Some Christians honestly believe that this life is simply practice for the next one. Others believe it is some kind of trial, something to be endured until a future glory. Still others think of this life as a test, a time and place to prove ourselves worthy of heaven. And, yes, there are trials. Yes, things can be difficult, confusing, sometimes down right discouraging. But the message of the Ascension is that Jesus leaves, but we stay.
Luke 24:44-53; John 17:11
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum. The indigenous population believed that “God” whose name translates “The Biggest One” or “The Way opener” lived in the ground. Caves which they adorned with lithographs which were animated by flickering fire and even holes were sacred spaces. It made sense that they buried their beloved dead ground. It was a sacred ritual, when facing life’s challenges, to enter the place where the ancients were before asking advice. Of course, the European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived up in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell which was deep in the earth. Instead of good news, the message of the missionaries created a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, a profoundly theistic people.
It does leave me wondering if the South Africans had come as missionaries to the western world with their idea of God’s abiding in the earth would we have been as cavalier in the way we have butchered the landscape, pumped our spent fuel into the earth, strewn our debris and been proligate in our waste of this precious source of the essentials for life?
Today any serious high school science student will tell you, flat out, that in space there is no up or down. If you are living on a ball, what does up mean? But these are the kids who grew up knowing about what was necessary to put two land rovers onto the surface of the Planet Mars. Because of what we now know about our Universe, telling the story of the ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? Silly stuff. For us to speak of Jesus ascending is as hard a sell here as it must have been decades ago in South Africa.
For most of us, to challenge the notion of Jesus going up to heaven is uncomfortable at best. Maybe understanding how we came to see heaven, God’s abode, as up, how we came to have a God in the sky, might help us understand the world view of the people of Jesus’ day. Our Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a flat-earth book. Nowhere does the Bible actually say that the earth is flat but verses from the Old and New Testaments support a geo-centrist non-moving flat-earth point of view.
Beginning with the creation story the earth is presented as being covered by a vault and the celestial bodies move inside of it. In Joshua the sun and moon are said to be bodies near the earth. Eliphaz, in Job, says God “walks to and fro on the vault of heaven.” Isaiah confirms that. Daniel has a great tree at the earth’s center with its top visible to the earth’s farthest bounds. From a very high mountain, Matthew tells us, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Revelation refers to the four corners of the earth. For any of that to be true the you’ve got to have a flat earth covered by a rounded sky vault supported at four corners of the earth by high mountains. The image of the world held by the writers of Judeo-Christian literature was adopted from the Egyptians and Babylonians
If you live on a flat earth it’s easy to point to where God lives. God is up beyond the dome and in fact is part of the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so threatening to an early world. So when, with this middle-eastern cosmology, Luke sought to describe the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it couldn’t have been more natural for him to speak of Jesus having “ascended”. Back to God. Back beyond the dome.
But it wouldn’t have occurred to Luke that what he said would be used as an argument made to order for flat the earth society. The message of the ascension is that Jesus leaves, but we stay. As it turns out, this is the ultimate “left behind” story. The good news is that in this left behind scenario being left behind isn’t a sign of faithlessness or sinfulness.
Let’s revisit our text for a minute. Remember those verses we skipped over so we could get to the one about Jesus going up? “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses…”
Being among those Jesus left behind was an honor, an invitation, a commissioning, to continue the work begun by Jesus. In John’s Gospel the proclamation of the good news of spiritual emancipation through changing our directions, that is repentance, and celebrating forgiveness aren’t things to be found somewhere else, they are right here, all around us. In John 17 Jesus confirms what Luke’s story conveys “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
And the scripture suggests that it all begins right now and right where we are and our task is to proclaim it throughout all nations. How do we go about doing what Jesus does. What might we be called too? Where, we may naturally ask? Healing, feeding, caring, listening, sharing, making manifest the grace and mercy of the God “who so loved the world” (3:16). What you do matters to God. Did you know that? I find it hard to remember that what we do on a daily basis ‘counts’ as God’s work. It’s true for all of us.
Some Christians honestly believe that this life is simply practice for the next one. Others believe it is some kind of trial, something to be endured until a future glory. Still others think of this life as a test, a time and place to prove ourselves worthy of heaven. And, yes, there are trials. Yes, things can be difficult, confusing, sometimes down right discouraging. But the message of the Ascension is that Jesus leaves, but we stay. This passage offers us a two-fold promise that 1) God is with us to help us not merely persevere but to flourish (that’s who the Holy Spirit is!) and 2) that God intends us to be committed to this world, this people, this place, here and now and we are commissioned and honored to participate in this work and to share this amazing promise.
So here’s what I’d like us to do this morning. In your bulletin you’ve an insert and in the next few minutes I invite you to write down the places in your life where you can participate in continuing Jesus’ ministry of caring for God’s world and God’s people. Then, I’d like to collect them so we can celebrate all the places God is at work in and through us and celebrating the fact that we are those left behind, entrusted to continue Jesus’ work in the world. From that might come a conversation about we might collaborate in the work of the Kingdom of God.
Here is a sampling of thoughts that were offered:
“I want to effectively share the message that God’s will is not that we endure suffering but that we heal it.”
“…I’d like to quilt or knit lap robes for people in nursing homes or for kids having chemotherapy”
“Expand our community garden to have produce to give to the food bank”
“Have smaller groups for encouragement, fellowship, discipleship…Pray together to seek God’s guidance. Care for each other….”
“I share food with the needy and provide rides for those who need them and share the word where I can.”