May 16, 2021

Ascension Sunday

Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53


It was about 6 years ago that I agreed to serve as a guinea pig for another church’s search committee.  They wanted to practice their interview questions with someone before seeing real candidates whom they might actually call to become their new pastor.

We got off to an awkward start, which in retrospect seems kind of funny to me.  The first question was, “Tim, what in particular appealed to you about our church?  What inspired you to apply?”  For the first 30 seconds all I could think to say was, “Well, nothing.  This is a mock interview.  Shouldn’t we be skipping that question?”  So, we sat there in a bit of silence.

Eventually I faked an answer, which I’m not good at doing, and things seemed to go better for a while until one of them asked me, “What’s your view of the bible?”  Now, that’s a pretty broad question, and I knew I had a number of different possible angles from which to approach it, so I went with something like this.  “The bible is important.  I use it every Sunday as the basis for the themes of our worship.  Scripture is also the basis for my preaching.  Sermons shouldn’t be deep thoughts by Jack Handy or by Pastor Tim.  They should be reflections on scripture, on what God’s message may be for us.”

Well, when the interview was over and we debriefed on the process it was clear that we missed each other a bit on that question.  They said, “What we wanted to know was: Is scripture true?  Is the Bible the word of God or not?”  I answered the question the way I did, in part, because I think the question sets up a false stage.  Would I center our services around the scriptures if I didn’t think they were true?

Yet, the scriptures are “true” not because they are a factual history, but because they tell us truths about God and God’s people.  They are also “the word of God,” – I believe that – but not in a rule-book sort of way.  The scriptures were intended for a people who already understood certain things about God, believed certain things, experienced certain things, spoke a certain language with which they interpreted what they were reading.  In other words, there is a “Word of God” because there is first a “people of God.”

My hunch is that at least a good portion of that search committee was looking for a pastor who would answer the question more simply.  “Yes, scripture is the Word of God.  Yes, it is true.”

But, to say those things just doesn’t get us anywhere.  That’s my main issue with the debate about biblical authority.  Take today’s theme for example: “The Ascension of the Lord.”  The lectionary always offers this option as a focus for the Sunday before Pentecost.  It is Christ’s last post-resurrection, bodily moment with his disciples when, as he is blessing them, he is suddenly taken up into heaven.

Even though the whole Christ story is completely miraculous – a God incarnate, born to a nobody to treasure the nobodies; rejected, killed, and victorious over death – even though the whole thing is hard to believe, this in particular is hard for lots of people to believe.  Is it really true that Christ was physically lifted up into heaven (wherever exactly that is) right before their very eyes?

The skeptics argue that the biblical authors needed a way to explain Christ’s physical absence after his resurrection appearances.  If he’s not here, where is he?  “He ascended,” that’s how we’ll explain it. 

The literalists would argue that there’s no need to explain it.  He’s not here because that’s what happened.  It’s true.  That’s it.

But, either way, it seems to me, we’re missing the most important thing: a message.  How are any of us supposed to know if one particular miracle is too miraculous to be a part of a story that’s all miracle anyway?  The important question when dealing with transcendence is not: is it true?  The question is: what truths does it tell us about our God, who is the ultimate Truth?  What truths does it tell us about whom we are to this Truth and what this Truth does for and with our lives?  Those are the questions that matter.  Otherwise, we’re left with our arguments and we’re tempted to be satisfied with feeling right about them.  (But, make no mistake, that’s not religion.  That won’t get us any closer to God.)

One truth the Church has historically claimed about the Ascension is that it is Christ’s crowning moment.  It is the completion of his bodily work on Earth, the stamp of his victory, and the seal of his rule over all of creation.  “On the third day,” says our ancient creed, “he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of God the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Christ rules, and one day his rule of love, and mercy, and life in complete abundance will be all in all.

I remember a chaplain friend who had spent too much of his life watching people disappear into dementia.  He believed in the “one day” part of Christ’s rule, but he couldn’t believe in its current presence.  He couldn’t claim that truth, and how could anyone blame him?  Certainly, there’s enough hardship in the world to raise some serious doubts about God’s power in the face of it all.

And yet, it definitely wasn’t to escape hardship, pain, and suffering that the earliest Christians became Christians.  And, it wasn’t for those reasons that, as the book of Acts records, their numbers grew like wildfire.  One commentary suggested that we shouldn’t call it the Acts of the Apostles; rather, we should call it the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because that’s what it’s all about.  It’s about a God on the move; it’s about the Spirit of an amazing, eternal, miraculous, life-gripping God taking hold of their hearts and breathing life into their Spirits.  It’s about a radically compelling truth born within them, a truth that ties them to grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love, and leads them to know that despite trial or tribulation, pain or sorrow, oppression or marginalization, they are endowed with a value, and purpose, and meaning that no one and nothing can take away.  They had been made sacred.  The Holy Spirit of the Holy God had made them Holy.  And this truth would now reign within them.  This truth would now be their reality regardless of their circumstances.

Of course, none of this happens just yet.  Where we are at in the story the disciples are experiencing the necessary loss of their particular, momentary experience of Christ so that through the gift that comes at Pentecost, through the pouring out of the Spirit, the presence of Christ could be known by many people, at many times, with many needs, in many places.  The disciples were about to discover what would become known as the Trinity.  The scriptures say they waited joyfully, but little did they know that their God, and their lives for that matter, were about to expand beyond their wildest imaginings.

In a reflection by Richard Rhor that stands out to me he points to famous physicist Neils Dahl’s observation about the universe.  He says, “that it is not only stranger than we think, but it is stranger than we can think.”  After pointing to the remarkable truth that we are, each of us together, invited to share in the eternal love that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Rohr goes on.  “The doctrine of the Trinity is saying the same thing: God is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think. Perhaps much of the weakness of the first 2,000 years of reflection on most of our doctrines and dogmas is that we’ve tried to understand them with a logical or rational mind instead of through love, prayer, and participation itself. This is how God brilliantly remains in charge of the whole process. In the end, only lovers seem to know what is going on inside of God. To all others, God remains an impossible, distant, and uninteresting secret, just like the stars and planets.”

“Only lovers seem to know what is going on inside of God.”  I love that line.  Love gives us better access to the Truth than anything else.  I think that what those early Christians discovered, and what lovers of God have ever since, is that the right hand of God the Father, the place to which Christ ascended, is in some ways not all that far away.

One last thought about today’s scripture passages: You’ll notice that in both of them what’s promised in Christ’s departure and in the giving of the Spirit is power: power from on high, the power that “raised Christ from the dead” (as Paul says elsewhere.)  This power is poured out and known in the present by those who will receive it.  The thing is, it’s a weird kind of power, a power not immediately recognized by the world as power.  It’s the power to sacrifice and yet receive, the power to forgive and thereby heal, the power to serve and thereby grow rich, the power to die and yet to live.  It is the power to be Christlike in this world because ultimately it is the power of being loved by a love that is more real and truer than any other word the world has to offer.  And this, my friends, is a power available to us right now and a power worth exercising.  The world around us needs it, and so do we.