“In the Meantime…”

Luke 24:44-53/Acts 1:1-11

Did you all observe the special day this past Thursday? I’d be surprised if you did. Oh, maybe, if you are from a catholic background or maybe Lutheran, you might have been vaguely aware that it was the Feast of the Ascension, that day in the church calendar when Jesus’ ascension into heaven is celebrated. Indeed, in many countries of Europe it was a national holiday, not that any of them actually attended church, but they did get the day off.

Did you know that the Feast of the Ascension falls always on a Thursday? It is always forty days after Easter which is always a Thursday. This is based on our reading from Acts which says that Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days. And, as we’ll see next Sunday, Pentecost is ten days later, always on the 50th day after Easter, always on a Sunday.

In our tradition we tend to observe Ascension, if at all, on the Sunday after – today. So here we are. The Ascension – Jesus ascends into heaven while his disciples look up in astonishment. Or to put it another way, it is the day Jesus started working from home. And, of course, the disciples saw him ‘zoom’ up to heaven.

In the weeks after Easter there seem to be a lot of comings and goings. Jesus appears and then disappears, several times. But here, finally, he goes for good. And then it’s just a matter waiting the 10 days for the Spirit to come. All quite dramatic. Conducive to artist’s imaginations. Some of those depictions are featured in our worship slides today. Some show Jesus with unusual body postures. All seem to try to depict the onlookers’ astonishment. 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 the Feast of the Ascension 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 it appears to say that Jesus ascended to heaven the very day of the resurrection. Or could it be that the word “then” in the Luke account speaks of an undetermined amount of time? We can only guess. Now, remember these books, Luke and Acts, were written by the same person – Luke! And then there’s Matthew’s gospel, the only gospel to record this event. He doesn’t say at all when it happened. However, 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 probably this: Jesus is now with God. What does that mean?

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. In a sense, the physical Jesus became the universal Christ.

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, the Christ, like God, is everywhere and can be experienced anytime, by many at once.

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, the Christ, even as we might say we have a relationship with God.

In Luke’s use of symbolic time, he sets us up for the next event, Pentecost, which, of course, is next Sunday. Yes, the person, Jesus, is no longer here, but is 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 meaning of the ascension of Jesus. Clear as mud?

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 creedal acclamations of the historic church. We encounter it often in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving for communion: Christ has come; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Christ will come again! And that prospect as wreaked havoc on the church for centuries. Particularly in America, for it seems that our American religious experience has been wrought with second-coming fever. American religionists have been trying to make hay on this second-coming fever for centuries.

In America’s particular Jesus-is-coming-again subculture, the idea is that Jesus’ return could happen at any moment. So, one must be ready, or you may be left behind. So the appeal to always be ready. “Jesus is coming. Look busy,” is the joke. Or there was the manipulation-by-guilt approach. You wouldn’t want to be doing something untoward or sinful when Jesus shows up, would you? So, you’d better behave. Best be doing your personal devotions, not necking up at the overlook.

Still, “Christ will come again” is a part of our Christian creed. How do with live with that acclamation? Or maybe the question is: 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, then, 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 continue. 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, in the meantime, between these two advents, the first and the second, how are we to live? Well, we live as though Jesus has already returned and we are workers in his new realm, here, on this side of heaven. And we live courageously because our God is coming, has come, to save us. We live unafraid even in fearful times because we know God is near to uphold us. And we live by serving one another and the world, saying to those with weary hands and trembling knees and faint hearts: “Courage, courage, do not be afraid. Look, your God is coming. God comes, comes to save you.” And is so doing the desert bursts into blossom and the wilderness is glad and we can dance and sing for joy. Hallelujah.

These are the sentiments of a hymn in our hymnal, Strengthen All the Weary Hands. It is written by a friend of mine, Martie McMane, who is a now retired UCC minister from Boulder CO and, for those who know her, the sister of the Young Women’s Choral Project director, Susan McMane. Martie has put together a special video especially for us. I think you’ll like it.

 

Strengthen all the weary hands,

Steady all the trembling knees, and say to all faint hearts:

“Courage, courage, do not be afraid.

Look, your God is coming. God comes, comes to save you.

Courage, courage, do not be afraid.”

Waters flow in the wilderness,

Streams break forth amid arid deserts, burning sands turn to pools.

Be strong, fear not, for your God is near.

Look, your God is coming. God comes, comes to save you.

Be strong, fear not, for your God is near.

Then the ransomed shall return,

They shall come to Zion with singing. Joy shall crown their heads.

Sorrow, sighing, all shall flee away.

Look, your God is coming. God comes, comes to save you.

Sorrow, sighing, all shall flee away.

Let the wilderness be glad,

And the desert burst into blossom, dance and sing for joy!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Look, your God is coming. God comes, comes to save you.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

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