Preacher – Jennifer Hosler
Scripture Readings – Acts 1:1-14; Ephesians 1:15-23
A little voice asks, “Where is Jesus? Is Jesus going to be at church today? Is Jesus buried in that cemetery that we drive by regularly? Is that man Jesus?” These are some very real theological questions, as asked by a preschooler. Doing preschool theology is not easy, particularly when there are concepts or realities that are difficult for even adult theologians to wrap their heads around. The Ascension of Jesus, like the Resurrection, is an act of God that stands contrary to our understandings of reality. People are not typically raised from the dead. Neither are people whisked up into a transcendental reality and seated at the right hand of God.
The Resurrection and the Ascension are big concepts where theology and physics mix in ways that are beyond all our comprehensions. Both the preschoolers and the adults need to spend time pondering and absorbing the miraculous nature of it all.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. It technically falls on forty days after Easter, which was this past Thursday, but I chose to exchange the lectionary Sunday passages for the Ascension passages because Ascension is often overlooked. Easter and Pentecost both stand out as earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church, while the Ascension is a bit quieter. Though somewhat less showy than the resurrection from the dead or the coming of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day still brings with it miraculous circumstances and deep theological significance. In fact, the Jesus story is not complete without the Ascension.
The Ascension continues the shift in reality which started Easter morning. Because of the Ascension, Jesus reigns in cosmic glory and sends the Holy Spirit to be with the Church at Pentecost. This new reality enables the disciples to continue the Jesus story in mighty and powerful ways. Yet the nature of the Ascension (Jesus not being physically with us) also means that the church must actively struggle to keep our new reality in focus.
The Big Goodbye
Goodbyes are always hard, but I can’t imagine the goodbye that we see in Acts 1: Jesus leaves the disciples. It’s been forty days since Jesus was resurrected. After the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing during those 40 days, being with the disciples, teaching them, walking with them, eating with them, and even cooking them fish (John 21:1-14). 40 extra days with Jesus! I imagine the disciples were comforted by Jesus being with them, but they probably tried to avoid thinking about if and when Jesus might leave.
One day, while he is eating with them, Jesus gives the disciples what would be his final instructions. Jesus says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. While John baptized with water, in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).
Even though the disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days and several years before that, they still weren’t always tracking with Jesus. The disciples come closer to Jesus and crowd around him, asking, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus doesn’t exactly say no, but basically. Jesus reorients the disciples away from speculation about the culmination of history, reminds them that it isn’t about empires rising or falling but about continuing Jesus’ work, witnessing to Jesus’ work. He responds, saying, “the timing isn’t for you to know. God the Father is working out that end. But you—you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.” Jesus tells them they won’t be alone, instructs them to wait for the Spirit, and leaves mysteriously. Jesus goes up. The disciples are left gaping, jaws hanging open, gazing at the clouds. The book of Acts says, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (v. 9).
I won’t try to explain the weird trans-dimensional process that occurs here or the physics of it. I trust that Jesus actually ascended and went to the Father, though that place isn’t a literal “behind the clouds” in our earthly sky. Luke wasn’t trying to be scientifically accurate but was using words to indicate Jesus’ ascension and connecting it to the presence of God’s dwelling place. In the Hebrew scriptures, clouds often symbolize the presence and power of God (Boring & Craddock, p. 367; cf. Exodus 13:21; 19:16; 40:34; Ps. 68:4; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13). Without knowing the technical details, Jesus is taken up and goes to the presence of God.
The disciples stand agape and reasonably so. They’ve just seen something miraculous, marvelous, and other worldly. I’d stare too. Beyond the natural shock at one’s teacher and messiah finally saying goodbye and leaving, the exit is pretty jaw dropping. The gaping jaws of the disciples only come shut when two messengers in bright white clothing snap them out of it. “Hey, Galileans! Why do you keep looking up? Stop gawking. Jesus, who was taken up to heaven from among you, will surely return again—in a manner just as mysterious” (v. 11).
Somehow, the combination of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ ascension, and shiny bright messengers (clearly from God—pay attention to those folks in shiny bright clothing), this combination helps the disciples finally put it all together. They set out on their way and quickly head back to the main part of the city to pray and wait for the Spirit, as Jesus instructed them to do. They don’t know what’s coming, but they pray and focus on this new reality—a reality of a crucified, raised, and ascended Jesus, who is lifted up to reign with the Creator of the universe.
A New Reality
How do we know what reality is? When I was a small child, around 7 or 8, I remember asking myself, “How do I know whether I’m sleeping or in a coma or whether my life is all a dream? Is this real?” I would pinch myself to try to be sure.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is a man who has suspicions that reality is not as it appears. He goes about his work and everyday life, with a growing desire to learn about an alternate reality—another world and dimension that he’s heard coexists with and is, in fact, more real than his everyday experiences. Neo meets up with Morpheus, Trinity, and their crew, who lead him out of his tranquil but naïve existence. They guide Neo to a new reality, where he has a purpose and is part of a broader mission to save humans from their slavery to machines.
Our second reading today is from the book of Ephesians. This letter reads more like a sermon than other letters, such as Philippians or the Corinthian letters, and Paul includes sections that seem to be hymns or worshipful poetry. Our passage is one of those sections, that acts both as a prayer and as a poetic discourse of superlatives about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.
In Ephesians, it’s been more than days and weeks since Jesus ascended—it’s been years. The context and audience of the Ephesian early church is very different than what we see in Acts. The gospel of Jesus has spread around the Roman empire and beyond. It’s mostly made up of people who never encountered the earthly ministry of Jesus, who didn’t break bread with Jesus, didn’t see Jesus heal the sick or cast out demons, didn’t see Jesus crucified, didn’t meet with Jesus after he was raised from the dead, and didn’t see Jesus ascend behind the clouds. These people, both Jews and Gentiles, have heard the Good News, the gospel of Jesus, and believed that they should follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The apostle Paul, with his spiritual gift of shepherding, knows that Jesus and Kingdom of God still needs to be made real for these new Jesus-followers, and so he prays for them.
He prays this way: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I don’t stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. And what do I pray? I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:15-19).
Paul wants them to know the depth of the new reality—a new power and work of God in the world—that is made possible only with a Messiah who is crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven. The Ascension of Jesus has given the Christians hope, purpose, and power. Paul continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (vv. 20-23).
Paul prays that the church would know—despite not having seen Jesus face to face, despite the fact that we are in an in-between age when we aren’t fully experiencing God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven—that there is a new reality. He prays for them to know this new reality where Jesus is reigning, where sin and death have lost, and where all humanity (Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, and all other divided identities) can be brought together before God, in Christ Jesus. The church has the power to be Jesus’ body, to continue Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance in a world of pain and captivity. Paul prays that the early church’s hearts and minds would be given wisdom to see this new reality in existence. He prays that the power of Jesus—the crucified, risen, and ascended One—would be made concrete and tangible, that they would know the source of strength and life to continue his work in this world.
Remember to Breathe, My Dear
Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathing isn’t something that we typically forget to do – it’s an autonomic process. Breathing goes on without any involvement of your consciousness, without thinking or planning. Yet one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re in labor, you do need to intentionally remember to breathe. I’ve had some practice contractions, or Braxton Hicks contractions, and the pressure gets so intense that I’ve found myself holding my breath to brace against them. I’m glad that these “practice” contractions happen – to give me a glimpse of how I might respond when the real labor comes and to prepare accordingly. Since then, I’ve been trying to practice breathing.
Yet, breathing practice isn’t just beneficial for pregnant people. A colleague of mine has a reminder on his computer that will typically go off during our meetings. A little screen pops up that says, “Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathe in, Breathe out.” The intention here is for deep breaths, centering breaths. These breathes can calm you down, lowering your stress. Deep breathing can help remind you of your values, your purpose, and your source of strength. Breathing deep can help us listen to our bodies, become aware of our emotional and spiritual state, and can help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit (and in Hebrew, Spirit and breath use the same word). Intentional breathing can be a type of prayer that focuses our hearts and bodies on God.
Like the early church in Ephesus, we too have not had the privilege to be physically present with Jesus. We didn’t get to hear him teach on the mountainside, receive bread from him, be healed by him, and we didn’t see him resurrected or ascending. The nature of the Ascension means that the church must actively struggle to be centered and focused on Jesus’ new reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real thing; we don’t have Jesus walking beside us and so it’s easy to just fall into a trap, thinking that our daily routines are all that exists. Our jobs, our schools, our families, our bills to pay. But Jesus ascended and made another cosmic reality that runs alongside and intersects our ordinary lives.
Following Jesus involves training ourselves, requires that we find ways to keep the Kingdom of God at the forefront of our minds, to keep it a reality. It involves building our skill for breathing and paying attention, for seeing God at work and for making ourselves available for God to use in this world.
Take a deep breath with me. Remember to breathe, my dear. How can you cultivate time to focus on the new reality, to look for and open yourself up to God’s work in this world? Cultivating time to pray is like remembering to deep breathe – it’s how we draw our strength, life, and energy from God. It’s where we tap into the power of the ascended Jesus. Is there a time in your commute when you can take deep breathes and ask for the Holy Spirit to move and reveal? Can you find some quiet moments to center in the morning? Can you stop and take a minute to breathe and reorient yourself to God in the evening, taking stock of the day and considering if and how you saw God at work that day?
Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised. Jesus ascended – and is seated above, empowering us through the Spirit to continue his work in this world, until he returns to make all things new. Sisters and brothers, let us remember to breathe and find ways to keep the risen and ascended Jesus in our focus as we live out our roles as his Body, the church, making his love and power manifest in this world. AMEN.