Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from May 20, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
May 20, 2012
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Ps. 1; 1 John 5:9-13; Luke 24:44-53i
What does the Holy Spirit need these people of God to hear from these texts right now?
Let’s take a moment to orient ourselves. Over the past several weeks since Easter morning Jesus has made several post-resurrection appearances to the disciples. He appears to the disciples in the upper room, to two travelers on the road to Emmaus. On the beach. Jesus has taken forty days in which he opened the disciples’ eyes to the mysteries of the kingdom of God as he prepared them for a change in leadershipii. And now, 40 days after the resurrection, the gospel text from Luke, which we heard today, describes Jesus’ ascent to heaven. The Feast of the Ascension was this past Thursday. Jesus reminds his disciples of the promise of new life in him, of their task to be witnesses and to proclaim that promise of new life. And while he is blessing them, Jesus withdraws from them and “was carried up into heaven.” And the disciples returned to Jerusalem as he bid them to do, with great joy.
The book of Acts, which has the same author as the gospel of Luke, begins also with Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Interesting that the two stories by the same author are not exactly alike. So we are in that period of time after the ascension of Jesus, and before the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost. The disciples are regrouping, preparing for something new. They have gathered in Jerusalem in a crowd of about 120 followers. And they do something strange. They decide they need to replace Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. There were twelve, now there are eleven. Twelve is an important symbolic number to the Jews, connecting them to their ancestral roots with the twelve tribes of Israel. So they apparently decide this is important, and set about finding his replacement. Fresh from the betrayal of Judas, they decide the replacement should be someone who was with Jesus at his baptism, someone they know who has been with them through it all. Two names come up, Justus and Matthias. Both good and loyal men, both fit the bill. So they pray, and they cast lots, and Matthias wins the lucky draw and he takes Judas’ place. End of story.
Several things about this are odd. Scripture never mentions the names of Justus and Matthias again. Matthias becomes one of the chosen who will proclaim the gospel. And yet he’s never mentioned again. And there’s the way they chose. Casting lots was a common way to make all sorts of decisions. It is a way of prayer, and was motivated by a belief that they were leaving the choice to God. Still it has a bit of a gaming quality to it. And we remember that when Jesus hung on the cross, they cast lots for his clothing. And then, maybe the choice didn’t really matter. Both were good, worthy, loyal men who had been with them since Jesus’ baptism. Rather than spend endless hours discussing each man’s strengths and limitations, they draw straws. Maybe this was the kindest way to do it, No hurt feelings. You’ve both been with us a long time, you’re both worthy, so we’ll flip a coin. Both men are named here. This alone suggests they were probably about equal. So just pick one already. And they do. The twelve never do this again. They will lose other members of “the twelve” but they don’t replace them. And of course there will be more than twelve. They don’t end up sticking with the number 12. In fact, they will learn early in the church, that the Holy Spirit is wanting to cast the net of faith wider, and wider. There is Cornelius and his household, and the eunuch, and the gentiles and Paul, and wider, and wider and wider, to the “unclean, to the unconventional, to the yet unseen. This would be no tight little church, no narrow band of insiders. No secret society.
But they don’t know that yet. And they have just witnessed a great mystery, Jesus ascending into heaven. This is the only transcendent moment of their experience. Jesus’ birth was lowly, and they weren’t there. Jesus’ death was ignominious. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t witnessed except through traces. Their experience of the risen Christ was bodily, almost ordinary, as we’ve talked about (“do you have anything to eat?”) But the ascension, that was a moment! As Jesus is blessing them he is carried to heaven!
And here they are now, fresh from this otherworldly experience. They know that they now have to wait for the next move from God. So they gather together. They break bread. They pray. And they try and organize themselves. Easter doesn’t sort everything out. People are trying to figure out how to be faithful. They are in a pause. They are stronger than they were after the crucifixion, because they have seen the risen Jesus. They have been blessed, and they continue to be blessed. They know what they are called to do, which is to go forth and proclaim new life. They don’t yet know what this will look like. They don’t yet know this is a universal directive. That will be the work of the Holy Spirit. They are not in a “take charge,” “just do it” place. Their job now is to sit and wait. So they gather. They keep each other company. They pray together. They avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. They remind themselves and each other of who they are, of their ancestral roots. They are followers of Jesus, and God’s chosen people. We know how that community reaches out beyond and beyond and beyond, down to us. But it starts with those blessed few Jews who knew Jesus.
They’re caught in an in-between time, when something has ended, and they don’t quite know what is coming next. So they keep busy and keep each other company. That’s ok. They’ve been given the gift of the ascension, that great transcendent mystery. It is a brief glimpse into the realm of God. Jesus withdraws, and is taken up into heaven. But why should that be a comfort, let alone cause for joy? Scripture says “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Up into heaven. We may think of heaven as up there, in the clouds. No longer here. Away. But the disciples did not feel that Jesus was “away.” We know that because the text says “and they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” They were joyful. Jesus withdrew, but he is not gone.
“Up” and “down” are heavily used in scripture, and they are not literal. In the Old Testament there is frequent reference to the Israelites going “down” to Egypt, and coming “up” out of Egypt. Egypt isn’t down in a directional sense. It is down in a psycho-emotional-spiritual sense. It is a place of slavery, of life stifled, not being fully lived, of being forced to worship other gods. Coming “up” out of Egypt is to come to a place of freedom and new life. “Up into heaven” is the domain of God that has the power to transform and ushers in a new creation. Jesus has not gone up into the sky, he has gone ahead of them. Heaven “is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present.” Jesus will be experienced by the disciples in table fellowship and in the prayers and in healing and serving others. Jesus, real and present. In the words of Lutheran pastor Luke Bouman, “We experience in worship a “foretaste of the feast to come” because we understand how God’s future banquet has broken in upon our present world of famine.”
It’s been a wild ride for the disciples. Jesus of Nazareth, came into their lives. They are filled with wonder and hope. They follow him, they heal people, they form a community. And then he’s gone, and they are stupefied by grief and fear and even perhaps despair. And then he’s back, for a while, but he’s different from what he was, and they know he will leave again, and soon. And then he does. He withdraws, but not without blessing. Not without helping them to know, through the great mystery that we can’t explain but only know in our hearts, that the blessing continues.
It is the transcendent mystery of the ascension that helps the disciples know it is real. It is real in a way that is beyond logic or proof of explaining, a kind of knowing in their hearts that God is at work, that the blessing continues. It is this that empowers them to do some extraordinary things. They heal the sick, they raise the dead. They die forgiving those who kill them and they endure much of the same treatment as Jesus. They go about proclaiming the living presence of Jesus. Because Jesus is with them.
This isn’t only their story, it is ours too. Jesus is present with us and to us. Jesus is present through the blessing of others in our lives. And people leave us. It’s the human story. Genuine love is always given in the face of certain loss. We know we don’t get to keep our loved ones forever. But we remain hopeful because our Lord’s future is stronger even than death, and more powerful, by far than our grief. In all of this lies the challenge and the comfort. And when we can see it, it is a window into the realm of God. Jesus always wants to us to see him in each other. In our encounters, in our community, in our loving, in our grieving. In the way in which we bless each others’ lives. Our hearts are cracked open, and we catch a glimpse of mystery that is transcendent love. Through mystery, we understand that the blessing doesn’t stop when someone withdraws. We have been blessed, we continue to be blessed.
The great gift we give each other is to remind ourselves of the blessing. We struggle with grief and loss, and we understand that in God’s future the victory is certain. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended one, we are proclaiming that despite events that seem to contradict it, we can see and participate in the future Reign of God with Jesus in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of our Lord, but his real and life transforming presence. The blessing continues. Jesus goes to the future ahead of us, and there is no place in our journey that we now go where God is not already there. Amen.
i Gospel for the Feast of the Ascension
ii Noel Leo Erskine, commentary on Acts, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2, 526.