Sermons

PastorEric-2Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

While today in the church year is called the Seventh Sunday of Easter, it is also the first Sunday after Ascension Day, which, in case you missed it like most of us did, was this past Thursday. Today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on that first Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter.

Ascension Day is a mostly forgotten Christian holiday. In many European countries it is a national holiday, but I’d bet, and I hope I’m wrong about this, I’d bet that very few people in the countries in which Ascension Day is a public holiday know the reason they have off from school or work that day!

On Ascension Day, Jesus leaves this earth and ascends into heaven to be with God the Father. Jesus rose up, up, up-away from the pull of gravity. He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of the disciples' sight. And, after Jesus had disappeared, the disciples kept gazing up toward heaven, until suddenly two men in white robes appeared and asked them, "You, Galileans, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" Now, that seems a silly question. Wouldn't you stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising up?

Forty days after Easter Sunday, the Ascension story mirrors many of the themes of that first Easter. We remember another time when two men appeared, two men in dazzling clothes who stood beside the women who had come to the tomb on Easter morning. Those men, too, had asked a question. "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" It must have seemed an absurd question to the sorrowful women for they had not come to the tomb looking for the living.

On that first Easter Sunday, Jesus was not where people expected he would be. He was not in the tomb, but risen and gone to Galilee. Then, later, Jesus was no longer on earth, but risen beyond the clouds, beyond human sight. So it can seem that to be with Jesus means to be somewhere other than where we are now. Even if we don't believe heaven is up there, we still find ourselves looking up beyond the pull of gravity. It is almost as if we are waiting to be surprised by Jesus' hands over our eyes and a voice saying, "Guess who?" But don't we have to rise above the grass, above the living room chair, above this tired and tempting body? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be with Jesus where he is?

Suddenly, two men in white robes turn to us with their question. "Why do you stand looking up? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." We start to argue. "If Jesus is coming again from heaven, why shouldn't we keep looking up? Why should we look to earth where things have turned bad and we are forever tempted to do wrong?"
The men in white robes do not respond to our protests or our questions. But Jesus did! After the resurrection, Jesus spent time with his disciples in Jerusalem. For forty days he spoke with them about the kingdom of God. Then they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus answered, "It is not for you to know the times or the periods that God has set by divine authority, "but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth," which surely includes where you are right now. That is, the promise of the Spirit is a promise for this earth, this place, this time. Jesus will be forever messed up with this earthly life in the power of the Spirit.

I recently saw an interesting image of Jesus' ascension, one I hadn’t seen previously. In the picture Jesus is rising up as the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. If you look closely at the picture, not in the clouds, but on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus' footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth." Jesus' muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospels.

• Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness? Each time he was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
• Footprints - Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people?
• Footprints - Can you see Jesus walking up to a sycamore tree, then looking up at Zachaeus, the tax collector, perched in the branches? "Come down, Zachaeus," Jesus said, "let's walk over to your house for dinner."
• Footprints - Can you see Jesus walking, then riding, into Jerusalem?
• Footprints - Can you see him stumbling toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end?

The Holy Spirit moved Jesus in certain directions, not others. He had said it would be so in his first sermon when he read from the scroll of Isaiah. "The Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's jubilee." When Jesus finished that reading, he said, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is my road map. This is how I will walk on the earth. These are my footprints. Come, follow me.

The Spirit that anointed Jesus now anoints you and me. That's what Jesus tried to tell his disciples before he left them. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses." On this earth where I left my footprints.
"Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" Sometimes it's still easier to look for a more pure world up there or out there, especially if we think of the church as the body of Christ. We see so many blemishes, so many things wrong. Perhaps you've even said, "Show me a church where the pastor isn’t self-serving, where people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I'll become a member." Well, we'll wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth.

Kris and I have stood in the Ascension Lutheran Church on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is thought to be the site of Jesus’ ascension. Perched on top of the Mount of Olives with a commanding view of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Church of the Ascension is beautiful and peaceful, the grounds quiet and lovely.

But, what is more to the point of Jesus’ ascension is what is next door to the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives – the Augusta Victoria Hospital. I would suggest that today Jesus’ “footprints” would not only be found in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, but are also found in the halls and patient rooms and operating centers of the Augusta Victoria Hospital next door, a place where for more than 50 years Palestinians have found refuge and health care. You and I, we support the Augusta Victoria Hospital through our synod & ELCA benevolence giving. Through this hospital you and I are not standing around, looking up into heaven for Jesus, but are touching people’s lives every day with Jesus’ continued love for us all.

Jesus now works through us – it is our “footprints,” our actions, Jesus counts on. There is no one here physically but us, not in this time and space. We can stand looking up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses." You will make footprints in and through ordinary, imperfect communities of faith that seldom get it right. Ascension Day is not a call to look up. It is a call to trust that Christ's promise is down and in and around us.
As I shared with you on my first Sunday with you back in April, you and I, we are all in this together, this ministry of Jesus Christ in today’s world. We do this in some very dramatic ways, such as the ministry of the Augusta Victoria Hospital. But, mostly, we do the ministry of Jesus in much simpler ways, every day kindnesses and day to day ministries and activities that allow us to witness to Jesus as our risen Lord and Savior.

And Jesus continually promises us that we are not alone in this work - you and I who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news. We are not alone. The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, surprises us at every turn, protecting, guiding and leading us into ways new and old to love our fellow human beings. The footprints of Jesus’ love are all around us. We are not to stand looking up, but to move out into our community with the love of God is Jesus Christ.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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