Ascension of our Lord (transferred)
May 29, 2022
The Christmas Eve of Pentecost
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For a long time, I have associated the Ascension of our Lord to that of Crab Cakes. There is no biblical reason why, I just like crab cakes and my home congregation, Christ Lutheran Church at the Inner Harbor always has a crab cake supper on the Day of the Ascension--A Thursday night. I mean, what is better than a crab cake and Jesus. And to anyone thinking about a fundraiser for Zion, I 100% endorse anything with crab cake. The Ascension of our Lord, according to the Author Luke-Acts, happened 40 days after the resurrection. If you were to count that out, it would have been Thursday. A lot of people though take this to mean that Easter only lasts 40 days and to be honest, I use to think this way myself but the season of Easter is more than 40 days. If we had not transferred the feast of the Ascension from Thursday to today, we would be celebrating the 7th Sunday in Easter. Easter lasts up to the day of Pentecost. The paschal candle remains lit not just today, but next week on Pentecost as well for the season of exploring the Paschal mystery does not officially end until the Holy Spirit sings.
In today’s day and age, the Ascension of our Lord is forgotten day. Unless you move it to the 7th Sunday in Easter, most people never would hear these words from Luke because outside of Sunday morning, holding anything during the week only brings out a small percentage of Christians. But in other ways, it is hard to celebrate the day Jesus left us. Notice that the Gospel of Mark doesn't included an account of the ascension (sorta...there is one but it doesn’t sound anything like Mark that I don't think it was written by the original author--rather it was added later on as a way to complete the story). The gospel of Matthew concludes by Jesus giving his disciples the great commission and promising to be with them until the end of the age. John concludes his gospel with the story of Jesus making breakfast for the disciples on the beach. In fact the whole point of the post-resurrection stories in the gospel of John are meant to encourage, strengthen your trust (your pistos) in the gospel, the good news, the possibility of the resurrection. In some ways, I think John worried that including the Ascension actually hurts the resurrection argument because the ascension takes away our evidence for it ever happening. Luke, however, includes the Ascension which wraps up the story quiet nicely, right?
Any of you like to read books in a series? Pastor Diane does it all the time. In fact, a few weeks ago while at the beach, I started a new Star Trek series. I was excited because last summer I finished up a fantastic series. The writing was deep, the characters were thoughtfully explored, the story line was exciting and I could easily keep up with what was being said. But that series ended and I needed to find a new series and I did...sort of. This new series is much farther into the future. While I was enjoying reading the new series, they were saying things that happened in the past that I had no clue because I didn't read any of those books. My wife, hearing me wrestle with all this gave me the advice I needed...get the other series so that the story can come alive just like it did before. It is nice to have a clear ending to a story. It feels good. I like know what is going on and getting to that feeling of closure that comes with any good story telling. Most people do not like reading a story where you are coming in midway through a story and you have no idea what is going on. And most people do not like reading a story that has a horrible ending. I am sure that Luke read the Mark and Matthew's ending and thought, "Well, that really isn’t a great ending. Mark, you have those who go to the tomb running away in fear and Matthew you don't even tell us what happened to Jesus.” See, in the very first verses of the gospel of Luke, the author tells us that he is setting out to write an orderly account. Luke wants to complete the story and he completes it by detailing for us the Ascension.
Notice how it all flows so nicely. You go from:
Easter morning with the women at the tomb who then come back to tell the other men but the men hear their words as mere gossip;
to Peter and another disciple leaving town to go to Emmaus only to encounter Jesus on the road where he opens their minds to scripture,
helps them understand why Jesus had to suffer and die in that way,
and then is revealed to the two disciples only after he broke bread with them;
to Jesus appearing to the whole group and then immediately (there is no forty days mentioned in gospel of Luke) to Jesus being lifted up into heaven.
The whole story comes across so perfectly. It makes sense. You are not left with any unanswered questions about the status of Jesus. Christ has died. Christ as Risen. Christ will come again. Theologically, Jesus ascending into heaven elevates his status to that of Enoch (Gen 5:24), Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), Ezra (2 Esdras 14:9). The Ascension, theologically speaking, teaches us that these people have accomplished all that has been asked of them in such a way that sets them apart from others in their time and God has deemed them worthy to join the whole heaven court. Theologically it works. But not only theologically does it work, but it fits the cultural expectation of the day as well. One such example is that in Greco-Roman Literature at the time, there are stories about the the ascent of heroes and immortals into heaven. One commentary that I looked at this week talked about the revered Romulus, and in Plutarch’s book called Lives, he writes, "since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king." The idea of someone going up into heaven after fulfilling all that they have been sent to do is not out of character for the time. The Ascension, while it might sound odd to our modern ears, is not out of character. But what is out of character is the author, Luke.
Luke, in his second volume known as the book of Acts, retells the Ascension story for us. Why? He did it already and it was pretty good. We get it. Jesus goes up into heaven. Theologically it fits. Culturally it works. Why retell it? Why retell it especially when you pay per letter. Parchment wasn’t cheap. Hiring a scribe wasn’t cheap. Yet Luke retells the same story, But notice there are differences. Luke highlights some things in his re-account in book of Acts that I think are intentional.
We know the book of Acts was written about two years after the gospel. Why was it written? I think something probably happened in the church, in Pastor Luke’s congregation, that caused Luke to want to sit down and write about how the Holy Spirit led the church post the Ascension. I have to wonder if Pastor Luke saw that his congregation was feeling a bit hopeless in those days after he wrote his gospel. Maybe he found a bunch of his parishioners longingly staring into the heavens wondering when will he come back? “Is that him? Nope, just a cloud that looks like a turtle.” Why did he leave us? Maybe Luke is looking at his congregation and is seeing a drop in attendance or participation. Maybe he and the church are facing a whole new oppression from Rome and are longing for hope—begging for their Lord to return and make everything new. Do you feel this way today about Zion?
And here is Pastor Luke, standing before his congregation, a congregation which is feeling a bit stuck, a bit depressed, a bit lost and hopeless. What do you say to them? I like what these two men say to the 11 staring off into heaven longing for Jesus to return: “Men [and Women] 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.” This is what you say as a preacher. This is what you need to hear when you are at this point. You gotta stop staring into the sky, wondering if that cloud up there will bring Jesus back. You gotta stop staring into the past and see that the Holy Spirit is leading the church into the future.
My friends, the message Pastor Luke preached to his flock 2 millennia ago is the same today: we can't keep looking back to the time when the church was at quote unquote its height. We can't keep staring up into heaven and wonder, "When are we finally going to get our revenge on all those who have hurt us or persecuted us because of our faith, on those who don’t show up on Sunday morning. For if we keep turning our backs on what lies in front of us and continue to stare into the past, we are going to miss the beautiful things God has laid out in front of us.
Christ will return, that is for sure. The two men in white remind us of this good news. But these men also tell us that we still have work to do. The past is in the past and the past cannot be changed. But what can be changed lies in front of us. The mission field is not what use to be but is now. What lies ahead is a people who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. What lies ahead of us is people like…
What lies ahead of us are the people in this room who come seeking the hope that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
What also lies ahead of us are people outside these four walls who we do not even their names and they do not know how much they need Jesus and his gospel in their life. Our world is very dark right now. We lost a lot of people due to the pandemic. Church participation feels like it is at at an all time low. There are 21 families this weekend who burying their loved ones after a man committed an act of pure evil and killed nearly an entire classroom full of 4th graders. There are a lot of parents out there this weekend who are holding their kids a bit tighter, worried if something like this can happen in their child’s school—parents who feel a bit hopeless this day. There are people in our world who face racism and discrimination every, single day simply because of their skin color or nationality. There are a lot of people who feel hopeless today and who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. But the only way that this message can get to them is if we stop staring into the clouds and start to worry about the things that do matter, start doing the things that are meaningful, that we stop driving ourselves crazy with wanting to return things as they use to be and see all that the things that can be done through the power and the work of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.