholeness here on earth,
and ease our neighbor’s pain with love till Christ shall come again.
Christ will come again, and joy shall be complete…
let us passionately share the whole great gospel here on earth,
until all things attain their end when Christ shall come again.
So, what are you looking at? Hopefully, not staring up to the sky waiting for something to happen from on high. Hopefully, not waiting for some superman to come rescue us. Hopefully, not looking for the sky to fall. Instead, full of hope, engaging in our world passionately, living out Christ’s coming in the present with our very lives. May we be so bold. Let us stand and sing. Kelly will play through the hymn as it is probably unfamiliar to all of us.