Reflection: May 13 – Ascension Sunday

Published on May 15th, 2018 by Webminister | 0

Boy, this Easter story just gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it?

We start out with this troublemaker—this rebel—running around Roman Palestine telling everyone that they are God’s beloved people, no matter what their social status, age, or what illnesses and other stigmas they are inflicted with. This guy doesn’t even care if you’re Jewish, Samaritan or one of the Roman oppressors – he says you matter to God just as much as every other person.  Equality??? Well, it’s no surprise he is killed on a cross. But the weirdness of his claim that God loves each of us just the way we are, gets even weirder when he doesn’t stay dead. After three days, he rises from his grave and spends forty more days with his disciples. Now in today’s reading, we see Jesus ascending into heaven in a cloud.

My scientific mind doesn’t want to accept this last bit.  People don’t raise from the dead and then float off into the sky! I start trying to rationalize. Did this really happen, or is there some other explanation? Did the disciples steal his body and make up this story about the ascension? Or maybe he wasn’t completely dead when they laid him in the grave and then he recovered and staged his disappearance to avoid recapture as a final act of the street theatre he was known for? Or was it all the work of aliens? People love a good conspiracy theory!  But all of that is really just a sign that we’ve missed the point – we’re using our disbelief as an excuse to keep on staring at the heavens, like the disciples, instead of taking Jesus’ message that “you are God’s beloved” and passing it on to others.

When Jesus began his ministry, he began with forty days of preparation, fasting and meditating in the wilderness.  Now, as Christ’s time as the flesh and blood first-century man, Jesus of Nazareth, is coming to a close, he takes the time to prepare his disciples for taking over his ministry.  They put their travel on hold for forty days and stay together in Jerusalem as a community. But it is pretty obvious from this exchange that as long as Jesus is there, the disciples will continue waiting on him.  Good Jewish boys, well versed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the disciples understand that God has promised to bring God’s kingdom to earth, where God’s peace will rule, not the violent “Pax Romana” of the day, where a people’s lack of ability to fight against Roman oppression anymore was called “peace.” So, when Jesus promises a baptism of the Holy Spirit, they kind of go, “Great!  So, uh, does this mean you’re going to bring God’s rule to Israel, now?” 

I can almost hear the pause as Jesus takes a deep breath here, conceding that the disciples still don’t get it, before saying, “Yeah, you don’t need to worry about those details. God will give you all the tools you need to carry on my work.  What I need you to do now, though, is think bigger!  Think Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria… yes, but set your sights all the way to the ends of the earth!” And while they stand there, trying, as usual, to figure out what Jesus is talking about, he leaves them.  “Huh? What? Wait, where’d he go? Jesus? Jesus? What happens now? Where’s that kingdom you promised?”

Having just graduated from seminary, I have to say, I can really relate to the disciples right now.  Huh? What? You called me into ministry nearly six years ago, God.  I obeyed. Now, thanks to help from a lot of other people, I have my little piece of paper that says I’m a Master of Divinity.  So, what happens now?  Where’s that call, that congregation you promised?  I’m here, ready to minister in your church.  We’re here, and we’re ready to be your church. We’re ready to share your good news of love with the world! The world just doesn’t seem to be coming through those front doors much on Sunday morning anymore.  God, we want you to do something and we want it now.  Come on, Father who art in heaven, our eyes are on you, on the heavens waiting!

Can you hear God take a deep breath? God takes a deep breath and sends two angels to bring the message, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They draw the disciples gaze downward, back to their time and place, and are assured, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Yes, disciples, that promise of a kingdom where peace, justice and love rule still holds true.  Jesus will come again.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear this part read, I get an image of Jesus descending back out of the clouds.  It’s a pervasive Christian image. So, I had to go look up the original Greek here, and I found that there is nothing in the verb “eleusetai”— “will come”— that suggests “descent“.  So, what if we shift our mental image there?  Christ will return in the same way you saw him go—as a cloud, a dissipating vapour, spreading itself across the sky, gathering, pouring down, filling lakes and streams, the lifeblood of the landscape, evaporating as mist again and spreading wider.

The one thing that is very clear in Jesus interaction with the disciples at the beginning of the passage and in the angels’ message, the time has come for the disciples to stop looking up for some hidden kingdom yet to come and to focus on taking the message of the kingdom, the message that ALL are loved by God, and to pass it on, not just in their own comfort zone, but to the ends of the earth. They are given a mission – WE are given a mission! If we are to follow the way of Jesus, embodying the love of God, we need to carry that message of love with us out wherever we can – to the streets of Nelson, across the West Arm to Camp Koolaree, and to the ends of the earth. 

On Thursday and Friday, Roy, Lena, Jody and I went to the workshop in Trail on reimagining ministry. It was a wonderful two days, with many interesting discussions and great food – although I must confess, I can’t remember how long it has been since I have been offered an orange jello salad with cottage cheese in it. It took me right back to the many UCW lunches I went to in 1980’s as a youth band member at Gower Street United Church. But it reminded me of the rich tradition from which we come and how the food of my childhood can bring comfort and strengthens me for the journey to come, a journey filled with gluten-free bread and quinoa and all kinds of things I had never heard of back then.

Bringing my eyes down from heaven, and looking at the world in front of me, there is a vast distance from where we are now to the ends of the earth, but I trust that God is equipping us with what we need to carry the message of love where it needs to go. God’s promise still stands, even if the way it manifests might look different from what we expected. When we welcome the hungry in through our partnership with the Nelson Food Cupboard, we are saying “You deserve good food and dignity, because you are God’s beloved child.”  When we send a young person to camp, we are saying, “You belong and you matter, because you are God’s beloved child.”

Christ is alive, here and now.  The Holy Spirit moves through us, calling us to spread the message of love wherever we go and wherever we can.  The Kingdom has come near.  Some amazing is about to happen, I can feel it in my bones, and I can hardly wait! Can you? We just have to keep our eyes fixed on what is around us and let God worry about the details of when and how. Our part is to take Jesus’ message that “you are God’s beloved” and pass it on until everyone knows and believes in the belovedness of themselves and of each and every other.           

May it be so.

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