Scripture: Luke 24:44-53
Given at May 12th, 2013 “Ascension Sunday” at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
The disciples gathered around him trying to take in every sentence, every word, every syllable. They had already lost him once. Maybe they hadn’t gotten it before but they sure did now. Jesus, their leader, their teacher, their friend. If they closed their eyes each of them could still replay the whole scene in their mind. The trial before Pilate, the crowds turning, the scourging, the crucifixion, Jesus’s lifeless body declaring, “It is finished,” before the last of his spirit was commended back into the hands of God. The sadness and fright that had overwhelmed them that Saturday. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. They were in Israel but really they were just in a small section of an immense Roman Empire. Where would they have run that the Caesar wouldn’t have caught them eventually?
Then that strange knock on the door. Mary, the one closest to Jesus, so out of breath, so excited and yet not really making any sense. Peter and the other running out the door and tearing down the street, racing one another to get to the empty tomb, to see for themselves, with their own eyes, this thing that Mary had told them about. Mary, returning to the garden, still so confused, so filled with sadness, so unable to see the risen one in her midst. “Mary,” “Rabbouni.” To that day in the upper room when they were still locked away trying to make sense of everything they had seen and heard following Jesus’s resurrection, yet still deeply in fear for their lives, and there he is again, as if he had passed through the locked door into their midst. “My peace I give you.” That breath, the air seemed to fill the room with a sense of holiness, of divinity, of spirit. They could see it all, and yet there was so much more. Jesus had spent the last 40 days with them. Appearing and then disappearing. In their midst one moment, and then, poof, gone again. But they didn’t fear. They didn’t lose hope. They had seen him die and yet be raised again. And now his spirit dwelt deep within them. And so maybe it seemed completely normal, this walk they were taking with him today. He loved to walk. But on this walk, there was something different.
It was like he was giving them all the secrets of the universe in one single lesson. He spoke of the ancient books, the foundational books of the tradition and yet they were all, for the moment, speaking about him. About how he had to be offered up because of the sin of the world. How he had to suffer and die so that he might be raised again, so that all would know that the love of God can overcome everything, even death. He had to testify to all these things, his life, a living sacrifice, that God’s hope and grace for all the world might be made manifest. And then the sending. First to Jerusalem, then all of Israel, then everywhere. God’s love, proclaimed for each person. Nothing you have said, nothing you have done, is beyond the forgiveness, beyond the grace, beyond the reconciliation offered to you by God. And then he reminded them of the final gift that awaited them once they returned to Jerusalem.This gift, the Holy Spirit would be the new driving force in their lives. Whereas before they followed Jesus, now they would be driven out into the streets, alive with the love of God, moved by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Wild, chaotic, unpredictable, yet always moving all of creation back to God. Back to love.
But then, something new. He was moving back and forth, taking a moment with each disciple, whispering in his ear, until a mixture of tears and laughter enveloped each one’s whole face. Then to the next. And the next. Until he had reached every one. And then they gathered around him one last time. He raised his hands, a final blessing between the disciples and God. And with that he began to return to God. The Bible tells us that he was carried up into heaven. And I wonder. I wonder if the disciples peered into the sky watching Jesus for as long as they could. I wonder if they stared up and followed his presence going higher and higher until they could not see him anymore. Until he was a single speck. And then, gone. And we are told that after this they returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” and they were continuously in the Temple from that day forth.
Over the week, in thinking about the passage that we read from Luke for this morning, I was struck by the presence of the word joy in the story. Joy, as it has come to mean in our world, is an exuberance, an unrestrained happiness, we jump for joy, so to speak. And so I was immediately stuck on that word in the passage, that emotion, joy. Because if you look over the story that I just recounted, there are lots of emotions that I imagine might creep up at the end of around an 80 day period of time in their lives. In our tradition, we mark Jesus’s turn towards Jerusalem and his eventual death, with a 40 day period of solemnity and somberness. It isn’t exactly sadness, but it is darkness, a time to prepare ourselves for the impending days of struggle that come with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Dark Saturday. And being intimately connected with Jesus, I imagine that the disciples felt something of the same emotion as they moved towards Jerusalem with a growing fear gnawing at their guts. I wonder if it was difficult to sleep at night during that time, knowing that leaders of the religious order and the Roman authority were looking for any excuse to arrest your leader, any excuse to end the movement of which you were now a part. And then to arrive at Jerusalem and have the crowds turn out to welcome you. Did you go from fear to confidence? Did this feel like a revolution that might really turn the world? Or in the back of your mind did you know that this was just putting off the inevitable. Then the last supper, the flesh of Jesus broken before you, the blood of Jesus spilled on the table. The arrest, the trial, the lashing, the crucifixion, the resurrection. The appearance and disappearance. The times of union spent with Jesus following the resurrection. The last few months must have felt like a never ending roller coaster and let’s face it, the bouncing back and forth from one emotional high to an equally emotional low must have taken some toll on their psyches, and so when we read that they leave the spot after watching Jesus lifted up into the clouds, following him, tracing his ascension into the sky until you can’t see him anymore it is hard to imagine how the overarching emotion is joy. Exhaustion, sure. Confusion, almost certainly. Uncertainty, definitely. But, joy?
It is not difficult to become overwhelmed by your place in life. We each, all of us, carry the burden of shames that have colored our lives for as long as we can remember. We each, all of us, bear secret sins in our souls that we think would kill us if they ever saw the light of day, and so we keep them buried. We each, all of us, struggle with cynicism and apathy. I know I do. Even on our best days, there remains a hidden doubt, an enigmatic fear, a struggle to be the person that we know we are created to be and all that weighs on us, all that holds us down, all that keeps us from living into our divinity, that part of each of us made in the image of God. Too often we let the brokenness of the world hide from view the reflection in each of us of God. Of the Christ. Hands and feet to serve and strive and work for peace, love, and justice. We are held down. But to follow Christ is to go up!
I don’t know what Jesus said to the disciples before he returned to God on that day. Immediately before it we have the story of the road to Emmaus, with Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, the breaking of the bread, their eyes being opened and them running back to tell the other disciples of what had happened. And it is into this gathering that Jesus appeared. “Peace be with you.” Following that we are told that Jesus explained the scriptures to them, from the very beginning to now. He explained of suffering and redemption and of the call to go to every nation proclaiming the love of God for the peoples of God. And perhaps in that teaching, perhaps in that learning, each of the disciples eyes were opened to the movement of the Spirit. Perhaps, each understood, for the first time, the way in which God’s redemption would be worked out for creation. Perhaps, once they heard this they couldn’t wait to get back and tell everyone they saw about it. Perhaps they had gone from physically exhausted and emotionally spent to the rocks of the church, the bearers of the love of God, the ones who would go out to all the ends of the earth spreading this message. Perhaps it was here that the were transformed from broken, fishermen who had left their nets behind to follow this crazy guy talking all the time about peace, love, and understanding, perhaps it was here that they became children of God. And we, their progeny, inheritors of the message, bearers of hope.
In the front of the sanctuary, stands a ladder. It is a plain everyday ladder, that my wife graciously came out here yesterday and wrapped in tulle and Christmas lights, but under the lights, under the tulle, is a ladder, not unlike a ladder that you might have in your house. But with the ladder comes an invitation. An invitation to go up. To begin, from this moment forward, an ascension, as a church, towards Godliness and away from brokenness, to begin a climb that we can do together, that we are called to do together. Each one carrying the one who can’t carry herself. Each one, going out into the town to find those who are to join us on our climb, each taking her place in an unbroken chain of people being brought back to God. The climb is not easy, the ascension from brokenness to holiness long. But we do not do it alone. We only join in the chain that was begun at the beginning of time. We only join in the chain that carried Elijah to heaven. We join the chain that carried Jesus to heaven. We join the chain that eventually carried the disciples, and Paul, and the earliest Christians, those who died for the faith. It is the chain that carried the desert fathers, and the mystical mothers. It is the chain that carried Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila. It is the same chain that carried, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer. It is the same chain that lifted people out of oppression and gave them strength to stand for what was right no matter what the cost. That moves though us now, saying all who hunger, come. All who thirst, come. All who are naked in the streets, rotting away in prison, blinded by hatred, held captive by brokenness, come. Because here in this place, on this ladder is the great chain of being which calls all people eventually back to God, and up out of the muck and the mire of sin. We are called to go up.
What would it look like for all God’s children to begin to go up, begin to ascend with Jesus, not out of the world, but above all the muck and the mire that so often defines our existence? What would it look like to view every day as a gift from God, to do the most good we possibly could with the time that we are given? To spend our lives, each one of us leaving our one grain of holy sand on the scales of justice, peace, and love? What would it look like to live as if we knew that whatever we did to the least of these among us, we did to Jesus? We are a community of faith in a world desperate for a faith they can cling to when the storms of life overtake us. We are a community of faith in a world desperate for someone, anyone, to care just a little about its plight. We are a community of faith, following the one who never, ever turned anyone away. We are a community of faith, broken and imperfect, but called to be better tomorrow than we were today. We are a community of faith, called to rise with Christ. To. Go. Up.
Friends, look around you. Look at the folks with whom you have gathered this morning. Look at your brothers and sisters in the faith. Each a child of God, beloved, redeemed, and being called to grow closer to Christ. Look around you, each of these people are here to walk with you, to carry you when you grow weary, to lift you up when the guilt and shame and darkness of life makes it so you can’t see the light. Look around you, because it will be these people, it will be us who will continue to climb up the ladder together. No one in front, no one left behind, but a single line, a single chain, a single movement of people, finding their place in a line with no beginning and no end. Will the circle be unbroken? Yes. Thanks be to God and Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.