June 5, 2011
“Don’t Just Stand There”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
The Ascension of Jesus; as in Acts 1:9: “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” And Luke 24:51: “While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” The Ascension of Jesus; as in the Apostles’ Creed: “the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
Like every other minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my preparation for ministry included taking the ordination exams. My senior year of seminary, the examination in theology included a question on the Ascension of Jesus. I failed that theology exam and had to take it again. The second time around there was no question about the Ascension of Jesus.
Several years ago I was in Grand Rapids, MI delivering a series of lectures at Calvin Seminary entitled “Preaching Still Belongs to the Church.” One evening, the president of the seminary invited me to his home for dinner. At some point during dinner, Neil Plantinga said to me “You know, I received a letter about you.” Apparently when the seminary announced the lectures and the publicity went out, the president received a rather pointed letter from a graduate of Calvin Seminary questioning his invitation to me. The author of the letter had worshipped here on a Sunday when I was working my way through a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. It was the Sunday I preached on “He Ascended into heaven.” “Given his theology, I just don’t see how you could have invited The Rev. Dr. Davis.” The president was laughing out loud as he told me of the letter. I tried to laugh along with him. The Ascension of Jesus and I apparently don’t get along very well.
But it’s not all that complicated, really. The Ascension. After the messianic question about timing, the question about restoring the kingdom of Israel and the Lord’s answer about how they are not to know times or periods, that such things are set only at the authority of God the Father. After the question and answer, according to Luke in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus tells the disciples they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. When he said that, as they were watching, he was lifted up; a cloud took him out of their sight. The Holy Spirit’s coming. You are my witnesses. I’ll be on my way. While he was going, the disciples were standing there staring up.
He was going and they were staring, and those two men dressed in white show up again. I say “show up again”, because the church remembers the two men who stood next to the women in the empty tomb on Easter morning; the two who asked “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Luke brings back the two brightly dressed men for another question here at the Ascension: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you just standing there? “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come, in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Why just stand there looking up?
The bible offers no record of the disciples’ response to that question from the two visitors That’s a bit surprising given that they are rarely portrayed in scripture as “at a loss for words.” However, it is possible that the response here was a stunned silence accurately reported. Or maybe Luke just skipped the part where one of them said, “Excuse me, did you two just see what we saw?” or maybe it was a solitary voice that couldn’t stop himself from blurting out, “what on earth was that?” Looking up, maybe they were all just trying to keep an eye on Jesus until the very, very last. Like trying to squeeze every last minute out of a sunset or watching down the street long after your first grader’s school bus has turned the corner that first day of school. Or, it’s possible, they kept looking up toward heaven to avoid looking at each other, to delay the inevitable realization that they were stuck with each other, that it was up to them, that this was now all they had to go on. They were looking up because no one had the guts to look around. I bet at some point one of them, most likely Peter, he must have lowered his gaze, and looked around, and said, “well, here we are.”
There’s no reason to over think the Ascension, or to over analyze while trying to decipher which part you believe or where you doubt, to keep looking up trying to wrap a post-modern mind around a first century cosmology. Holy Spirit power. Witnesses commissioned to the ends of the earth. The Risen Jesus going up to heaven. The Ascension. It is that moment when the followers of Jesus become the body of Christ. Right when the disciples stopped looking up and started looking around, right when the physical manifestation of the Risen Christ was no longer seen by them and they looked around at each other, at all they had to go on. Right when the witness and ministry and mission of the Risen Christ transitioned from him to them. Right when proclaiming the gospel and announcing the kingdom and calling for repentance and declaring forgiveness shifts from him to them. Right then; right when the followers of Jesus become the body of Christ. That’s Ascension.
Professor Barbara Lundblad of Union Theological Seminary in New York turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as she preaches the Ascension of Jesus. She lifts up Bonhoeffer’s notion that “the Body of Christ takes up space on earth. That is a consequence of the Incarnation” (the Word made flesh)….the Body of Christ can only be a visible Body, or else it is not a Body at all.” It comes from Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He goes on to argue that “a truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learned and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living men and women who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.” (Cost of Discipleship, p.278). The visible reality of fellowship with the incarnate Son of God. Not just ears and hearts but a bodily following. The Church consists, according to Bonhoeffer, of Christ followers manifest to the whole world as a visible community. Commissioned as his witnesses. Empowered by the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ. Inaugurated. Launched. Made public. IPO’D not just at Pentecost but when they stopped looking up and started looking around. Ascension. The body of Christ.
At a volunteer luncheon here at the church a few weeks ago, I told everyone about Mrs. Hubbs. Mrs. Hubbs was the children’s librarian in the public library in the community where I grew up. All of the children, including me, were afraid of Mrs. Hubbs. She looked to be 184 years old but elevated “sh-ssing” to an art form. Mrs. Hubbs was also a charter member of the Presbyterian church. It wasn’t until years later; I was a pastor, Mrs. Hubbs was long gone to glory, that my mother told me that Mrs. Hubbs ironed the communion table cloth in that church for more than fifty years. Preachers preach from pulpits like this one from generation to generation invoking names like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, King, but God knows you will never hear enough references to Mrs. Hubbs and all the nameless saints who contributed to the witness of the Body of Christ.
After lunch that afternoon, a church member observed that such a luncheon a few decades ago would have attracted many more volunteers. Right off the top of his head he named four or five folks who so faithfully served around here in years past. Together we noted the things around the church that are now done by staff members that would have been done by volunteers a generation ago. Our conversation was not a lament as much as an observation. The increasing professionalization of the church: less volunteer hours, more efficient use of human resources, a candid acknowledgement of the busyness of peoples’ lives, the standards of expectation and accountability and excellence needed to oversee a 1.8 million dollar non profit operation. As I have learned from the retired pastors who worship with us and serve in our community, it is not easy to quantify the changes in how we do church today. Innovation isn’t reserved for the business world and its not a bad word around the church, even a Presbyterian church. And still, and yet, but, nevertheless….each and every one of us is called to service in the Body of Christ; using, sharing, identifying gifts in service to the Body of Christ, a visible community of the followers of Jesus, a community visible to the world.
To you, elders and deacons, being ordained and installed to office here amid the congregation of Nassau Presbyterian Church, you who with your ordination are being set a part to function, commissioned as leaders….stop looking up and start looking around, looking around here at us, each one of us, those who are here, those who aren’t here, those yet to come. Stop looking up and start looking around. “Because… here we are.”
When we talk about our mission to this community, and our visibility here on Palmer Square, our call for a faithful witness, we’re not talking about preserving a budget, or honoring history, or building preservation…we are discerning together in the power of the Holy Spirit, what it means to be the Body of Christ in this place.
Between you and me, we would use a run on ascensions. That should be our prayer, a plethora of ascensions. An abundance of ascensions. No, not Jesus up and down, up and down like a child riding an escalator at the mall….No, but the followers of Jesus becoming the Body of Christ, if that’s Ascension, when proclaiming the gospel, announcing the kingdom, calling for repentence, declaring forgiveness falls not to him but to us, when the witness, the ministry, the mission of the Risen Christ is not just him, but us, when the physical manifestation of the Risen Christ is no longer him, but you taking your place in, and offering your service to, and using your gifts for, and further the work of the Body of Christ; if ascension is you as a follower of Jesus becoming the Body of Christ, if ascension is us, as the Body of Christ, carryout his mission to the ends of the earth, if ascension happens every time one of us claims our place in the space occupying Body of Christ here and now….well, then, yeah, we need a whole lot of those.
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.