Ascension – Sun June 2, 2019
“After [Jesus suffered], he presented himself alive to [his disciples] by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days…” (v3) Since we have transferred the festival of Ascension to today, we are now 43 days in to the season of Easter… this season of resurrection and new life. The next major transition in our church year comes next Sunday with the arrival of the Holy Spirit in grand fashion at Pentecost. Today we begin that transition with the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. It offers us a good time to reflect on our Easter experience this year. How has Jesus, the Risen Christ, presented himself alive to you in these first 43 days of Easter?
I am grateful to have encountered Jesus, risen and alive, in a whole variety of ways this Easter. My education experiences in both Seattle and Minneapolis were full of Good News, and gave me much (and much needed) renewed strength and inspiration. I expect… I hope… I will continue to draw on the many workshops and sermons I heard in the weeks to come. There is one moment from one workshop in particular that I’ve been reflecting on this week. It’s funny because overall, it wasn’t my favorite workshop. But some of the content aside, what has echoed in my head and heart this week was the presenter, Cynthia Hale’s, impassioned words about church decline: “I stopped dreaming!” She exclaimed, more than once: “I stopped dreaming…” she lamented, describing it as a characteristic of times of decline. Dreaming is a key part of energy and growth. Dreaming gives us direction, focus, courage. What dreams has the Risen Christ presented to you this Easter… for your life? for St. Andrew’s? for the world?
Two weeks ago, a dream came back to me that I have actually had for some time… a few years anyway. The dream popped back into my heart and head 2 Sunday’s ago and I held on to it quietly, trying to discern if now was time to act on it or not. And then after the introduction to Theory U at our parish council meeting recently, a question came: “What about worship planning?” Kara asked. She and I have talked about it off and on, particularly after I realized that children’s ministry meetings where really about worship planning. But it has been awhile. Kara asked about it that Tuesday night and my jaw metaphorically dropped open. I responded verbally, saying: “Funny you should ask…” And I knew the decision was made. How very ironic that after talking about a process to learn from the emerging future… about connecting to source, listening for the voice of God… there it was. Convincing proof. Jesus, risen and alive, spoke, using Kara’s voice. How has Jesus, the Resurrected One, come to you this Easter?
For years, I have dreamed of having a worship planning team. It’s been a dream ever since the “worship committee” ended several years ago. The dream of a worship planning team is not the same as a committee that manages and improves our worship. The dream of a worship planning team is to plan and develop our worship. It is a dream to create… to re-create… to co-create… with God and with one another. It is a dream to engage our tradition, our scriptures and our own imaginations for the purpose of greater connection amongst us and greater unity in our diversity. We will take some guidance from the framework and method of Theory U to engage in this generative process in which you are invited to participate. You are invited to bring your unique gifts and experience to the process with an open mind, open heart and open will. We will seek to grow together in our our worship practice, perhaps even connecting with others beyond our community, to share the treasure of our Anglican way.
You have no reason to fear such a dream or such a process. Nothing – no significant change – will be foisted upon you. The process is to be communal and uniting. In our Ascension story today, while Jesus, the Resurrected One, stayed with the disciples, “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for [God’s promise].” We too will wait until for the Holy Spirit to inspire this community. God does not force transformation upon us. We wait for God to send us power in God’s own Spirit, a mere week hence, and God waits for us to say “yes” to this power with our lives… our heads, hearts and hands. God waits for us to say “yes” to engaging our curiosity, compassion and courage.
As our story today continues, the Risen Jesus goes on to explain: “‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” The disciples respond by revealing their expectation: “Lord,” they asked, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It had been roughly 500 years since the kingdom of Israel had fallen. 500 years they had waited and hoped for a return to those glorious days of old. Maybe the hope had returned with greater strength with the brutality of Roman oppression. And there was so much water under the proverbial bridge by then… such distance… from the reality of the kingdom of Israel that it would have been easy to idealize it. But still, how very telling that even after all that Jesus had shown and taught them, even after death on a cross and the miracle of resurrection, even after presenting himself alive by many convincing proofs, they still held on to hope that the past would be restored. That the glory days of old would return. But it was not to be. The past was never going to return. In Jesus, God did a new thing. And with the imminent arrival of the Holy Spirit, God was about to do another new thing… creating a new community of Jesus followers.
Jesus replies to their question, saying “It is not for you to know… But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… [everywhere!]” How very exciting! And how very scary! The basic and fundamental reality reflected in Jesus’ words is that there is much we don’t know. We are called to work with God on a “need to know” basis, and there is much we don’t need to know. At least not yet. Not now. What we do know, is that we receive the power of God, in the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to the work of God throughout the world. It is impossible to know the future. But it is possible to connect with the source of that future. And that source, the trinitarian God we worship, is not limited by the impossible. And so deeply connected with our source, we can move with the future, as it emerges. The world will not cease to move and shift and change around us. How we respond is up to us.
In the Gospel account of Jesus’ Ascension, at the very end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus led the disciples… Jesus leads us… out just beyond the city. Jesus lifts up his hands and blesses us. And while he blesses us, he withdraws and is carried up to heaven on a cloud. We are not meant to remain there, standing around, looking up towards heaven. Rather, we are called to witness to God’s love, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel story… the Good News of God in Christ… then continues in the church. We are to be God’s witnesses in the world… to the ends of the earth. We will have the power to do so because we know the power of God’s love. We come here, to worship and praise God, week by week, to remind ourselves of God’s great love for us, and not only for us, but for all people. It’s why how we worship matters… how we tell the story of God’s love matters… how we live the story of God’s love, ritually in our worship and throughout our lives, matters. It is worth our time and attention, as a key part of our witness to God’s great love.