Sermon for Ascension: Meanwhile

Meanwhile

Ascension Sunday; June 2, 2019

Acts 1:1-11

You and I spend a lot of our lives waiting for something to happen. And sometimes what we wait for we would prefer to hold off as long as possible; I'm thinking about mortality this week. Two of our folks are in hospice care, and our sister Ruth died on Friday. And we had another mass shooting in our country, so I'm thinking about mortality. We have a prayer in our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship that says, "Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live…"[1] We all know it's coming, although we hope to hold it off as long as possible. We know we gain nothing by pretending it won't happen, so each of us prepares in our own way.

Also, this coming week is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the D-Day invasion; many will travel to France for the observance. Some of you have served in the military, and you trained for all sorts of possibilities. Sometimes you never had to do the thing you trained for, but maybe the training turned out to be valuable anyway. Also in the military you are used to spending long periods of time waiting for something to happen, and sometimes hoping that it never does. When it does, it pays to be ready.

Those forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples after his Resurrection were preparation time. Jesus had a purpose for those disciples: to be his witnesses. He was preparing them to be able to go to places and tell people about Jesus, to teach the things he taught, and to talk about his saving death and resurrection. Luke tells us that during those forty days Jesus stayed on message, he spoke about the kingdom of God (v. 3), the same thing he had talked about during the three years he had already spent with them. So although the situation was novel – it's not every day you get to hang with someone who has come back from the dead – the message was not. He's talking the same old same old: the kingdom of God.

Then the Ascension happened, and his words to them were: wait. They were ready to do something, to be part of the movement "to restore the kingdom to Israel" (v. 6). It sounds to me that Jesus' Resurrection had proven to them that he was the Messiah, but they were still stuck in the notion that the Messiah's job was to overthrow the Roman tyranny and establish a free and independent State. "Let's do something now!" Jesus: "Wait. You will receive power, and you will be my witnesses." So, let me underscore two things: Jesus' talk during the forty days between Resurrection and Ascension was the kingdom of God – not the kingdom of Israel, but the kingdom of God – and his commission to his disciples was to be his witnesses. The message was the kingdom of God; the mission was to be witnesses for Jesus.

Last weekend Kathleen and I were in Dayton, Ohio, visiting our dear friends and celebrating their children's graduations. You may have heard about the tornado that hit Dayton; we were in a different part of the city, but we did see the devastation as we were leaving to come home. That was a good example of a city being prepared; there was a lot of damage, but only one fatality and a few injuries.

But something else happened in Dayton last weekend that has even more to do with the kingdom of God and with being witnesses for Jesus. There was a rally there: a KKK group from Indiana had a march and a rally. It was not well-attended; I read in the Dayton Daily News that only nine Klan members actually participated. But hundreds of people came from near and far to be part of the counter-protest. Church groups from Dayton and elsewhere in Ohio were present to make a witness for the Gospel's message of peace and inclusion of everyone. City buses all proclaimed on their destination boards "United Against Hate." A pair of tuba players came from Chicago to play songs for the peacemakers; for the Klan they played the Imperial March from Star Wars and "If I Only Had a Brain." There was an enormous police presence, because of fear of a repeat of what happened in Charlottesville, and it's too bad that the white supremacists are able to force such an expenditure of public funds. But the response of the people of Dayton and the surrounding area was a witness to peace and inclusion in the face of white supremacist hate-mongering.[2]

The story of the Ascension of Jesus is hard to get our heads around. I'm not sure why we don't talk about it any more than we do; Jesus talked about it a lot in the Gospel of John, and it's at least as important theologically as Christmas, but we don't give it much attention. Ascension Day is always on a Thursday, and it isn't a holiday in this country, as it is in some, so people won't go to church. And it doesn't have the marketing possibilities of the Bunny or the cuddly baby in a manger. So we don't talk much about it.

And the whole notion is rather bizarre. We have this image in our heads of a cloud wrapping itself around Jesus and he rises majestically into the air, like a Saturn V rocket. It offends our scientific sensibilities, but that may be something like what the disciples saw. But Cosmic Jesus lifting off the launching pad isn't fair to what the Ascension represents.

It represents, for one thing, the completion of the story. Jesus came from God; Jesus returns to God. That's how he talks about it in the Gospel of John. Christ brings divinity to earth at Christmas; Christ takes humanity to heaven at Ascension. At Ascension God finishes what God started at Christmas. And the result of that is the beginning of a new story, which we'll talk about next week.

Another thing Ascension represents is Jesus' promise that he will be with his people anywhere, everywhere, at any time. Physically on earth Christ is present in one place at one time; now that he is with God in Heaven Christ is present wherever people seek him, wherever people call on him, wherever two or three are gathered in his name.

So another thing I got to do last weekend is I got to go to church. This is something many of you do week after week, so it doesn't seem remarkable to you. Most Sundays I'm up here, trying to keep track of everything, trying to move things forward, trying to remember my sermon. A few Sundays a year I get to be where you are, singing hymns that someone else chose (I'm not always happy with what they chose, but that doesn't matter. I'm not there for my own pleasure; I'm there to worship God), listening to the Scriptures being read, hearing someone else preach.

Last Sunday Kathleen and I drove to a small church on the southwest corner of Columbus, Ohio, where my friend Thom is the pastor. I wanted to see Thom and Bonnie and I wanted to hear Thom preach. There were maybe fifteen or twenty people present for a spirited, enthusiastic time of worship. Thom preached a beautiful sermon. The music was led by Alex, a gifted young man of nineteen who plays his own compositions on the electric guitar and is also pretty good on the keyboard, accompanying the hymns. Kathleen whispered to me, "A young Chris Krampe."

Jesus was there. I knew that not because of the pounding of my heart or because I began to weep, as I often do when I get to go to church, but because there was a small group of Presbyterians praying in Christ's name and listening to Christ's Gospel. They were his witnesses. Nothing remarkable, just some of his people gathered in his name and waiting for his Spirit. It was a wonder.

In years to come you will look back on your time and you will remember great things you did and great things that happened to you. You will remember triumphs and tragedies, both in your own lives and in the life of our Church. But most of our days are "meanwhile" days, days wondering where and whether Jesus will show up, and what he may say about the kingdom of God, days in which we are simply trying to be witnesses for Jesus. And those days are a wonder.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska


[1] It's in the funeral service; Book of Common Worship (Desk Edition), Ó 2018 Westminster John Knox Press, p. 783

[2] Here's a good story from the New York Times about it: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/25/us/dayton-kkk-rally.html and here's the story from the Dayton Daily News: https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/local/dayton-rallies-against-kkk-this-ugly-chapter-over-but-work-done/m2q3WMtQe5ZPxlYCEL3W1M/ 

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