Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reflections on Ascension – Acts 1:1-11

Read the text here: Acts 1:1-11

Have you ever wanted to escape?  Just get away from it all?  Probably.  There are times when we all think about wanting to get away from the stress and struggle of our day-to-day lives.  This is particularly true for us when we are confronted with something really difficult – the death of a loved one, a significant loss, health troubles, loss of a job and so forth.  What do we do? Well I suppose most of us continue on and try to move forward the best we can.  But perhaps some of us may give in to the temptation to dream about a heaven that is completely removed from our earthly lives. 
Well, we are not alone in this.  For centuries going back to the early church conflicts believers have envisioned a heaven (and a hell) that was very, very different from earth and one that was, for all intents and purposes, an escape.  Some great literature has taken great pains to describe a heaven that was very removed from earth and was filled with glory and joy.  The best example of this is probably Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which is in three parts: “The Inferno,” “Purgatory,” and “Heaven.”  Even if we have never read this work, we have all been influenced by it.  Virtually every literary, poetic, musical and artistic interpretation of the joys of heaven or the agonies of hell is based on Dante’s vision. I remember once when I was in college and having some struggles going to a friend who was very religious and sharing my struggles with the friend.  His response to me was in essence, just wait, some day you will be in heaven and you won’t have to worry about it anymore.  And then he proceeded to describe to me what he thought heaven was like, which I now realize looked a lot like Dante.
Now, “heaven” is a part of our tradition and a part of New Testament teaching.  But you might be surprised to learn that it is not as important or as central as we sometimes like to think.  In fact, Jesus is constantly working to refocus his disciples right here on earth.  The Kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven) is not a far away place you go to after you die.  It is here and now and we disciples of all ages are called upon to be citizens of this Kingdom now, reaching out and touching others in Christ’s name.  The most important characteristics of this Kingdom are unconditional grace, love, acceptance, forgiveness and inclusion of all. And it is now! It is not here among us in its fullness, but it is now, here already.  And we experience a foretaste of the banquet table of heaven whenever we feel the wetness of water in Baptismal remembrance, when we take bread and wine in Holy Communion; when we reach out and touch another human or are touched by God’s love and grace.
But yet we persist in still looking into the heavens longingly.  In the Ascension text from Acts 1, Jesus takes his disciples out to the Mount of Olives one last time to bid them farewell.  Now Jesus has been with these disciples for around 3 years and has repeatedly tried to teach them that the Kingdom of Heaven/God is here and now and that they are called to be workers in this Kingdom.  He reminds them of this even in the resurrection appearances.  But yet when Jesus ascends what do the disciples do?  They stand there gazing into the heavens, completely lost and confused.  It is as though they haven’t a clue what to do next.  The Messengers (Angels) who first announced the resurrection have to again remind the disciples to lower their gaze and get to work! 
And still they don’t know what to do.  They return to their locked room.  They elect a replacement for Judas and otherwise do nothing, until that day when the Spirit of Christ invades their locked seclusion and drives them back into the world that God loves so incredibly.  This Spirit is still with us calling us to lower our gaze and get to work.  There are people who need to be cared for, supported, loved and visited.  There is terrible injustice in our world and nation which needs to be addressed, people need to be fed and clothed and provided with health care and housing. People are still being excluded and rejected based on things like race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and social status.  What are we doing to bring God’s love and grace and acceptance to these situations? The words of the Angels ring out loudly: “People, why do you stand gazing into the heavens?”  There is work to do.  God calls us all to the work of the Kingdom.
Below you will find a woodcut of the Ascension.  Look at it carefully.  Do you see the Jesus’ footprints?  Pastor Barbara Lundblad has this to say about this woodcut:

“Not long ago I saw a wonderful picture of Jesus' ascension. It was a black and white woodcut print finely etched. In the picture Jesus is rising up as the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. If you look closely at the picture, not in the clouds, but on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus' footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth." Jesus' muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospels.
·      Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness? Each time he was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of Torah. One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
* Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people?
* Can you see Jesus walking up to a sycamore tree, then looking up at Zachaeus, the tax collector, perched in the branches? "Come down, Zachaeus," Jesus said, "let's walk over to your house for dinner."
* Can you see Jesus walking, then riding, into Jerusalem?
* Can you see him stumbling toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end?

“…Centuries later Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept the message going. "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth," he said. That is, the Body of Christ makes footprints.
"Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" Sometimes it's still easier to look for a pure world up there or out there, especially if we think of the church as the body of Christ. We see so many blemishes, so many things wrong. Perhaps you've said, "Show me a church where ministers aren't self-serving, where people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I'll become a member." Well, we'll wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth. Or perhaps such a church lives only in our memories, a time when disciples believed, when faith could move mountains, when motives were pure….   There is no one but us, not in this time and space. We can stand looking up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses!" You will make footprints in and through ordinary, imperfect communities of faith that seldom get it right. Ascension Day is not a call to look up. It is to trust that Christ's promise is down and in and around us. We are not alone-you and I who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news. We are not alone. The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, surprises us at every turn, saying, "Guess who?"”

So, why do you stand looking up into the heavens?  Time to get to work!

Dr. Barbara Lundblad – DayOne -

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