Sermon for Ascension Day -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Today we are celebrating Ascension Day, the day on which, 40 days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven. The actual date is May 5, but we are noting it this weekend here at Mt. Olive.
Both today’s first lesson from Acts and Gospel lesson from Luke tell the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
The Luke text, which was probably written first, tells the ascension story with few details: Jesus blesses his disciples, withdraws from them and is “carried up into heaven.” That’s all the information Luke offers.
The Acts text tells more: Jesus is “lifted up” and “a cloud” takes Jesus “from their sight.” And, while the disciples are still all standing there looking up, two men in white robes appear to state the obvious, Jesus “has been taken up into heaven.”
Ascension Day is a mostly forgotten Christian holiday. In many European countries it is a national holiday, but I believe 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 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. And, even if we do not believe that heaven is up there, we still find ourselves looking up beyond the pull of gravity.
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 want 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. Jesus’ footprints remain.
I like an image of Jesus' ascension I saw again recently. 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.
• Jesus' footprints are in the wilderness. Each time Jesus was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of the Old Testament: One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
• Footprints - Jesus often walked on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people. Today it is easy to picture Jesus walking with refugees across Europe and Central America.
• Footprints - Jesus walked up to a sycamore tree and looked 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 - Jesus walked, then rode, into Jerusalem.
• Footprints – Jesus stumbled toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end.
The Holy Spirit moved Jesus in certain directions, not others. Jesus 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 have heard people say, "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 will wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth.
I recently stood again in the Ascension Lutheran Church on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. This is thought to be the actual 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 60 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.
You and I make footprints in and through our ordinary, imperfect communities of faith, communities, if we are honest, that can sometimes get it wrong. 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." It is our call to trust that Christ's promise is down and in and around us.
More than two years ago on my first Sunday as your pastor I shared my view that 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. 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 in Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
We Are Jesus’ Footprints
Sermon for Ascension Day
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
May 7 & 8, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California