Delivered by Moderator James Parks
I am a big fan of “Star Trek”—the movies, the TV series in all its different voyages of the starship Enterprise and its multitude of crews. But the one version I grew up with and love the most is the original version with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the lovely Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura—after all I was a teenaged boy with hormones. As a result of that series I developed a passion for learning things about the universe beyond our little planet and I eat up the latest pictures from the Hubble Telescope, reading all about them.
So when I read about Jesus ascending into the clouds in the book of Acts, I was really intrigued. But I had a serious problem with the way the story is told. First of all, I am skeptical about the way Jesus ascended. The text says “[Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight; “[The apostles’] were gazing up toward heaven” and [Jesus] will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – that is, presumably Jesus will “descend down” back to earth at some point.
The book of Acts was written from a first-century world view in which most people believed in a three-tiered universe. Imagine a cosmic three-layer cake. One tier was the surface of the earth. A second tier was the dark underworld beneath the earth’s surface. The third tier was heaven, which was above the sky.
In this three-tiered cosmology, the sky was the barrier between earth and heaven. The sun, moon, and stars were thought to be stuck into the dome of the sky. From the perspective of a three-tiered universe, it made sense to talk about Jesus being lifted up on a cloud, the apostles looking up toward heaven, and Jesus descending back down from heaven, but today we know the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. The sun, moon, and stars are not like thumb tacks that God moves around on a giant domed bulletin board of sky. And heaven is not on the other side of the sky.
Modern astronomy tells us not only that the earth is the “third rock from the sun,” but also that what we call the “sun” is only one star among over 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Our sun is not even a central star. Our entire solar system is on the periphery of the Milky Way galaxy, which is only one of billions of other galaxies in the universe.
Now if we know all this about outer space, but we believe that the Bible is one of God’s ways of speaking to us, how do we reconcile these two ideas so we can understand the ascension today?
Here’s what I think. I don’t think any one thing happened. Remember Luke wrote Acts at least 50 years after Jesus died, and people in the church were still feeling the presence of the Christ. So in my mind, the story of the ascension, which is only recorded in Acts and Luke, is just one of many attempts by early Christians to explain how, even after Jesus’ death, they continued to have real experiences of his presence.
The ascension is the culminating event in Jesus’ life, his final triumph. It’s impossible to think about the crucifixion without the resurrection, and it is impossible to understand the resurrection without the ascension.
We understand that it was good for us that Jesus came, that he lived, that he died, that he was lifted up. But we, like the disciples, are reluctant to accept that it is to our advantage for him to go away.
Jesus’ ascension not only marked the completion of his work on earth, but it shows that you cannot limit God. The disciples could not keep Jesus to themselves and they could not confine his message to one neat place and time. They tried to confine Jesus by asking “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were trying to hold God in their world. But God transcends time and place. God’s message as expressed by Jesus’ example is true for everybody or it’s not true at all. You can’t confine God to Israel, to Rome as the King Constantine did in the Fourth Century, or to Europe and the United States. God’s message is universal. Did you know that experts predict that by the year 2100 there will be three times as many Christians living in Asia, Africa and South America than in Europe and the United States?
You cannot keep God hostage to our place, our culture, our needs. The ascension freed us to spread God’s message everywhere. And that message is simple. Jesus, himself, laid that out in one of the very first sermons he preached:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The ascension signals the sending of the Holy Spirit who then takes up residency in the life of every believer. The disciples had Christ with them, and now we have the spirit of Christ in us.
Finally, the ascension marks the passing of the responsibility of sharing the Gospel into the hands of Jesus’ followers. Jesus was the primary teacher the whole time he was on earth. But when He left and sent the Holy Spirit, we became responsible for carrying the torch.
So as we sit here in Baltimore 2000 years later, the most pressing question may be, not “How can we understand the ascension?” but rather, “How can we experience the ascension today?” It is important not to see the Bible as a collection of stories about the amazing things that God, Moses, and Jesus did a long time ago, but that can’t happen again. God is still speaking today; we need only to create time and space to listen.
So how do we listen to God? We do what Jesus’ disciples did—we pray and wait on God.
Waiting on God is one of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian. What do we do while we’re waiting? And what are we waiting for?
One of my favorite spiritual writers, the monk Thomas Merton said:
This is the grace of Ascension Day: to be taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the point of immediate contact with God. To rest on this quiet peak, in the darkness that surrounds God. To live there through all trials and all business with the “tranquil God who makes all things tranquil.”
How do you experience this “tranquil God who makes all things tranquil?” You do what the disciples did. You pray and pray and pray. And you wait on God.
We Americans are really bad at waiting. We live in a rush-rush world when everything has to be done yesterday and where “time is money” and we want instant gratification.
We hate being held up in traffic. We get annoyed when we have to wait in line at the supermarket, especially if the forecast calls for snow. We wait impatiently on the preacher to finish his sermon.
The problem we have with waiting on God is that God has Her own timetable. The apostle Peter wrote, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years.” An economist once read those words and got very excited. “Lord – is it true that a thousand years for us is just like a minute to you?” “Yes.” “Then a million dollars to us must just be a penny to you.” “Yes.” “Lord, would you give me one of those pennies?” “All right. Wait here a minute.”
But Jesus was not telling his disciples to simply wait. Waiting on God is not just something we have to do while we get what we want. Waiting is the process of becoming what God wants us to be. What God does in us while we wait is as important as what it is we are waiting for.
Waiting for God is like growing a bamboo tree. When you first plant it, it is no bigger than my finger. Then you water and feed it for five years and it’s still the size of your finger. Then suddenly it begins growing and grows to a height of nine feet in less than a year. So when did it grow? During the five years of watering and nurturing it grew a root system that could support a nine-foot tree. If it had grown nine feet before the roots were ready it would have died. Waiting on God prepares us for the work ahead.
When Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, he was telling them that that this was how they would experience his peace and his power. In waiting they would catch the wind of God’s Spirit. In waiting they would see God move.
And when God moved, Jesus said, they should be ready to move as well. When the crops grow, the farmer must be ready to harvest. When the baby is ready to come, the mother must be ready to deliver.
Listen again to the last words Jesus ever said to his original disciples: “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.” Our Lord’s very last words were a work order: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
So waiting on God does not mean doing nothing. We work while we wait because we know our work is not in vain. Farmers wait all summer for the harvest because they have done the work of sowing the seed and watering the plants. Those who wait on God keep working, trusting that God will provide the meaning and conclusions to their lives and the harvest to their toil. Waiting is the confident, disciplined, expectant, active, and sometimes painful clinging to God. It knows that we will reap a reward.
We work while we wait, but we work as if the waiting is over. We trust that God’s message throughout time of peace, justice, love and happiness for all Creation will one day be complete. We recognize that we play a part in moving the stubborn, ego-driven, selfish world we live in closer to that glorious day because the beloved community lives in us right now.
Jesus has given us a commission—“be my witnesses”. So what are we waiting for?
Luke and Thomas Merton are saying the same thing. When we are taken up into the heaven of our own souls, the point of immediate contact with God or when the Holy Spirit comes, we are transformed by the presence of God. You become fully human. No other person in the history of the world is exactly like you. Every person on the planet is a unique creation of God.
In this transformation, you don’t feel as if you found something, it’s more like something found you. Divine love consumes you and you experience a peace that cannot be explained. When you are transformed, you realize that you are loved and you are loveable and you become loving. But the strange thing is that you have no control over who you love. All of a sudden you have this desire to and capacity to love everybody: new people, people you already know and even you’ve never met. You instinctively recognize and lift up the unique creation in other people and long to come together with them to be God’s hands and feet in bringing the beloved community into being.
Jesus commands us to love others, not just feel love. That means we must share God’s love with others who are outside our immediate world. To do that means we have to look at the society we live in honestly and admit how the society is structured especially in ways that favor certain groups of God’s children over others.
You can’t lose God’s love, but you can lose its impact if you don’t use it. God freely gives love. It’s not earned and it applies to everybody—the beggar on the street, the noisy neighbor next door, the screaming child on the airplane, the gang banger drug dealer, the misguided suicide bomber who believes terror will bring her what she wants. God even loves the triad of awful people, politicians, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Yankees. So God’s love is not ours to hoard.
Jesus has given us a commission—“be my witnesses”. The Holy Spirit has moved on us. So what are we waiting for? Sometimes we’re waiting for people to change.
I like the way Merton puts it:
If we wait for some people to become agreeable or attractive before we begin to love them, we will never begin. If we are content to give them a cold impersonal ‘charity’ that is merely a matter of obligation, we will not trouble to understand them or to sympathize with them at all. And in that case we will not really love them, because love implies an efficacious will not only to do good to others exteriorly but also to find some good in them to which we can respond.”
God is moving in Baltimore this very day. Hunting Ridge and the rest of the Baltimore Presbytery are blessed to be in a position to be a witness for light in the midst of all the darkness that surrounds us.
Inspired by the love of God for all creation and sustained by the Holy Spirit, we must follow Jesus’ lead and feed the hungry –more than 243,000 children go to bed hungry in Maryland every night. Just this week across the country, as many as 1 million unemployed people in 22 states began losing their food stamps no matter how hard they were looking for work. We must free the oppressed—recent studies show that if you are born a poor black male in East Baltimore, you are more 25% more likely than anybody else in the country to remain poor all your life. We must free the prisoners—there are more African American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.
Nobody wakes up each morning wanting to be poor, to be discriminated against, to face a system that is stacked against you, to face the possibility that you may be killed or arrested before the day is over. But we should wake up each day unwilling to accept a society that tolerates poverty, racism, violence. God’s children, our brothers and sisters, should not have to live like that and God’s judgement should rain down on us if we don’t stand up and do something to change the world we live in.
Tomorrow, April 4, we will commemorate the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. I think it is only appropriate that I end with his words from a little-known sermon “Questions That Easter Answers” from 1957.
People are always asking, “What is the most durable power in the universe? And the fact is that Easter answers that question too… It’s the power of love. Easter tells us that. Sometimes it looks like the other powers are much more durable. Then we come to see that isn’t true…It is only through love and devotion to the justice of the universe that we can solve these problems. And then we can go away saying in terms that cry out across the generations that “God reigns, he reigns supreme, the Lord God omnipotent reigns.” He reigns because he established his universe on moral principles. And through the love that he revealed through Jesus Christ, things move on. These are the questions that Easter answers. God grant that as you seek to answer them you will catch the spirit of Jesus in Easter and live life with an exuberant joy.
Jesus has given us a commission—“be my witnesses.” The Holy Spirit has moved on us. So what are we waiting for?