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"Ascension: We Are They"

A sermon by The Rev. Keenan Kelsey
Noe Valley Ministry, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Acts 1:6-14
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’ 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

ON MY LAST FULL DAY IN FRANCE, not even two weeks ago, I visited Chartres Cathedral. Although I had already spent extended time in multiple magnificent cathedrals, abbeys and cloisters, Chartres took my breath away. A truly remarkable Gothic structure from the 13th century, the cathedral has a great monumentality, yet a lightness of form – weightlessness -- that increases the thrilling, emotional, and spiritual experience. The vast, complex space expands upward and outward, and is illuminated by the greatest collection of stained glass I’ve seen in any single cathedral. In the 12th and 13th century windows, the Old Testament can be read on the north facade, the New Testament on the south, and on the west side the last glows of daylight are the symbol of the last hours of life. Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verriere, featuring the Madonna and Child, is among the most ancient stained-glasses of the cathedral, as is the sparkling mosaic dedicated to the Zodiac.

Adding to all this glory is the Labyrinth. Chartres has always been a church dedicated to pilgrimage; pilgrims would spend some nights there, and the sick were allowed to rest in one of the galleries of the crypt. That ancient stone Labyrinth, trod by so many faithful for so many centuries, also had a profound impact on me.

Another feature of this cathedral is the abundance of stone sculpture, not only on the facades and lining the interiors, but on an extraordinary Renaissance style wall enclosure of the Choir. Sculpted from the 16th to the 18th centuries, its 41 scenes detail the life of the Virgin Mary, and of Jesus. I spent some time examining this grand series of stone scenes, this solemn tribute to the Incarnate God. I craned my neck in an absorbed, contemplative, reverential trance -- when suddenly, I burst out laughing! Into the hushed and echoing sacred space, into the meditations and whispers of meandering visitors, I guffawed. I surprised, and greatly embarrassed myself -- but I couldn‘t help it ! In the midst of all the seriousness, the carved scene of the Ascension showed earnest and distressed disciple gazing up, the angels on the sides, and Jesus’ feet dangling down from the top of the stone frame. It was really very funny, very silly.

I suspect we all bring a bit of that incredulity and amusement to this idea of the Ascension. Never mind that the day of Ascension remains a national holiday in France as well as other European countries, or that it is one of the 12 great feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Forget the fact that Ascension Day has been so important that folk traditions have grown up around it. According to Welsh superstition, it is unlucky to do any work on Ascension Day. In England, if the weather is sunny, the summer will be long and hot; but if it rains, crops will do badly and livestock, will suffer from disease. Gifts to the blind or lame made on this day are sure to be rewarded within the following 12 months. We Reformed Protestants don’t understand the celebration of Ascension very well, and we seldom acknowledge any liturgical or theological significance. But it’s there. It is part of our story, part of our history and heritage. So, what, then, are we Presbyterian progressives to make of the Ascension?

Well, the first observation is that change happens. The disciples had already endured the Crucifixion. A devastating, unthinkable tragedy. But then, Jesus reappeared. The resurrection of Jesus had been affirmed for his followers through repeated appearances, over a period of 40 days. Now they were faced with losing him once again. Jesus had already explained it in the Gospel of John. It was for their good that he go away, for then the Spirit could come and be with them always. The human Jesus was subject to the limitations of time and geography. But the Spirit had no such restrictions. As we join the disciples in today’s reading, Jesus is ready to move from body to Spirit, from earth to heaven.

Yet, true then and is still true today, we humans don’t like change. We resist it. We experience it as loss, and we find it hard to move forward with trust. Listen to those disciples. We find them unsettled, still unsure of the concept. “But, master,” they stammer, “When will you restore the kingdom of Israel?”

You can just see Jesus shaking his head! Once again Jesus reassures them. The Holy Spirit will come upon them, they will not be alone, and they will be given the power to be his witnesses. He sidesteps talk of national or political impact, and emphasizes the personal, intimate, spiritual impact. You will receive power, he says. You, each of you, will be transformed.

Yet the disciples were paralyzed. How often have you been paralyzed with fear or indecision? How often have you stood still, taking no action, waiting for someone or something else to happen? Two angels broke the stupor of the confused believers. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Do not stand there, the angels said, turn toward the earth and the realities of every day. Trust in Jesus to guide and provide in times of change. Turn yourself from heaven back to earth. For the disciples, that meant leaving the hillside, taking their hazy instructions and traveling a Sabbath day’s journey to their destination, not at all sure what they might find. They were seeking solace, understanding, and direction. But first they had to return to Jerusalem. We too are seekers. In this day and age, people seem hungry today for something besides money, malls, competition, and rat races. They are looking for purpose and spiritual wholeness. But so often we turn to racks of books, conferences, gurus, affirmations, self-help directions. These may well be good tools, good practices. But Ascension warns that if our spirituality is not rooted in the world of every day, it won’t work. It will be just another burden in an over committed calendar.

Not only does the Ascension experience call us into the real world, it moves us from God to one another. The Ascension story says if we want to see God we are to look around us. In “Inherit the Wind,” a play and movie based on the Scopes Trial, one of the characters says, “He got lost.” He was looking for God too high up and too far away. “ We find God when we redirect our gaze to the world around us. Many pastors have had the experience of visiting members who did not come to church. Inevitably, they ask, “How are they doing at the church?” How are they doing? One Sunday, tired of this question, a fellow pastor preached a sermon called “We Are They.” Truly, when we understand this Ascension message, we know there really are no they's, there are only we's. And that understanding enables all sorts of walls to crumble.

The angels instructed those disciples to turn their gaze from the heaven to immediate tasks close at hand. The first specific would be a room in Jerusalem on a side street. That specific would push them even further, opening new doors, as we will see next week. God never calls us to generalities, but to specifics. Our own Jerusalem’s, our summons, could be anything from quitting some destructive pattern of living, to letting go of some rage or hatred or grief, to working on homeless issues with Religious Witness or Homeless Coalition or housing advocates, or helping with the hospitality and outreach ministries of this church.

Along with entering cathedrals and pilgrimage sites on my trip, I was also able to spend three days at the Taize Community, located on the outskirts of the town of Cluny in the Burgundy region of France. The founder of the commuity is Brother Roger…an amazing man, now in his mid-90’s. After each evening prayer, Br. Roger, with the aid of two brothers, comes down the center section of the church to a side area. A long line of worshippers quickly forms - mostly made of up the multitudes of youth who gather there. And for as long as he is able, 15 or 20 minutes, he offers individual blessings. After one service, our Pilgrimage leader Jeff Gaines was moved to join this line. People had to kneel, then walk on their knees to Roger…he is small now, hunched over by age and scoliosis, and he sits bent over on a small wooden stool. Jeff did this. Stranglely moved, with tears in his own eyes, he looked up into the eyes of Br Roger. Tracing the sign of the cross on his forehead, Roger said, "We are the Christ. You are the Christ. Be the Christ."

Three simple phrases. But don’t you think they really capture what faith is about, what the impact of the Ascension is about? We are the Christ. It happens in community. You are the Christ. It takes place internally. Be the Christ. It is a commission to live in this world with love, forgiveness and justice.

In his Ascension, in his completion of his physical appearances on earth, God in Jesus handed the torch, the vision, and the responsibility to us. Yet he left us with the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. Are we willing? Will we trust?

May it be so. Amen.