Stop looking to heaven!
This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Reading: Acts 1:1-11
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
This morning’s reading is unique. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t include a story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel ends with a promise of Jesus to be with his followers “every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:20b, Common English Bible). Mark’s gospel, at least the earliest version, doesn’t include the story of Jesus’ ascension. The longer ending to Mark, added sometime in the second century mentions it, but not in any detail: just a quick mention that “after the Lord Jesus spoke to [the disciples], he was lifted up into heaven and sat down on the right side of God” (Mark 16:19¸ Common English Bible). The longer ending of Mark may have been a revision of Luke’s account which we’ll get to in a minute. John’s Gospel, the testimony of the beloved disciple, makes no mention of Jesus’ ascension. Perhaps everyone in John’s community already knew what happened to Jesus; nevertheless, it’s quite interesting that John doesn’t mention it in his story. The story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven is unique to Luke-Acts.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were never meant to be separated in the way they are in our Bibles today. They were meant to be read together. They are a two-part history dedicated to Theophilus, literally translated “the one who loves God.” The first volume recounts “everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven” (Acts 1:1-b-2a, Common English Bible). Acts picks up where Luke ends: Jesus’ ascension into heaven. I’d encourage you to read the account of Jesus’ ascension in Luke and the account in Acts together. There are some interesting differences in the stories (and remember, they’re supposed to be written by the same author!). In the Gospel account, Jesus blesses the disciples and, reminiscent of a David Blaine levitation trick, Jesus is lifted up before them and taken into heaven. The response of the disciples is continuous worship in the temple praising God (see Luke 24:53). “Tom Wright points out that Luke’s gospel ends, as it began, in the Temple at Jerusalem. ‘Worship of the living God,’ Wright says, ‘is at the heart of Luke’s vision of the Christian life.” But, the version depicted in Acts is a bit different. In Acts, Jesus’ ascension is not a call to worship, it’s a commission “to be…witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8b, Common English Bible). In the book of Acts, Jesus’ ascension is the launching pad (pun intended) from which the church is born.
Jesus’ ascension into heaven…is not “beam me up, Scotty” science fiction, but rather that which makes possible the Church’s existence. Because Jesus is not here, the Church can be, must be—the Church is constituted as and empowered to be his worshiping, witnessing body here and now.
It must have been an incredible sight to behold. Jesus had been teaching his disciples for forty days, speaking about the kingdom of God (interesting that we don’t know what Jesus taught them: perhaps he taught them to laugh in the face of death and taught them with a drawing to love God, love neighbor, and draw near into community). They were all together—the eleven remaining disciples and Jesus. The disciples were hungry for the kingdom and they wondered when it would fully come on earth as it in heaven. “Is it time?” they asked.
He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”
These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud.
It was an awesome sight to see: an event we might describe differently today. After all, we no longer believe in a flat earth and a three-tiered universe where the earth is in the middle, heaven above and hell below. Nevertheless, it was a wondrous sight that captivated the disciples’ attention. They couldn’t help but stare as Jesus left them, floating beyond their sight. As they looked toward heaven, two men in white robes—men who Peter, James and John thought looked eerily familiar, like the two men they saw with Jesus on the mountain the day he was transfigured (see Luke 9:28-36); men who, when the story was relayed to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women, matched the description of the two men in gleaming clothes that greeted the women at the tomb on the first Easter morning (see Luke 24:1-10)… Two men in white robes mysteriously appeared among the disciples they looked heavenward and said, “You Galileans! –why do you just stand here looking up [to heaven]? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come, as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left” (Luke 1:11, The Message). Their question, seems to me, to be more of a command.
Stop looking to heaven.
“Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky” (Luke 1:11, The Message)? “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven” (Luke 1:11, New Revised Standard Version)? Christ is risen! and he’ll come back again someday; but until that time get your heads out of the clouds. Stop looking to heaven for Christ. Stop worrying yourself with when he might return and, instead, be Christ for the world.
Be Christ for the world.
Jesus’ ascension, however it might have happened, is a pivotal event in the life of the church. It is the moment when Jesus steps aside and says I’ve taught you everything you need to know, now go and continue my work. “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 end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, Common English Bible). Don’t just stand there: you’ve a story to tell and work to do. Start in your own city (Jerusalem or is it Norwich?), then go to the neighboring regions (Judea and Samaria or is it Sprague?); but don’t stop there. Spread the news everywhere: to the very end of the earth. Be Christ for the world. Love the world God so loved with the same reckless abandon and passion Christ had.
As Jesus’ followers we must take a stand and be Christ for the world. As United Methodists that stand is articulated in what we call our Social Creed.
“Our Social Creed” is a basic statement of our convictions about the fundamental relationships between God, God’s creation and humanity. This basic statement is expanded in a more lengthy statement called the “Social Principles.” This statement explains more fully how United Methodists are called to live in the world. Part of our Book of Discipline, the “Social Principles” serve as a guide to official church action and our individual witness.
The Social Creed is the stand we take as we seek to be Christ for the world. It is our commitment to shift our wondering gaze from heaven to the needs of the world Christ came to save. The Social Creed is the Christ-like stand we take as Jesus’ followers that God’s reign of peace, hope, joy and love might come on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a bold stand. Would you be so bold as to read it and take it with me?
We believe God’s love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex.
This is the stand we take:
We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.
We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.
We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.
We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.
We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.
We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.
We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.
This is the stand we take.
Dear friends, Jesus has ascended. He’s empowering us and made room for us to carry on his mission. So let us not get so caught up in the wonder of looking toward heaven that we forget to take a stand and be Christ for the world.
You have wowed us over and over again. Your teachings of peace and love in the face of hatred and persecution. The miracles. The way you held fast to your principles when people spat on you and killed you. You wowed us at the resurrection. And, you’ve wowed us again at your ascension. The sight is beyond our comprehension. It doesn’t seem possible. Help us, O God, not to get lost in the wonder, gazing forever into heaven. Instead, give to us your power that we might do all that you have done—and even more. Lower our gaze that we might look with compassion and love upon the world you have come to redeem. Help us to be agents of hope, peace, love and joy that your kingdom—your reign—might come as fully on earth as it is in heaven. With God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as our witness we pray. Amen.
 “Ascension Sunday” by Debra Dean Murphy, ekklesiaproject.org < http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/05/ascension-sunday/> Accessed May 16, 2015.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Acts 1:7-9, The Message.
 “Social Principles & Social Creed,” UMC.org <http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/social-principles-social-creed> Accessed May 17, 2015.
 Adapted from The United Methodist Book of Resolutions: 2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, 2012), p27.
 Adapted from “Our Social Creed,” The United Methodist Book of Discipline: 2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, 2012), ¶166 (p141).