June 5, 2011; Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC.
On the morning of Saturday May 21st, NPR reported on Harold Camping’s rapture prophecy. At 6 pm on May 21st, Camping had predicted, terrible earthquakes would strike, beginning in New Zealand. 200 million of the faithful would be taken up into heaven Those left behind would endure 6 months of torture until the world ended in a fireball. The reporter spoke to a couple dozen people who believed in the prophecy.
Up until this point, the whole rapture thing had struck me as funny. I kept quipping that since I work on Sunday, it would be convenient for me if the world ended on a Saturday. One way or another, I would get the day off. I grew sad; however, as I listened stories of real people who had staked their lives on this prophecy.
Joelle and Adrian Martinez quit their jobs a year ago. They moved from New York to Orlando. They spent the entire year distributing pamphlets about the rapture. As Joelle put it, they “budgeted everything in a way that on May 21st they wouldn’t have anything left.” The couple has a 2 year old daughter; they expect another child any day.
Perhaps this morning’s texts about Jesus’ ascension sound equally crazy. Jesus flies up into the sky, like a puppet riding on strings. In a superhero moment, he’s swept away in a cloud and carried into heaven. So what? What is the point? I think it’s fair to say that for modern, scientifically minded people, such theatrical tricks are not miraculous or amazing, just silly, and faintly embarrassing. Though the authors of scripture actually believed that God lives in the sky, we don’t.
Even so, I believe the ascension moment provides a compelling alternative to rapture theology. I trust that this defining moment for Jesus and his disciples is also a defining moment for us. It is an event on which we can stake our lives. Not in a desperate, sad, crazy way. But in way that fills our days with purpose, our hearts with joy, our relationships with grace and hope.
Though the special effects and the outdated cosmology distract, they are really not important. A flying human, a magical cloud, a God in the sky, these crazy images are not the point at all. Even the angels agree with that: after Jesus departs, they ask the disciples, “Galileans, why do you stand looking toward heaven?” The angels go on to tell the disciples that Jesus will someday return to earth. They don’t say he will return in order to judge us harshly. Or destroy the world with earthquakes and fire.
The weight of scripture– Jesus own preaching and his later interpreters– suggest that in fact Jesus will return because his true home is here, with us, not “up there” somewhere. Luke reports: Now at one point, the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, so he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17: 20-21) And in the book of Revelation, at the end of time, the faithful do not relocate from earth to heaven. Heaven itself travels. The holy city, the new creation, comes down on earth. God makes a home with mortals. (Revelation 21:3)
Peter Woods is a minister of the Methodist Church of South Africa. At his blog, “Listening Hermit”, he writes: “When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum. The indigenous people… believed that “God” … lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces … The European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell.. deep in the earth. Woods asks: What if Africans are correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? … What if the Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialised siblings instead of the other way around? Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space”? (http://thelisteninghermit.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/up-up-and-inside/)
The ascension moment is, despite appearances, not about the sky at all. It is about earth and its peoples, and about the God who lives in the earth. The focus of the ascension moment is not really on Jesus; it is on the disciples and on us. The disciples ask if Jesus is going to “restore the Kingdom to Israel”. He replies that God’s timing is not for them to know. “But, he continues “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.” In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus tells them: “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
We are clothed with power to bear witness… to the ends of the earth. Uh oh, evangelism. Sharing our faith. Sounds like more crazy talk. We have some scary role models in this area of “bearing witness”… rapture prophets, crusaders, imperialistic missionaries What can we say about Jesus to the wider world that has integrity for us? That does not add to the harm done in his name? That respects people of other faiths and cultures?
Jesus himself offers us a model. With his whole being, he bears witness to something he called the Kingdom of God. In the sermon that began his public ministry, he laid out the shape of the kingdom He quoted the prophet Isaiah, claiming the vision of his ancestors: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has 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 the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18-20)
The message of Jesus is actually about the end of one world … and the beginning of another No earthquakes, no fiery cataclysm, no escape to heaven. Just lives dedicated to bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, the jubilee of economic and social justice – debt forgiveness, equitable sharing of wealth and power.
Today, as we celebrate graduates, giving thanks for what they have accomplished and for who they are, offering our blessing for their journey ahead, I am remembering one young man. Several years ago, on a church service-learning trip, I came across him crumpled over sobbing. It was a strange and moving sight to see him weeping so extravagantly. “What’s going on?” “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I can’t do it!” he wailed. We were immersed in a poverty simulation experience – and both of us had been assigned the same family group, So I knew what he was talking about.
A fire had forced our “family” to evacuate our apartment. Our belongings were lost and we were on the third day of wearing the same clothes without a shower. We weren’t eating much and we were sleeping on a basement floor. Then the directors of the simulation slipped one more thing onto our plate – they informed us that a friend’s baby would be staying with us for a while. We received a rather realistic doll that cried several times each night. Often the doll continued to scream even after a bottle or diaper change.
This young man had come to his breaking point. It was a tough moment for both of us, but for him, I truly believe it was life-shaping. I suspect that because of this personal encounter with some of the dynamics of poverty— its relentless stress, its impossible demands, his life will be different than it would have been otherwise. In some way, whether small or large, this young man will bear witness in words, choices and actions, to the Jesus who proclaims good news to the poor. This good news is about both basic, daily compassion and cosmic, world-altering vision.
The ascension story challenges us to claim power. Our own power. The power of God at work within us. We have a choice: we can abuse power, or we can use it faithfully. By ourselves, we are all a bit crazy. We do not have the power to change the evils in ourselves or the evils of the world. As partners with God, we are more powerful than we can imagine. Amen.