Friday, July 15, 2011

Sermon for June 5, 2011

Living at Light Speed

Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things. I will send you what my Father has promised, but you must stay in Jerusalem until you have received that power from heaven." Jesus led his followers as far as Bethany, and he raised his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he was separated from them and carried into heaven. They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem very happy. They stayed in the Temple all the time, praising God. Luke 24:44-53

The Ascension of Jesus is a great story. You can see the action in your mind; like an old Cecil B. DeMille Epic. In my film adaptation of the Ascension, Johnny Depp plays Jesus. He is strong. Dashing. Edgy. Soulful eyes. Roguish yet strangely wise. You can use your imagination and fill in the details. Jesus would give the apostles some final instructions and then say with just the right touch of divine pathos and coolness, "It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations.” Johnny Depp Jesus would take the next cloud to heaven in a proper cinematic denouement. I picture it as an escalator-into-the-clouds effect, slow and lingering. And don’t forget the soundtrack. I’m hearing “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong” -- not the original but the Reba McIntyre version, because for some reason I think Jesus would like country music. Or maybe Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Finally, the camera looks down upon the apostles -- dazed, mouths gaping wide, like Gomer Pyle looking up at a skyscraper for the first time. Then . . . Shazzam, Jesus is gone. "Now what?" we can almost hear them all say. "He’s gone. Now what?"

Rembrandt's painting of the Ascension is a 1636 classic. The disciples cower in the shadows looking like they want to grab Jesus' feet and hold him down to earth, like they’re wondering how to tether an escaping hot air balloon. Jesus stands on a cloud. Little diaperless child angels push Jesus up and away towards the light. Jesus wears a billowing white robe, raising his nail-marked hands to the sky. There's a devilish little angel over in the corner who's looking directly into the gaze of the viewer of the canvas as if to say, "He’s ours, now. Now what are you going do?"

It's easy to imagine the Ascension in your mind. Pick an impressive cumulus cloud some fine afternoon and you're halfway there. This is dramatic, spine-tingling scripture. A great story. Less clear, though, is the actual meaning of this event.

In most of my early Christian education, I was taught the “party line” concerning the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus disappeared visibly to end his earthly fellowship with the disciples and to take up his heavenly dominion over all creation. This was done so that he could use his body’s new resurrection powers to be present anywhere and everywhere he chooses. He ascends to sit at the right hand of the throne of God and waits for his orders to return to earth.

Today, some of us might have a problem with this interpretation. What do we do with Jesus violating the laws of gravity and floating into the stratosphere? The Bible is written from a point of view of the earth being the center of a three-tiered universe, with an all-seeing, all knowing God living just above the sky, always looking down. Jesus floats into the upper tier of this universe to be reunited with God, who lives in the heavens. But the biblical writers had no idea of the distances of the universe. In his lectures, iconoclastic christian teacher John Shelby Spong talks about a conversation with his friend, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan told Jack Spong his theory about the ascension. He said, “Jack, have you ever thought about what the ascension might look like to an astrophysicist?” Sagan shook his hands as he talked and said, “Do you know if Jesus literally ascended in to the sky, and if he travelled at the speed of light, at 186,000 mps, give or take a mile or two, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy? And our galaxy is one of billions and billions of galaxies.” He is correct. 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. But today we live with different knowledge. In 1543, when Nicolaus Copernicus published a book entitled On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, he proved that we live in a heliocentric solar system, not a geocentric one. The earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Heaven is not on the other side of the sky.

Imagine Jesus travelling at the speed of light. Sometimes I feel as if we on earth are living at the speed of light. We are made to shine. Jesus says that this new life is about changing hearts and lives by finding forgiveness. But many of us spend our days rushing back and forth, always being in a hurry. It’s like we are blurry photons, zooming around, always bouncing, constantly reflected and refracted and on the move. We are so busy. So distracted. So tired. I’m not convinced that this is what the Divine Spirit wants from us. The story of the ascension may remind us of another way. Jesus did not die and rise again so we can busy our lives. So, now what?

As Jesus rises to the heavens, he seems to be leaving the whole show to a group of guys who frankly do not have an impressive track record for theological insight or understanding of his teachings. What was Jesus thinking? Why did he leave them there so alone in some field outside of Bethany? Why did he leave us?

What if he leaves because if he stayed around, his followers would never be able to grow in their understanding of God and their understanding of what God wants for the world? If Jesus had stayed, we would always be looking up looking up for a miracle, looking up for the right words, looking up for someone to come and rescue us from mistakes. We would want someone to do the spiritual stuff for us so we could maintain our light-speed lifestyles. If you remember the Gospels, Jesus’ concern was for the disciple’s spiritual growth. For that to happen, Jesus has to remove himself. He loves his disciples, but he wants them to grow up.

We all know families where we see over-controlling parents micro-managing their children’s lives -- even into adulthood. Over-controlling parents do not allow their children to assume responsibilities appropriate for their age. The parents are often driven by a fear of becoming irrelevant or unnecessary to their children. They lay on heavy guilt trips by saying things like, "After all I've done for you, the least you could do is ..." The children of these parents frequently feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless. As adults, they struggle with guilt, as if growing up were a serious act of disloyalty. It is good to be close. But each family member also needs room to fly and let God's spirit fill their wings.

Jesus knew this about his disciples. It was time for the disciples to be out on their own. Out of Jesus' control. Luke has a longer version of the Ascension in first chapter of the book of Acts. After Jesus floats away, the disciples just stand there, straining their eyes heavenward as if visiting Cape Canaveral for an space shuttle lift off. Suddenly, two white-robed men appear and they say, “Why are you standing here staring into heaven?” What a beautiful question. It’s not time to look up anymore. It’s time to look around. It’s time to look within. That's why Jesus got out of the way -- to help disciples, like them and like us, discover that God’s world is now in our hands. We might beg, "Please, Jesus, don’t go. Stay with us. Do a few more of those miracles. Comfort us when we're confused. Take all of our tears away." No. Don’t just stand there, waiting and wondering. Now is the time for us to shine.

Jesus loves us enough, and has enough faith in us, to let us be the ones who make his vision for this world into a shining reality. There will be plenty of times when we shake our heads, look up in the sky, and ask, "Now what, Lord? How are we going to do this without you?” The temptation is to ignore the opportunity -- to busy ourselves and go back to our hectic, over-productive lives.

“What now, Lord?” On this day, I suggest we take time to be glad. Be glad that we are not left without the promise of the Spirit to help us out. Be glad that we now have the opportunity to even ask the question. Be glad that Jesus gives us room to answer it.


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