From a notecard given to Sr. Mary Margaret Droege by an artist in Chad

TEXT:  Acts 1:6-11

Watch this sermon on YouTube here.

A special day on the church calendar is the day right before Pentecost when we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven. If you remember the story, Easter is just the beginning of a number of weeks when Jesus, in his risen form, is still walking around on the earth, sort of tying up some loose ends before heading into the heavens for good. But the time does finally come when Jesus is taken up into the clouds quite visibly as the disciples looked on. You just heard the passage about it in the book of Acts. 

Reading that story always takes me back to my trip to Israel in 2007 when I visited the site where this supposedly took place. Our guide directed us to look at the rock in the center of the enclosure. There was a slight indentation in the top of the rock, and the guide explained in all seriousness that this was the actual footprint of Jesus, left behind in the rock as he ascended. We smiled and nodded politely, took our pictures and left.

Now, it’s not for me to say whether Jesus left any physical evidence of his ascension behind—or even if what the disciples witnessed was a physical event, a vision, or something else entirely.  The truth for me in the story of the Ascension is not dependent on whether the account is literal or metaphorical or some combination of those things. If the impression in that rock could be scientifically proven to be that of Jesus or definitively proven a fraud, neither outcome would change the religious truth that I find in the story of Jesus’ ascension. So I want to talk a bit about what I think this story offers us, especially in the unprecedented time we’re going through right now.

What strikes me when I read this account, can be summed up in the dialogue from the passage in Acts:  The disciples are all caught up in whether Jesus’ resurrection indicates that the days of Israel’s restoration are imminent. Remember that? “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s like the kids in the car. “Are we there yet?” Jesus responds basically by telling them that’s none of their business and then he redirects their concerns.

Jesus says, in essence, “You’re focused on the wrong thing.  You’re not going to know that, and there’s no point in worrying about it. You, friends, have a job to do. I did my job. I came here to show you what a godly life looks like. You’ve watched me live, and teach, and witness, even to the point of death. Now it’s your turn to follow my example and, through your living witness, to reveal to the world the love of God. And you’re about to get some direct, divine assistance to help you do that.”

Then, poof, Jesus is gone. The disciples are sort of standing around gaping and a couple of guys in white robes show up, as they often do in the Bible. The white robes are a dead giveaway and we can assume these are angels or some sort of divine messenger. Their question is poignant. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In other words, “Didn’t you hear what the man just said?  You’ve got a huge job to do. You’ll be given God’s help to do it, so don’t panic. But also don’t just stand here gawking at the sky…get moving!”

In the Gospel of John, that power of the Holy Spirit is not held off for 50 days. The disciples get it Easter night when Jesus breathes onto his disciples and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Stay tuned for more on that next week. But at the point of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it’s clear that Jesus’ job on earth was definitively finished.  Jesus was born; he lived; he died; he rose from the dead; and he returned to the heavens from whence he came.

But the purpose of all that was not so we could sit around and say, “Wow, that Jesus guy was awesome. He did miracles, and he lived a holy life, and he loved and prayed for his enemies, and—Oh, how I love Jesus. Let’s all stand around and worship him. Let’s stand staring into the heavens at the site where we saw him and tell everybody how awesome he was, and how unlike anyone else he was. And don’t lose that rock he stepped on.” 

Jesus never encouraged any of that. Jesus came as a rabbi—a teacher—and sought disciples…those who would learn to be like he was. He didn’t come to show us a miraculous life that no one could possibly imitate. He came to show us what life as the people of God was supposed to look like lived out in the flesh. We were confused by the Word as a text in the Scriptures, so God gave us the multi-media version—the Word made Flesh—interactive so we could have live chat and ask questions and see how he handled even the worst that life had to throw at human beings. The point was to get us to do the same because it’s in doing so that the nature of God’s love is revealed—first by Jesus, then by us.

Over time, I have had occasion to be in dialogue with various Muslim groups and individuals. I’ve learned a lot from that, but there are two Muslim women I met who stand out. They stand out because they were both born and raised here in the US as Christians. They had no Muslim roots, didn’t marry into that faith, and they were both active in their respective churches before deciding to convert to Islam. They didn’t know each other, and I met them at separate times. But both women gave me identical reasons for their conversion. They both told me that they were fed up with Christianity because Christians didn’t practice their faith.

They didn’t mean that Christians didn’t go to church regularly.  They meant that when you met other Christians out and about on Monday through Saturday there were no indications whatsoever of the faith they professed. They were not out caring for the poor, engaging in any sort of devotional practices, or treating their neighbors any differently than anybody else. They hated their enemies with the same vigor as others, they granted access to services according to the cultural norms of privilege…on and on it went.

These two women had no issues with Jesus. When they described leaving the faith in which they were raised, they didn’t talk a bit about Christian theology or all the various ways those things are debated in churches and across denominations. They didn’t talk a bit about Islamic theology either. What engaged and drew them was practice. They were drawn to Islam because Islam insisted that faith be lived out every minute of every day, and provided structure and accountability for that to happen.

Jesus says at his ascension, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When Jesus said the disciples would be “witnesses,” he didn’t mean go stand on the street corner and hand out religious tracts. The Greek word for “witness” is “martys” from which we get the term martyr…someone who witnesses to their faith with their lives. For some that might mean actually dying for the sake of their faith, but it doesn’t have to mean that. The Greek word simply means letting the way we live bear witness to the faith we profess.

Jesus didn’t come to found a new religion with himself at the center. He came to show us how to live as the people of God. When we fail to be living witnesses to God’s love for the world, people watching us—even people we consider solidly inside the Christian faith as members of our churches—even preachers and teachers—no longer recognize God in us.

They leave the church—or never enter it to begin with—not because of any inherent disagreement in whether the communion elements are the real body and blood of Christ; not because they think we use too much or not enough water in baptism; not because we have praise bands or pipe organs.

The people I see who use social media hashtags like “Exvangelical” and “EmptythePews” turn their backs on the church because we are not practicing what we preach. They can tell no difference between us and the guy next door, except the guy next door doesn’t have to show up anywhere on his only day off. In fact, what they see is that many times, that guy next door is doing more to make the world a better place and is behaving more like the Jesus they heard about than those spending Sunday mornings in church.

I’m not saying that gathering as a community on Sunday morning doesn’t have a very important part in Christian life. I am saying that being there is not what makes us Christian. When I lived in the South, I often heard people say, “Sittin’ in an oven don’t make you a biscuit!” Showing up at church is meant to remind us and encourage us and empower us to go out and act like the Body of Christ in the world. Gathering in a local church isn’t what makes us Christian; it just provides us with a community of folks who are, hopefully, all trying to figure out how to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors at the same time and who will help pick us up if we stumble.

The world is crying out for authentic faith. Lives are too hectic and stressful and raw to do things for show. There’s too much cynicism about underlying political agendas or people trying to grab either our children or our money for people to simply trust our words. Jesus himself called all who would be disciples—both then and now—to walk the walk. To live the faith, no matter how hard it got. To bear witness to the world of God’s love, even if we had to do it from a cross.

As the pandemic has worn on and congregations have been out of their buildings; as choirs have stopped rehearsals; as debates rage about whether God is tech-savvy enough to bless communion elements via Zoom, I think the story of Jesus’ ascension has something to teach us. Are we worried about the wrong things? I saw a colleague ask on social media, “If we can’t gather to praise and sing and have communion, what is church?”

That’s an excellent question. But the fact that people are struggling with it is telling. I totally understand why we miss it; gathering in person for all of those things is a uniquely satisfying comfort. But if we really don’t know how to be the church apart from the hour we usually spend being physically together on Sunday morning, then maybe we shouldn’t go back to the old routines just yet. Maybe we need to spend this time in exile figuring it out.

That can begin by listening to the folks in the white robes in the first chapter of Acts: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you focused on an indentation in a rock? Why are you pre-occupied with when the end will come? That is not for you to know. There’s a job to do and the power of none other than God’s own Spirit to do it. Will we? We are called to witness to our faith with our lives—not inside our buildings, but out here—where we are now—and then in ever-widening circles to the ends of the earth.

And yet the thing that seems to be on most people’s minds is how we—out here—can most exactly replicate what happens in that one hour on Sunday morning in there. I’m doing that right now. Look at me. I’m in my robe recording a sermon and even got a plexiglass pulpit to make it all seem somewhat “normal.” This is what the church is doing while people in our communities are losing their jobs, are lining up at food banks, and are grieving for loved ones who they could not even sit beside in their final hours.

No doubt the disciples missed Jesus tremendously and for good reason, just as we miss gathering in church. But will we just stand gawking at the sky wondering when the end of all this will come? Will the witness of our lives now, outside our walls, show others the love of God? Will we find ways in our painful new reality to practice what we preach? The disciples, grieved as they were, figured it out and within a week—with Jesus gone—they were putting what Jesus had spent three years teaching them into practice. And from their expansive love and care for others sprang a new thing. They called it church. Amen.

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