Monday, June 06, 2011

Called to Bear Witness

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "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."

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44-53)

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Two hunters –Stosh and Stan – got a pilot to fly them into the Canadian wilderness, where they managed to bag two big bull moose.

As they were loading the plane to return, the pilot said the plane could take only the hunters, their gear, and one moose.

The hunters objected strongly, saying, "Last year we shot two, and the pilot let us take them both. And he had exactly the same airplane as yours."

Reluctantly the pilot, not wanting to be outdone by another bush pilot, gave in and everything was loaded.

However, even under full power, the little plane couldn't handle the load and went down, crashing in the wooded wilderness.

Somehow, surrounded by the moose, clothing, and sleeping bags, Stosh and Stan survived the crash.

After climbing out of the wreckage, Stosh asked Stan, "Any idea where we are?"

Stan replied, "I think we're pretty close to where we crashed last year."

We Christians are a funny lot. We keep doing the same thing over and over always expecting a different result each time. We keep looking up to heaven trying to get a glimpse of Jesus when he is standing right beside us, even dwelling within us. But we don't look within because we have been trained to look beyond. Jesus is both beyond and within. We have been trained from childhood to emphasize Jesus beyond us and to minimize Jesus within.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a Muslim temple and holy site. In the middle of the building is a large rock jutting up from the floor. This is the rock from which Mohammed is said to have ascended into heaven riding on a horse. As I looked at the rock I did have a sense that this was a sacred space. Thousands and thousands of people who have viewed this site with faith give it a sacred presence. Yet I couldn't help but hold back a little smirk that wanted to creep across my face. Frankly, it was hard for me to envision Mohammed riding through the air on the back of a horse.

This mystical ascension into heaven is not unique to the Islamic faith. We have ample examples of it in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we have Elijah ascending, Ezekiel ascending in the wheel.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul describes his own mystical experience of ascending into heaven. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, here is how Paul describes what happened to him:

"I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat." (2 Cor 12:1-4, NRSV)

And of course in the New Testament we have Jesus' ascension into heaven. In the gospel story of Jesus' ascension into heaven, we fare better if we focus on the sacred nature of the event and what it teaches us to do than on the physics of how it may or may not have happened. Frankly, it doesn't make physical sense that Jesus blessed his disciples and floated up into the sky. This is a wild claim and there is no way to sugar coat it. Yet beyond the how question which we will never answer is the why question and that is the question we will consider this morning.

Some ancient manuscripts do not have the part about ascending into heaven, they just leave it that Jesus blessed them and left. Yet the ascension of Jesus became one of the essential components of orthodox Christian faith. As the Apostle's Creed says of Jesus, "He was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right of God." Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended. The Ascension comes a symbolic 40 days after crucifixion. This is a symbolic event that doesn't leave us hanging. The message to us disciples is clear. As Jesus said to his disciples so he says to us: "You are witnesses of these things." Look around you and see your mission.

Today we commission some members in mission to Guatemala and Uganda. They will be going to places where the needs are greater than we experience here in this city. Yes, there are pockets of poverty in this city in the Third Ward and elsewhere. But the level of poverty in some parts of Guatemala and Uganda exceeds what we see normally see in this city. I have heard from others who have been to these and similar places that beneath the abject poverty there is a hospitality and a joy and a delight in life that we who live in this wealthy nation would find remarkable. What is the source of joy for those who seem to have so little in the way of material things? Perhaps they may teach us about the different kinds of wealth in this world. There is the wealth of money and material things and then there is the wealth of family relationships and a sense of connection to the land. Often when we go out in mission we find that we are the one being changed and challenged more than the people to whom we hope to minister. We find that we are the ones who are poor in spirit. This is a revelation worth traveling to obtain. Our supportive prayers go with our missionaries as they go out into the world to bear witness to what we have seen in Jesus. As our closing hymn today puts it: "We all are one in mission. We all are on in call. Our varied gifts united by Christ the Lord of all."

We also are in mission in our daily lives, in our homes, where we work and go to school. But sometimes we don't feel like we are performing important mission work. Instead, we feel bloated, lazy, unfocused, and scatter brained. We don't know where God may be and Jesus seems missing in action. Our chances of running into Jesus seem to slim to none and slim is out of town. Perhaps instead of looking up for Jesus we should be looking down. Perhaps instead of looking out for Jesus we should be looking in for Jesus. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: "If you split a piece of wood, I am there." The point is that Christ is hidden in plain view. We look out for Christ when we should look within for Christ. We gaze up into the sky when we should look at the ground beneath our feet.

The Christ in you doesn't die, it resurrects. The ascension is to a future state of higher consciousness.

You are supposed to ascend. What is keeping you from ascending into heaven? What is keeping you tied down. If Jesus yoke is easy and his burden is light, what has you bound? What keeps you down? What is Prozac are you taking? What are you trying to forget? What are you trying to forget by overeating, drinking too much, working too many hours? What are you avoiding? These are the kinds of questions we must answer on this Ascension Sunday.

There is a story about two mountain hikers who come across a huge grizzly bear. The bear rears up. They figure that the bear is going to make a run for them. One of them reaches down and laces up his shoes. "Why bother?" says the other hiker. "You can't outrun a bear!" The first guy says, "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you." Is this what Jesus is doing in the Ascension? Is he "running away" from the world? Yes, according to the story, Jesus mission was accomplished and it was time for him to depart from this world. Yet, in another sense, Christ has never left this earth. This theme is taken up in at the beginning of the Book of Acts which provides a more detailed portrait of Jesus Ascension.

When they were together for the last time they asked, "Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?"

He told them, "You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you'll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world."

These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, "You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left." (Acts 1:6-11, The Message)

So now the story has expanded significantly. The disciples are going to get something out of this, the Holy Spirit. Next week we continue this story as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.

In today's readings, Jesus blesses his followers, telling them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. But first they must wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. His followers return to the temple to worship God. Jesus ascended into heaven. One day, some way, so we will we. No, we won't be riding a horse up into heaven as Mohammed was said to have done. We will not be floating off into the skies as Jesus was said to have done. We will ascend into heaven by doing the daily grind with integrity and persistence. We will ascend into heaven by discovering Christ within us and within every material object.

The ascension is that moment in time when the mystical meets the physical. That moment in time for us is right now. This is the only moment we have. Let's make is a sacred moment. The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you. Christ is still present and available to us in the ordinary things of life such as bread and grape juice. This is trail mix for the missionaries in our midst. That includes each of us here today. Even you. Jesus last words to his disciples are his present words to us: "You are witnesses of these things."

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-The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on Ascension of the Lord Sunday, June 5, 2011.