The Right Things at the Right Time, Ascension Day – May 25, 2017

(RCL) Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

Crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. All in a little over forty days.

From sadness to guilt, to hopelessness, to fear, to doubt, to hopefulness, the feelings of the disciples have been a roller coaster.

Jesus has told the disciples that he had to suffer, but would be raised in three days. Did they believe him? No! Peter even rebuked Jesus, saying that this could not happen, leading to Jesus calling him Satan. Then Jesus was arrested. And then Jesus was crucified. In three days, the stone was removed, and the tomb was empty. Angels and even Jesus himself appeared to tell his followers that he was raised, and still they doubted! He had to show up inside locked doors, on the road to Emmaus walking with some disciples, and by the beach to cook breakfast with them, just to convince them that he was raised.

Now, forty days after his resurrection, once again, Jesus recapped what he had told the disciples before: that he is to fulfill the Scriptures.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

 The disciples had not been able to understand what the life and ministry of Jesus were about while he was with them before, so Jesus told them one last time while he was still among them. He commissioned the disciples to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations,” and that they should begin this proclamation in Jerusalem.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the author talks about Jesus being “carried up into heaven.” The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

In the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, the author elaborates on the reactions of the apostles: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Yes, their rabbi is really gone! These disciples are at a loss again. God is showing steadfast love, sending these two messengers to remind them not just to stand and look up, but to look around, look ahead, and look toward the work they must do. They must proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.” They must be witnesses to what just happened. And they must not worry; they will receive the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission. Jesus has promised to send the Paraclete, the advocate in his absence, the power from on high. Jesus has told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for it.

Going through something traumatic, it is easy to dwell on the past or fantasize about the future, but it is not easy to stay in the present. However, the present is exactly where Jesus wants the disciples to be.

Now the disciples should realize they are not only followers anymore, but also leaders. They cannot only stand there, looking up toward heaven. Rather, they need to follow Jesus’ commission, and they need to get into action. Nevertheless, before their action, before the Holy Spirit is bestowed on them, they need to reflect, to pray, and to bless God.

The verses after today’s reading from the Book of Acts tell us that, “When [the disciples] had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying . . . All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13a, 14).

Finally, the disciples’ minds are opened to understand the Scriptures and the purpose of Jesus’ teaching. The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:53). As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians, “With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”

From then on, the disciples of Jesus set up the Church and proclaimed the repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus to all nations. That is how we have had the Good News passed to us.

They have set a great example for us, the later followers. When we are at a loss, before we carry out our call, we need to pray and bless God, being in the very presence of God.

In our divided world, things seem to have changed for the worse. Life seems to be upside-down, with racial tension, terrorist attacks, chaos in the Middle East, and so much more. We may be like the disciples, with the tendency to look upward and not see the present, our call. But no, we must stay in the present, grounding ourselves in Jesus the Christ to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name, and bearing witness to the grace of God.

We have been celebrating the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, looking forward to being in God’s kingdom in the future. But it is not for us to know when or how. The Eastertide is about to end. We know in order to get to Easter, we had to go through Good Friday. Now, with the hope of that blessed day, we are not afraid of suffering. The time to get in action is here. It is not an easy task, but we will not be alone; the Holy Spirit will be with us. Stay tuned and stay in the presence of God. Amen.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest-in-Charge and Director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation speaking English and Cantonese in Chinatown. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, a Chinese Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, also in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009 to 2016. She loves hiking and meditative walking. 

Download the sermon for Ascension Day.

 

Why do you stand looking into heaven?, Ascension Day (A) – 2014

May 29, 2014

Acts 1:1-11Psalm 47 or Psalm 93Ephesians 1:15-23Luke 24:44-53

“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” ask two men dressed in white robes to the disciples staring up into space.

Indeed, why do we stand looking into heaven? And where should we be looking?

Whenever a comet flies by, whenever there is a total or partial eclipse, people in record number are out looking into heaven. Combined with a resurgence of UFO mania, the popularity of “The X-Files,” the Star Wars movies, photos from the space probe Galileo giving us hints of something like frozen chunks of water in space, breathtaking photos from the Hubble telescope viewing the very origins of the universe, people are looking into heaven more and more.

Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix must have been expressing the hopes of millions as they sang, “There must be some way out of here.”

“Here” seems to be an increasingly difficult, hard and lonesome place to be.

Out there must be some other place, any other place, better than this, we think on our bad days.

So it must have seemed to the disciples. Their leader and savior had just taken off, seemingly skyward. The military and political authorities seemed stronger and more dangerous than ever.

As Jesus leaves them, they are pleading with him to restore the Kingdom to Israel.

“It’s not for you to knowwwww … but the Spirit will come to you …”

And then he is gone. And like us, they are standing there looking up, searching the sky, wishing to see a sign that the time would be now. Or soon. Or at least certain to come.

Like Daniel or John the Revelator, they wished to see a dream or a vision. Like us, they would like to know what the plan is.

And like everyone, they would like an end to the loneliness.

To lose someone close is just plain difficult to bear. We all know what that feels like. It seems as if life cannot possibly go on. At least not at all like it had before they left us.

Yet, here, with Jesus, a promise is made.

The promise is: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. I send the promise of my father upon you until you are clothed with power from on high. Stay where you are. Stay in the city. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

“Stay where you are. It will come to you. God will come to you. God’s Kingdom will come to you.” This is not the message we want to hear.

We are people who are used to being on the move. We go where we wish, hope and desire. We are urged to go for all the gusto we can get. We are schooled that all you have to do is want it and work for it, and it shall be yours.

But Jesus says: “Stay where you are. Abide. Stop looking up. It will come to you right where you are. Continually bless God in the temple. Be joyful.”

Does it help us to know that the concept of the Messiah and the Messianic Age or Kingdom was thought by Jesus and his contemporaries to take place right here – not somewhere else, not out there, not up in the sky, not some other time, not some future time, but now?

The Messianic Kingdom will come to us; to those of us who stay here in the city; to those of us who are joyful; to those of us who bless God; to those of us who know and love Jesus, his Kingdom is here and now.

We are not called to look for the Kingdom, to search the heavens for signs of its arrival, but to step into it here and now with all that we are, all that we have, all that we say and all that we do.

To those of us who stay here joyfully blessing God, it will come. Those who participate in this life with an attitude of Thanksgiving will receive its full promise.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

God will be there with you, Ascension Day (A) – 2011

June 2, 2011

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Did you ever wish you were a bit thinner? Or maybe taller? Or had a little bit more hair on your head? Or maybe it’s something more serious, such as an addiction you wished you didn’t have. Or maybe you have had some trauma or grief in your past that you wish wasn’t so present in your heart. Or maybe you have elderly parents you’re taking care of and whom you can’t stop worrying about. Or maybe you have been unemployed for months and don’t see a job in your future anytime soon. Or maybe, just maybe, you are wondering what this all has to do with the Ascension of Jesus. Quite a bit, actually!

Like the Trinity or the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Ascension is open to quite a bit of misunderstanding. Many works of art depicting it have Jesus with clouds around his feet, his hands lifted upward, while his disciples are below him looking up, sometimes in awe and sometimes with blank expressions on their faces as if this is somehow a normal occurrence. And taken to their logical and literal conclusions, these works of art seem to imply that Jesus would have ascended up and up, breaking through the clouds, then through the earth’s atmosphere, and, eventually, Jesus would have started orbiting the planet, like a satellite. Pretty ridiculous, right?

The end of today’s gospel passage, St. Luke describes the Ascension very briefly: “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”

That’s it. One sentence. Jesus blessed them and left to go to heaven. Then the passage goes on to describe the response of the disciples: “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”

Whatever happened had something to do with the divine. How do we know this? The clue is in how the disciples respond. They don’t freak out or start debating what just happened. What do they do? They start to worship and they return to Jerusalem filled with joy.

So why would they respond like this in joyful worship?

Before Jesus ascends, he instructs. He wants to make abundantly clear that his story is a continuation, in fact, a fulfillment of a much larger story: the story of Israel. The gospel reading continues, “This is what I told you, while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

He goes on to open the minds of the disciples because the story of Jesus’ life, his suffering and rising from the dead, and his ascension, is not what they had in mind for the Messiah. And this is understandable. If we are really honest, most of us want a Messiah who will give us the answers, tell us what to do when things get rough, and certainly not leave us when we still need them!

But with Jesus, it is more complicated and more real. He is there blessing the disciples, and then suddenly is gone. He is present, then absent. He is on earth, then in heaven. He dies, then comes through death to new life. He visits, then abruptly leaves.

Jesus being taken up to heaven by God means something quite particular. It means that Jesus in all his full humanity – his whole life, all his emotions, memories, actions and relationships – is taken up to the divine. It is not his spirit or his essence or some disembodied soul that ascends. It is the transformed and resurrected Jesus, the Jesus in today’s reading from Acts, who for forty days met, ate, and instructed his disciples. The Jesus who still bore the scars from his earthly life.

This event is important not because it depicts some amazing feat of flight, but because it confirms that the life of this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, is intimately connected to the life of the Creator of all that is, was, and ever will be. This is why we say in the Nicene Creed, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

The particular gift of the Christian message is not that you will never suffer or struggle, but that when you do, God will be there with you. And not just with you, but helping to redeem these very experiences so that you don’t have to run from them or deny them or be ashamed of them, however awful or painful. The Ascension of Jesus means that humanity – all of us, everyone who ever existed, and whoever will exist – no longer has to hide any part of our lives from God. The Ascension is the message that humans matter in heaven. Our whole lives matter in heaven, not just the parts we like.

There will be times when you feel that you need to hide some part of your life from God. Maybe you have hurt people who are close to you. Or maybe you have been hurt so badly you feel particularly stuck in your life. These things are what the Ascension of Jesus speaks to – these very real moments. God wants to know all parts of your particular life so that all of us will be fully present in heaven.

“While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”

Thanks be to God!

 

— Stephen P. Hagerty is a postulant in the Diocese of New York and will be pursuing his Master’s of Divinity at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2012. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his spouse, Fred, and two Chihuahuas.