"Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
I think this is one of the funniest statements in the Bible. The disciples have just seen their beloved Teacher lifted up in to heaven and then there are guys in white who ask them “why are you looking up toward heaven?” Cummon! Who wouldn’t be staring up trying to get a glimpse of where he had gone!
But these words which Luke puts into the mouths of the men in white are important to our faith. They are important to how we are to live out the teachings of Jesus in our lives. All too often throughout history Christianity has been distorted by those who look heaven-ward rather than go out and live out the life in God that Jesus taught.
The Ascension is one of the more important feasts we have in the Church calendar. It used to be a ‘day of obligation’ in some traditions. But all of our feasts that don’t fall on Sunday save Christmas which has been captured by Madison Ave. have all been thrown under the bus. So we have translated this feast from the 40th day after Easter where it is belongs to celebrated to the Sunday before Pentecost—or wherever we can fit it in. But all too often Ascension is celebrated as a day of Christ’s triumph over the grave, like Easter rather than the real handing over the message of God’s love for the world and expectations of how humanity can live together in peace to humanity.
Yes, we are promised a Christ who will return and Luke is quick to point out that we are not to know when that will be. But the mission of living out the message of Christ has been bestowed upon us in the Ascension. We can’t just wait until Christ’s return to live out his message.
Ascension marks the day when saving the world becomes the work of us. Jesus came to proclaim the saving work of God by living lives that are worthy of the Gospel, by treating one another with respect, by living on this earth with gentleness and regard and knowing that everything we have comes from God. He taught us the liberating message that through love and care for one another we can live lives of peace and that when we turn to greed or power over others that we distort the gift that God has given in Creation.
If Christ had not ascended, we would still be demanding that Christ clean up the world. That was what so many wanted of the Messiah in Jesus’ day. They wanted a Messiah to come down with God’s wrath and clean up the mess they had made. And I daresay that is what many of our Christian denominations still teach.
In today’s Acts reading the disciples ask Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" To the last, the disciples haven’t gotten it. It is not until Pentecost that they get it. They are still waiting for Jesus to straighten out this unholy mess that is enveloping their country where Rome is in charge and the Herodians rule the roost and the poor have no Mosaic law to turn to. Jesus’ disciples still want Jesus to be the one who will straighten out the mess their country is in. The economy was out of whack, the Mosaic laws had been superseded by Roman dictates and God, the lover of the people of Israel was being replaced by Rome demi-gods. Everyone knew something was going to give. Isn’t this the time that Jesus should be here?
But Jesus did not come to be King of Israel. He did not come to return a nation to its ‘rightful’ place. No, Jesus did not come to be king. Jesus came to ‘show us the Father.’ Jesus came to witness to a loving God who assured us of love and acceptance so that we would not crave domination, greed or power. Jesus came to teach us how to live with one another so that we could live peacefully with one another rather than fall in to the fears of loss that humanity so often exhibits.
If Christ hadn’t ascended, we humans would have never understood that we are responsible for living out the salvation that has already been worked out for us in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If Christ had stayed with the world, we would still be slaves of the “let another guy do it” mentality that often pervades our culture.
In many ways the Christian message has been distorted over the millennia to say that when Jesus returns it will all be well. And so there are those who just sit and wait for Jesus’ return. But that isn’t what Christian living is about. Christian living is about calling from ourselves ethics that demand a respect for all humanity. It calls us to address the issues of our complex lives honoring the diversity of God’s creation. It calls us to respect the earth and all that lives on it.
The Ascension is as important today as it was in the early church, but for different reasons. Then they were still looking into the sky. Today we must find the ascension in our own selves—the raising up of our own eyes from ourselves to the others that inhabit this planet. The Ascension is about how are we going to carry that message of God’s love to those who need to hear it—to our neighbor who might be in foreclosure, to the kid in next desk at school who is perhaps abused, to the spouse who is overwhelmed with debt, the politician who is being tempted by big money to do the wrong thing. We need to think locally about how we can carry the message that Christ is always visible to us in the Break of the Bread, is always available to us in the hearts of those who follow him. How do we get people’s fascination with Armageddon off the Jesus who comes on a white horse to save the world, to the Christ that had the faith in us to leave us? AMEN