Ascension—Year C—May 9, 2013
Preached at St. Andrews Episcopal Church (at joint service with Lutheran Church of Framingham)
While he was going and they were gazing toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”…in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I spent my first two years of college looking up toward heaven. That is a strange admission, so let me explain what I mean…When I graduated from high school, I thought of college as a chance for a fresh start. Both my mother and stepdad taught in my high school, and I had an older brother that attended there, so I was known as either Greta’s daughter or Chris’ sister. But I was the first of my family to attend William & Mary, so I decided that I was going to take this opportunity to redefine myself…separate from my parents…and also separate from the church.
I am a cradle Lutheran, I was born, baptized, and raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Throughout middle school and high school I got more and more involved in my church, especially youth group. Church was a big part of who I was and what I did. But when I went to College, I decided that it was time to try something new. So I decided I was going to define myself apart from the church, get involved in other activities and groups, instead of just continuing to be super involved in the church like I always had been. So my first two years of college I only attended Lutheran Campus Ministry twice, and although my Sunday morning church attendance was a bit more frequent, it was no where near every week like it had been throughout my childhood.
This change in habit had nothing to do with a lack of belief in God. I still had what people would call a “strong faith”; I just did not participate in a religious community. I had my eyes pointed up towards heaven, focusing only on my “personal relationship” with God, instead of looking around me and realizing that God surrounded me, in the midst of God’s kingdom, the community around me.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Because we just saw Jesus get lifted up, and a cloud take him out of our sight, duh!
Personally, I think the disciples are totally justified in their upward focus. They just saw Jesus ascend on a cloud. I would be staring up too!
The two men in white robes are probably not all that concerned with the disciples’ momentary staring, but they do want to make sure that this is not going to become a permanent thing. The question reminds the disciples that they have been sent out, and are not supposed to wait around for Jesus to come back. Jesus has tasked them with being his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This is quite a big task, so they need to stop staring up towards the clouds where Jesus ascended. They need to bring their attention back down to earth and get to the work that Jesus gave them to do. Jesus is no longer physically present in the world with them, but they are still in the world, and they have been commissioned, sent out, to share Christ with the world.
But the disciples are not left totally on their own. Even though there is new physical separation between teacher and disciple, the educational relationship is still in tact, the look of the ministry just changes a little bit. The disciples are not left utterly alone; the Holy Spirit is there to help. This is true for the disciples, and the same is still true for us today.
The disciples “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon” them at Pentecost. And just like each one of you, the Holy Spirit came upon me at Baptism. That is why we do not have to stay staring up towards heaven.
With the Holy Spirit upon them, and the power that goes along with that, the disciples can do the job that Jesus had called them to do. They “will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We get the same power from the Holy Spirit coming upon us, and we are freed from constantly needing to stare up into the sky. Instead, we can look at the world around us at the Christian community that we are a part and get to work.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, after two years of not really being involved in a religious community, I decided to work at the Lutheran camp that I had gone to as a kid. It did not take long for me to realize how much I had missed being part of an intentional Christian community. It had been a while since I worshiped with a group of believers on a regular basis. It had been a while since I had shared in the fellowship of such a community. It had been a while since I had been supported in times of need and supported others in their times of need, just because that is what a Christian community does. It had been a while since I had focused on something other than my “personal relationship” with God, and remembered that God is in all the people around me and in all of our relationships.
That summer I realized that I did not need to define myself apart from the church, because the church was a big part of who I am. I am a child of God, and there is nothing that I can do to change that…thank God. I am Baptized, full of the Holy Spirit, part of the family of God, and called to witness as part of that community.
Jesus ascended to heaven, leaving us here on earth to be his witnesses with the help and power of the Holy Spirit, and he also left us each other to work as a community to get the job done. But we cannot do this if we only look upwards toward heaven, thinking that Christianity is all about our “personal relationships” with God. We are called to look around us, and live and work together in community to fulfill our Christian call.
Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God, and love one another. These are not two separate commandments; they are one. The part about loving others is how we show our love for God. The church working to spread the good news of Christ throughout the world is how we are called to respond to the great gift of love that we have received through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Some people say that they do not need to attend church to believe in God, and my first two years of college proved that to be true. But I discovered that to live a Christian life, to fulfill our call to be witnesses to the risen and ascended Jesus Christ, to care for orphans and widows, house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the poor, we need to do more than stare upwards. We also are called to lower our gaze, look around us, both to see our partners in this ministry and so we can serve those who are in need of the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.