“Ascension and Embrace”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 13, 2018
The greatest and loudest rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation of 1517 was that we are saved by grace through faith and not by we do or don’t do. The Protestant Reformation of 1517 is literally the reason there is something called the Presbyterian church in world today, and part of our spiritual DNA is the Biblical truth there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. On the flip side of that, there is also nothing we can do to have it taken away. Serving the hungry on Saturday morning at the Manna program will not put you into God’s better graces; tutoring a student or mentoring a teenager will not get you more gold stars from God; attending church every week, saying your prayers every morning and night, giving all that you have to the poor will not earn you a better seat at God’s table. All of that stuff is good, but God doesn’t have better graces, gold stars, or a table where there are good and not so good seats. By the life and death of Jesus Christ we were planted firmly in the amazing grace of God. By Christ’s glorious resurrection we were given the gold star of eternal life. Through our faith in him, and nothing else, we are able to sit proudly at the table of God where every seat is good and every mouth and stomach is filled with good things. This is the truth of our faith. Thanks be to God!
However, I must admit that the un-earn-able and unconditional grace and love of God makes me lazy at times. As human beings we are wired to thrive under a little pressure. We work harder and more efficiently when there is a deadline; we receive clarity when the endorphins kick in during an emergency; when I know that a task must be completed by a certain time, I’m much more likely to do it than if someone says to me, “Do it when you can.” We like goals—I know I do—and we like to see those goals met. Think about all the retirement commercials running on TV right now. Those commercials have gotten me thinking on more than one occasion as to whether or not I’m doing enough now so that later my family will be secure later. We like goals; we like deadlines; we like to achieve things.
One of the not-so-nice sides of this whole grace through faith thing is that there is no longer a carrot hanging from the stick, so to speak. For many Christians throughout the centuries, the idea of earning their salvation kept them busy doing Christ’s work, achieving things for the kingdom. But the Reformers took the carrot away and burned the stick. They did so because the Church was using salvation as a way to scam people, fooling them into thinking they could buy and earn their place in God’s eternal kingdom. It was a despicable practice that lined the pockets of the clergy and the powerful. But I wonder if this eased the pressure on Christ’s disciples to do the things he taught us. If we are really saved by grace through faith—and I know that we are—is there any motivation to do anything of substance with that faith? If God is God and Jesus in on the throne and I am assured of my place in eternity by God’s grace alone, what about right now? Surely we are not just supposed to sit around and wait until Jesus comes back, are we?
Of course we’re not, and you know that as well as I do. But this is a question that easily arises when we consider the event of Christ’s ascension into heaven. The most basic reality of the ascension is that Jesus is no longer with us on earth—wrestle with the whole rising into heaven thing, debate the mechanics of it, but the truth is that Jesus isn’t here in bodily form any longer. After all those years of teaching and healing, preaching and challenging the status quo, Jesus rises up into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God and prays of our behalf. Almost as quickly as he came, the itinerant preacher from Nazareth is gone, swept up into a cloud like the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Jesus told us many times that this was going to happen; he told the disciples many time that this would happen. Jesus stayed true to his word and the disciples, and you and me, understandably ask, “Well, what now?”
If we get too caught up in the whole Jesus-rising-into-heaven thing, we easily miss Jesus’ answer to that very question. Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise form the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name—that is what we are supposed to be doing that Christ has ascended. But what does that mean? I think a simple story might help.
Paul Douglas Keane set off a media firestorm in May of 2013 when he offered to donate a burial plot at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Hamden, Connecticut, to the family of Boston Marathon Bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “The only condition,’ Keane wrote to the New Haven Register, ‘is that I do it in memory of my mother who taught Sunday school at Mt. Carmel Congregational Church for forty years and taught me to love my enemy.” Keane’s offer to Tsarnaev’s family came about three weeks after the bombing, when the family’s funeral director had run out of options. No one wanted the body of this alleged murderer—more than that, no cemetery wanted to the attention it would receive if they buried this pariah. Of course the pundits got to talking, saying that Tsarnaev did not deserve a burial. A popular radio show host said that Tamerlan’s ashes should just be put in the trash as a reminder to his family of what he had done. It was at this disgusting moment that Keane made the offer a burial plot right next to where his parents are buried.
Eventually Tsarnaev’s body was buried in a cemetery in Virginia and not at the cemetery in Connecticut, but the spiritual and ethical implications of Keane’s gesture gives us a lot to think about. Tsarnaev represents everything that the United States has come to loathe since 9/11—an Islamic extremist, grown into that extremism within the borders of the United States, who willingly and gladly inflicted death and suffering on American citizens. Then you have Keane, a Christian who holds doctoral degrees from Yale and two other schools, the epitome of the American dream, who offers to this despicable man’s family a place to lay their loved one. “I don’t care how despicable and hateful this man’s behavior was in his lifetime,’ Keane said. “He’s dead, and his body deserves a resting place just like everyone’s body deserves a resting place.” Keane embraced Tsarnaev’s family in the hellish nightmare that had become their life, and he did so because his Christian faith asked him to do nothing less.
Embrace. That is the ongoing legacy of Christ’s ascension, and that’s an interesting word: embrace. I immediately think of two people hugging, presumably two people that know and love, or at least like, each other. But there is more to embrace. In Jesus’ living and dying, in his rising from death and his ascension into heaven, a new social order is opened to us…we call this God’s new creation. In this new creation enemies are loved and we are free to give up our biases, our violence, our need to scapegoat and exclude. Christ makes this possible because he embraced us in our messiness and awful sin, and quite literally loved the hell right out of us. We were not friends with Christ when sin and death weighed us down. But Christ embraced us as we were, and he holds on to this same embrace as he rises into heaven. There, in the presence of God, all of the darkness we are capable of is destroyed, banished, broken open by God’s light, and we are set free from its terrible bondage. Embrace isn’t just about love or friendship; it isn’t just about agreement or commonality, either. Embrace is the very weaving of God into the fabric, the not so nice looking fabric, of every day life. Embrace is about freedom.
We think that we are free. We think that we are free because of our ability to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, in and out. We think we are free because we have made the choice to belong to this church or take part in that group or stand up for these people over here who are being oppressed. But none of that is true freedom. True freedom, the freedom Christ gives us, takes us out of the judgement business—that is God’s work and God is way better at it than we are. True freedom, the freedom Christ gives us, isn’t defined by what church we belong to or which group we are a part of, but is instead founded on our baptismal engrafting into Christ’s body. True freedom, the freedom Christ give us, isn’t amplified or made better because we do this good thing or that one. We are free because Christ wrapped his wounded arms around us and has embraced us just as we are. The only good and honest and faithful response is to in turn embrace the broken and hurting in the world around us so that they too might experience the true freedom of Jesus Christ. If we ever expect to fully enjoy the freedom of Christ and his gift of abundant life we must work daily to bring others to that same freedom and life.
Paul Douglas Keane proclaimed repentance and forgiveness of sin in Christ’s name when he embraced Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s family. He did not offer approval for what Tamerlan did; he did not release the family or their extreme faith from their obligation to the victims; he did not pretend that this would make it all go away. But he embraced them and fulfilled his call as a disciple of the ascended Christ. He proclaimed forgiveness by recognizing that every single one of us is equal in death—terrorist or terrorized, victim or victimized, oppressor or oppressed. Every one of us will go down to the dust as God told Adam and Eve and every one of us will one day answer to God for the life we led. Keane also proclaimed repentance, not to Tsarnaev’s family only, but to every person in the world who claims allegiance to Jesus Christ in one breath and in the next says that someone like Tsarnaev should not receive a proper burial. These two things cannot pass the lips of Christ’s followers. In this controversial act, Keane held a mirror to every person who says that God is love, that Jesus Christ is forgiveness, then turns and fails to show that love and forgiveness to their neighbor. And that mirror is one that each of us must look into on a regular basis. If Keane’s act makes you feel uncomfortable, if Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s burial makes you mad, it is because you know deep down in your heart of hearts, in the heart formed by God, that it was the right thing to do.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the ascended Jesus has left us a great and powerful mission: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations in his name. We begin this work when we embrace one another as God’s people and extend that embrace into a world so in need of a great big hug. We do this work when do the right thing, even when it is hard and uncomfortable. I’ve said it often enough before, but I’ll say it again: it seems like a lot of hard work, but it is not. It starts right here within these walls, within these pews, and then it very naturally radiates out into every nook and cranny of God’s creation. We’ve been given too great a gift to just sit by and wait for Christ to return; we’ve been given too much life and too much love to wonder what Christ wants us to do with it. Share it, give it out generously, be frivolous with your love and forgiveness—embrace one another. And the promise from God is that the light will break upon us from on high, scattering any darkness that lingers around. The Lord has gone up with a shout of great joy—with that same joy, let’s get to work doing the things he taught us. There isn’t any other way. Amen.