“Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 24:44-53 and Ephesians 1:15-23
May 17, 2015
The Word in Song: “Take My Life”
Today is called Ascension Sunday. It is the last Sunday in the season of Easter, the day we remember that Jesus disappeared from the disciple’s sight after telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit that would come to empower them. And next week we celebrate the Day of Pentecost – the day the Holy Spirit arrived and did just that.
Every year I have this struggle. I read the text about how Jesus went up – physically disappeared from sight while his disciples stood looking up at him getting smaller and smaller in the sky. It is difficult not to be skeptical, however, about the details of this pre-scientific story. Traditionally we are meant to understand from this story that Jesus disappeared visibly from his disciples to officially end his time on earth and to take up his heavenly responsibilities as Lord of all creation. This was the official turning point; this was when the historic Jesus became the cosmic Christ. However, the story brings all of our 21st century biases to the fore, and highlights just how very different we are from the culture and world view of its author and first audience. We have questions about geography, astronomy, biology and physics. How did Jesus overcome gravity? How fast did he have to accelerate to disappear into the heavens?
Those kinds of questions don’t get us anywhere but they are interesting to think about. For good or for ill, we live in a time when we think we can find all the answers to everything if we search long and hard enough and apply just the right methods and processes in our thinking and our research. We are not comfortable with mystery, and so we tend to reduce it to a puzzle or a problem that has a solution. We believe that if we persist, we can find an answer. The danger is that we also secretly believe that if we can’t figure it out, and if it doesn’t make sense on our terms, then it’s not worth our time and is probably false.
Sometimes – and today is one of those times — we have to remind ourselves that we are here every Sunday to profess our faith in the mysteries of God that are not puzzles to be solved by rational, scientific verification of facts; their validity doesn’t rest on our understanding; it rests the nature of God and God’s activity. Once again, it’s not all about us. For us as Christians, instead of a problem to be mastered, God’s mystery is something to celebrate,to be entered in to, lived within, explored, and never exhausted or completely understood.[i]
As followers of Christ our work is not to make sense of the mysterious stories of faith as if they were mathematical equations to be solved, but instead our work is to practice being mystified, to enjoy sitting in the shadow of something we don’t understand, and realize that there are greater things in this world than those we know about or can get our minds around.
So we remember the ascension of Jesus today, not because of how it happened, but because of why it happened. It is important to us for its meaning, not its mechanics. We are not free simply to dismiss it – cut it out of our bibles the way Thomas Jefferson cut out all the miracle stories from his – because it comes to us from a now discredited pre-scientific world view. We don’t remember it because it is scientifically true; we remember it because it is eternally true .
So what are the eternal truths of the ascension of Jesus that we can hold on to, that will strengthen us, and assist us day by day in our walk of faith in the 21st century, truths that are the same as those that encouraged disciples in the first century? There are several important truths for us to hang on to. Among them is not feeling abandoned by God who through the Holy Spirit is present with us still, and another is being patient and willing to wait for God’s lead rather than thinking everything is up to us and must proceed according to our time plan and priorities.
But the truth I want us to think about today is that the ascension is about God’s justice. It affirms that Jesus, who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God and taken into God’s heavenly presence. God has said yes to Jesus and no to the powers of the world. This action empowers us then for acts of justice and compelled to attend to issues outside ourselves and our own individual concerns as we follow him.
There is great hope for today in this truth. Several years ago I had the good fortune to hear Bishop Desmond Tutu speak about his faith in the ascension of Jesus as the ground of his hope during the difficult days of apartheid in South Africa. He told about the struggles of his people during those times, about how difficult it had been to be excluded based simply on the color of his skin. He is a man of amazing good will and great joy, and so he laughed about how ridiculous racism is. “Does the color of my skin tell you anything about me?” he asked. Does it tell you if I am compassionate, talented, smart, or not so smart, truthful, or not so truthful? Discrimination based on race is as foolish, he asserted, as discrimination based on the size of one’s nose.
Wouldn’t it be silly, he laughed, if only large-nosed persons were allowed to go to college, for example; if the admissions officer carried a tape measure with him to measure the nose of each applicant. GPA didn’t matter; extra -curricular activities didn’t matter; letters of recommendation didn’t matter. The sole criteria for admission was the length of your nose. And all people whose noses were too small for college admission would have to apply for special exemption from the Minister of Small-nosed Affairs.
Obviously, his sense of humor was one necessary element that kept Bishop Tutu going during those terrible days. And even though he was miraculously able to laugh, he never denied the reality of the situation. What kept him going in those horrible times, he said, was his faith that Jesus had risen and ascended to God to sit at God’s right hand. For him, Ascension meant that death has not won; the power of Rome or of Pretoria has not won. And we who follow Christ are not defeated for we have risen with him and also sit at God’s right hand. He laughed and said, “It might not look much like God’s right hand,” much of the time, but it is, because Ascension is about a relationship more than it is about a place. Just as Christ is intimately related to God, as close to God as God’s right hand, so we Christ’s disciples, are as close to God, as God’s right hand. That closeness, that feeling of inclusion, of being loved, of being home, of being wanted, of being lifted up is what kept him going and gave him hope; gave him joy and allowed him to laugh even in the darkest days.
We need to remember this strong, courageous, joyful hope on days when we feel frustrated, powerless, and overwhelmed by issues greater than our ability to solve or even, it would seem, to make much of a difference. I felt that way this week learning of the latest undocumented person to be arrested at Pinewoods and carted off for deportation without even being given the opportunity to embrace his children as he left. I felt that way thinking of that family that has lost its breadwinner and of all the mothers and children who now have no means of support except what local churches and other generous people and groups can spare them. The need is so great and we are so few.
I felt that way when I read about the proposed legislation in Wisconsin that would prevent people on Food Stamps from buying seafood because that is considered by some in the state legislature to be too good for them, too expensive, and not a good use of their state-given resources.
I felt that way when protestors asking for Medicaid expansion in Georgia were asked to leave the Classic Center on Friday when the State Republican Party was meeting there.
And I wondered, does no one remember or care any more about Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick because as we do these things for the least among us we are doing them for him.
But , I have to remind myself, if Bishop Tutu can have hope, then who am I not to hope. If we are to make a difference in this world, and not lose hope, then we have to remember the encouragement Paul offers in Ephesians when he prays that “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened so that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us . . .and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.” He is talking about a hope that binds us together with the life of the risen and ascended Christ. And the power that was able to accomplish that is now being put to work in us, and not just for someday in the future, but for now and for every day. It pushes us out of our helplessness into the places where Christ invites us to work with him towards wholeness now as well as in the future. It encourages us not to give up, even as it feels uncomfortable and leads us to unfamiliar places and sparks our imagination to dream dreams that we thought were beyond imagining. It is a sturdy hope, which as described in the poem JoBeth read earlier, knows when not to keep quiet and be polite; knows how to holler when it is called for and how to sing when there seems little cause. It is a “Hope that raises us from the dead not someday but this day, every day, again, and again, and again.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Peter Gomes, The Good Book, 1996, 337-347.