Luke 24:44 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.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah[n] is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from
Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses[o] of these things. 49 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.
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.[p] 52 And they worshiped him, and[q] returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.[r]
When I was a child I had a balloon. I’d received this balloon at a friend’s birthday party and it was a perfect oval shape, a beautiful, shiny, green color, like my beloved Baylor Bears, and it was filled with helium so that it floated just above my head as I held the thin string in my hand. I had had that balloon for nearly 30 minutes, which in the life of a child may as well have been a lifetime, and dare I say it, I loved that balloon. That balloon and I did everything together from walking to one side of the playground to then walking to the other side—remember, this was only about 30 minutes so I guess we didn’t do much, but it sure felt like a lot. But then, tragedy struck. I was running to where I heard there would be cake and well, I like cake, when all of the sudden I tripped and fell, releasing my beautiful Baylor-green balloon up to the heavens. I was devastated. I had probably never been so sad in my entire life—for those of you who aren’t balloon enthusiasts such as my 6-year-old self, imagine that the balloon contained your wallet and you might understand the depths of my sorrow. As I stood there crying over a lifetime with that balloon that would not come I watched it drift up and up and up until it was just a tiny green speck contrasted against the blue sky.
Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the ascension, and I know that if some of my divinity school friends heard that I compared the ascension of Jesus to a balloon they would never let me live it down, but I do actually think that this passage is kind of funny. Can you imagine Jesus, the incarnate God, the resurrected Christ, floating up and the disciples just kind of standing there watching him? I think it raises a lot of questions. For example, how fast was he going? Was this like an elevator in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which gets you 2700 feet in the air in a little under a minute and a half? Or was this a slow lift off like my balloon where 15 minutes later you could still see a tiny Jesus speck on the horizon? It says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and continued worshiping him. Is this because they could still look into the sky and see Jesus taking his sweet time floating to heaven, or perhaps that stood there awkwardly waiting for him to disappear before they left for home. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to answer the question of where Jesus was really going in the first place. We know that heaven is not actually in the sky above the clouds like those 2000 years ago believed just like we know Hell is not below us. And yet, this is how Luke describes Jesus returning to heaven and this is how 2000 years of Christian tradition has understood and talked about what is in the liturgical calendar, ascension Sunday. Today is the day when we remember and celebrate that Jesus ascended back to heaven after the resurrection and we begin the time of waiting for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and those who followed Jesus on Earth. Today we witness the end of the ministry of Jesus as he was embodied on earth in the incarnation, and I hope that we will take some time to remember Jesus as he was on earth instead of rushing into the beginning of the church.
Who was this Jesus whom we claim to follow? Who we worship, who we love, who we hope to be like? Jesus was born to a poor, lower class, Jewish family in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. He was a refugee in Egypt for the first several years of his life as his family fled state violence. And though we don’t know much about the rest of his childhood and most of his adult life, we are told that he was raised in the temple and he learned the Jewish scriptures. Some time in his 20’s Jesus joined in a radical movement and became a follower of John the Baptist. John the Baptist preached a pretty harsh message about repentance and the Kingdom of God, but he didn’t seem to talk much about grace or life on here on earth now. Eventually, Jesus must have begun to develop his own ideas apart from John, and he began to gather his own followers, the 12 disciples. He then went around preaching his own message that still incorporated repentance and the kingdom of God, but he was especially focused on life here on earth now. He said radical things like “sell all you have and give to the poor.” And “if you want to gain life you must lose it.” Of course, there have been many Christians who have done all sorts of mental gymnastics to figure out ways that Jesus didn’t actually mean those things, but maybe he did.
In fact, though we claim to love Jesus, want to follow him, and believe him to be the answer the world needs, Jesus has been used to do incredible amounts of harm around the world. Jesus healed those who were blind and those who could not walk, so some Christians took that to mean that those who are blind and those who cannot walk are living in sin. Many Christians believe that persons with intellectual and physical disabilities should repent and be healed so they can follow Jesus too. Jesus says in Matthew, “Do not be anxious about your life,” so some Christians have come to demonize people with real anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses, accusing them of being demon possessed. Jesus said that the poor will always will be with you, so some Christians have come to believe that if the poor will always be here, why should we work to eradicate poverty now? Jesus said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, along with what Paul said about God ordained authorities, many Christians believe that it is wrong to protest our governments and authority figures and that we should be happy with what we have and nothing more.
I could go on and on and on about the horrible ways that Christians have interpreted the words of Jesus to further the oppression of those who are hurting. And we should talk about those things. We should talk about the ways the Christian missionaries have been used by imperialistic states to colonize the world. We should talk about the ways that it was Christians who were largely responsible for slavery and the slave trade in the United States. We should talk about how Christians were then responsible for a history of racist laws that followed and still continue to hurt people today. We should talk about the ways that Christianity has been one the primary fuels for white supremacy and racist organizations such as the KKK, the NRA, and the Alt-right movement. We should talk about how anti-LGBTQ theology has and is still harming and killing people today. We should talk about the way Christians have taught theologies that are oppressive to women and have led to a culture of sexual assault and toxic masculinity. We should talk about the marriage of capitalism and Christianity and the ways that those with power and wealth have justified their power and wealth using the words of the Bible. We have to talk about these things. We have to talk about these things.
And I know that it’s difficult. It’s difficult to admit not only the ways that our faith has caused harm but that we personally may have caused harm as well. We see in today’s passage that central to the message of Jesus was repentance. We must repent not only of the harm we personally have caused, but the harm that our ancestors caused and we’ve benefited from. I do want to be clear though, if you are a person who has been harmed by the things I’m talking about, and there are also many other things as well, you are not who needs to repent. If you are a queer person who has faced oppression, you do not need to repent of that, you are Good, you are loved. If you are poor and you have faced the evils of capitalism, you do not need to repent of that. It is not your fault.
I also want to be clear the ways that Christians have caused harm are also not true to what Jesus did or said. When Jesus heals those who have disabilities, this does not mean that those with disabilities should repent and be healed, it means we should create an accessible world and advocate for their rights. When Jesus says the poor will always be with you, this has nothing to do whether we should work to eradicate poverty around the world. When Jesus says to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s it doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our governing authorities. In fact, Jesus himself was a revolutionary who worked to subvert the Roman empire by destroying property in the Temple which was controlled by Rome. Jesus is constantly turning over cultural norms so that those who are considered least are the ones who most reflect the Kingdom of God. And yet over the course of Christian history, we see the slow change of Christians who once advocated for a radical new way of being in the world morph into a way of believing in the world. Jesus honestly didn’t talk much about belief. He talked a lot about faith sure, but that faith was always rooted in a certain way of being in the world. That faith demanded a way of living that was very different from what those in power wanted. Jesus’ way of being in the world included going the extra mile and turning the other cheek, both things that were not passive, but active forms of resistance against the empire. Jesus’ way of being in the world meant flipping tables, destroying property, and demanding justice for the oppressed and the freedom of prisoners. And yet the course of Christian history has come to an emphasize belief. We say that if you believe the right things, don’t make too many people uncomfortable, and keep to yourself, you’ll eventually go to Heaven and everything will be good. And we should remember that is mostly a problem in predominantly white churches. The black church has a long history of political involvement and resistance to the powers of evil. But predominantly white churches have a long history of silence on issues where we may not have been the perpetrators, but we certainly knew what was going on and said or did nothing. The life of Jesus demands a call on our lives that we may live a certain way. We must have faith, but it is what we do that will make a difference.
Because of this, Jesus said we must count the cost. We must decide whether it is worth it to live the life that Jesus calls us to. The kind of life that will lead to death. When Jesus was put to death, it wasn’t because he was such a good man or because he was innocent. Contrary to what many Christians say, Jesus wasn’t innocent, which isn’t to say that he sinned, but that he threatened to turn completely upside down his culture’s way of living life. He was put to death because he lived the kind of life that might just bring salvation to the world. Jesus did not come to die, the spirit of God in Jesus came to show us life, to show us how to live! But it is that kind of life that will inevitably lead to death. The cross is then our reminder that to follow the ministerial vision of Jesus is to possibly die. However, as we know that is not the end. The cross, death, they will not have the last say. Because though the world may try and destroy the kind of life that Jesus lived, ultimately death will not win. The kind of life that Jesus lived cannot be put to death, but will ultimately overcome death and bring with it new life. Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, has risen from death, ushering forward a new kind of life that we may follow him in it. That, my friends, the Gospel, the story of Jesus.
And that brings us to where we are today. Jesus, with his disciples in bodily form for the last time. But as we will see next week, he did not leave the disciples, he did not leave us, alone. He left us with the Holy Spirit to guide us further into the life of Christ. So I don’t know what the ascension looked like. I don’t know if it was like a balloon, an elevator, or if it was a mystery that that Luke wrote as best as he could. But I do know that Jesus was and is still with us. He is still showing us a way into the kind of life that will bring salvation. The kind of life where all not only have enough, but where all thrive to fullness of their humanity in the Kingdom of God. The kind of life that sees the harm we’ve done, repents of it, makes reparations, and turns the other way. As he ascended, Jesus blessed them, and I believe that blessing is for us too. That blessing is to go out into the world and not just have faith, not just believe, but follow Jesus into life, death, and life again. Amen.
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