“To Go In His Name”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 2, 2019: Ascension Sunday
Near the end of my first year in seminary two of my friends got into quite an argument one night over dinner about Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Before answering God’s call to seminary and ministry, both had very successful careers as scientists. One of these friends was a physicists and the other was a deep-sea biologist who studied plants and animals that live in the deepest parts of the ocean where light never reaches. Needless to say, they were into figuring stuff out. One said that Jesus was probably caught up in some sort of tornado. The hypothesis was that the crucifixion and resurrection had left Jesus’ body on the lighter side and the wind just swept him away. The other said that Jesus may have been able to levitate, because there is some evidence in ancient literature that cults of magicians were pretty common in those days; maybe Jesus had learned something from them.
The argument went on for quite some time, with each trying to best the other with an even more elaborate explanation of how Jesus floated off into heaven. As luck would have it, just as the argument was reaching its hottest moment, C. Clifton Black walked into the dining hall. Dr. Black was our New Testament professor and he is one of the most important biblical scholars and preachers of the last 100 years. We motioned for Dr. Black to come over to the table and when he found out what the argument was all about, he chuckled. That seemed to me like an odd response from a biblical scholar about a biblical question. Finally, one of my other classmates asked, “So, Dr. Black, how do you think Jesus ascended into heaven?” With another chuckle, Dr. Black said, “I don’t know, maybe he had bad gas,” and then he turned and walked away.
The ascension of Jesus is something we must wrestle to understand instead of explain. This is a moment in the Bible that absolutely defies our thinking, our scientific knowledge, even our ability to reason. If we try to explain how it happened, we will likely miss the deep and rich meaning the gospel writers are trying to convey to us by telling this story. And you’ll notice that I just said gospel writersinstead of writer; this morning we heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension, but Matthew and John and the book of Acts include this moment in telling the story of Jesus. That is a signal that there is something important for us to contemplate and consider here, something far more important than explaining the mechanics of how it happened.
This is the first time in years that the disciples will be without Jesus. Think about that for a moment. Every day for nearly four years, the disciples had followed and listened to and eaten with and argued about this wild and kind and compassionate and loving preacher from Nazareth. Jesus had shown them things about themselves that they had never known before. Jesus called them on their sin and showed them the power of their gifts and calling. This man had challenged them and defended them against the religious industrial complex and he had bowed before them in simple, humble acts of service. Even after the crucifixion, when Jesus’ body lay lifeless in the tomb, he was still physically with them. Now, as the soles of Jesus’ sandals get smaller and smaller as he absconds into heaven, they are on their own. Really, for the first time.
Jesus’ physical absence is the spark that will ignite the disciples into ministry in Christ’s name. This is not really a surprise to you and me since we’ve read the story of Jesus over and over and over; we know that after the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples a few times, he eats a meal with them on the beach, he teaches a little, and then he leaves and tells them to go out in his name. That is precisely what the story of the ascension of Jesus asks us to contemplate and consider today: how we are going to go out in his name now that he is with the Father. The disciples may not have been totally aware of what was happening, but we know that this is the moment where Jesus hands the reigns to his people, to work and build and live in the kingdom. In order for his community and his message to flourish and spread, Jesus commissions his followers to be his witnesses and then he ascends to his place with the Father so that his followers can live into that commission.
If that sounds simple, that’s because it is. The message at the very heart of this miraculous story is that Jesus has put his faith and trust in the disciples—in you and me too—to go out and do the work he taught us to do. Jesus ascended so that we can go out and tell the story of how he suffered and died and rose again from the dead on the third day. Jesus ascended so that we can weave repentance and forgiveness into the fabric of our daily living. Jesus ascended so that we can proclaim his name to all the nations, beginning right here in our community, the place that is as close to us as Jerusalem was for the disciples. Jesus ascended so that we can tell people what we’ve seen and heard, and so that we can unashamedly and faithfully say at times that we’re not quite sure what we’ve seen and heard. Jesus goes up and we go out; that is what ascension is all about.
Now, like the disciples, we might wonder at times how we’re going to do this work. How do we witness to Jesus in a world often hostile to his message? How do we witness to Jesus when we’ve forgotten how to speak about faith in dialogue with science or politics or philosophy? How do we witness to Jesus when some of his witnesses are just not really great people? How do we witness to Jesus when there are structures in place—and the church is often one of them—that often stifle his creativity and inspiration? How do we witness to Jesus when, at the end of the day, the only thing we want to do is lay our head on the pillow? Well, Jesus thought about all of this. Jesus knew that the work would be hard. After all, its hard to stand on the side of love all the time. He didn’t promise to make it easy. He didn’t promise to take the tough people out of our lives. He didn’t promise to silence our enemies or make it clear how science and religion and politics can work together. No, he promised something even better, the Holy Spirit, which he says will descend on the disciples as they go about doing work worthy of God’s kingdom.
Some Sundays, five or 10 people show up for worship at Yaphank Presbyterian Church on Long Island. The church was established in 1851 and there are 41 members on the membership roll. The average worship attendance for the past several years is at just about 15 souls. In December of 2013, just a few days before Christmas, Glorya Johnson, the church’s 74-year-old quarter-time pastor, received a call from the town’s police chief that the church building was on fire. Gathering herself up in whatever warm clothes she could find, Glorya made her way out into the deep, Northeastern cold, hoping that the church would survive. When she arrived, about 8 of the church’s members were gathered across the street, watching in horror as their beloved worship space was consumed in flames. Fortunately, though the sanctuary was burned beyond repair, the church’s small education building which sits back a ways from the sanctuary was unharmed.
Ordinarily, this is the sort of disaster that finally ends the life of a church, and that’s in churches that have plenty of members and plenty of money. So it would have made sense for Yaphank Presbyterian Church to pack up, turn off the lights, and head home. But for the 5 or 10 people who are likely gathered at this moment for worship in Yaphank’s education building, the fire was a moment to clarify and purify their vision for being the body of Christ. Almost immediately, the church’s leaders began to dream about how to minister to their community now that they did not have the burden of a large church facility. Their first move was to open a food pantry. Even though Long Island is home to some of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the world, poverty is still rampant. When they began to see a large number of veterans coming to pantry for food, they started a support group for veterans with the help of the local health department. The church now plays host to an annual strawberry festival, and they host two boy scout troops and an AA group every week. There are still 5 or 10 people in worship each Sunday, but they didn’t do any of these things to boost membership. They did these things in answer to Jesus’ call, Jesus ascension, to go out in his name. And here’s the most shocking thing: when they found out that the health department could only send a counselor on Sunday morning to lead the veterans support group, the church changed its worship time.
This is the power of ascension. This is the power of the power on high that Jesus promised and sent to rest in and on his people. Yaphank’s story is one of tragedy and triumph, of death and resurrection. It is not our story, though. As inspirational as it may be, their context is not our context. Their passions are not our passions. The needs of their community are not like the needs in our community. But what they show to us is that stepping out into something new—whether it is the result of a fire or the result of just wanting to try something different—that is not a sin. They show us that stepping out in faith to really do the things that Jesus taught us, that’s also not a sin. How might the power of ascension look in our lives? Is it opening the doors of the church to anyone who needs to find a place of rest and good news? Yes, indeed. Is it also forgiving each other so that we can finally access the abundant life of God? Yes, indeed. Is it caring for one another in and through the messiness of life, in those times when it would be easier to walk away? Absolutely. Is it recognizing that the high disciplines of life—religion, politics, philosophy, anthropology—can speak to one another and enrich one another? Yes, indeed.
There is no one single way to live the power of Jesus’ ascension—we just have to ask ourselves, “Is this what Jesus wants us to do?” If the answer is ‘Yes’ we must find courage and strength to do it. If the answer is ‘No’ then it must be disposed of.
Every single day, Jesus calls to us from his place at the right hand of God to feed his sheep. Every single day, Jesus calls to us from his place at the right hand of God to listen to the voices of his sheep and work with them for a better life and a better world. Every single day, Jesus calls to us from his place at the right hand of God to do unto the least of these the things that will bring them life. Every day Jesus calls us to love one another, to love our families and our friends, and to love those who may never show that love in return. Every day Jesus calls us to remember that we are his witnesses; we may be the only Jesus someone ever sees or encounters. Every day Jesus calls us to be, to just be the people God created us to be and to give thanks. And every single day, Jesus calls to us from his place at the right hand of God to give up fear, to step in faith, and to witness to the power of his life that was stronger even than death.
So, I don’t know how it happened. But I know why it happened. We know why it happened. Jesus ascended into heaven in order for us to stand up, to step out, and to take the spotlight. Not for our glory, not for our honor, not for our fame or pleasure. We stand in the spotlight as the people of God who hold a light that no darkness can ever overcome. We stand in the spotlight so that Jesus can shine through us. We stand in the spotlight so that finally and forever all the sin and darkness and evil in this world can see that they are on notice. On notice that this is God’s world, we are God’s people, and we follow a savior who one day shot up to the heavens and now sits with God to pray for us, protect us, and guide us forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.