A Sermon for Ascension Sunday
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
When I was a little kid, there was a song titled "Spinning Wheel," which affirmed Sir Isaac Newton's metaphysical truth that "What goes up must come down." Now, Newton's scientific determinations could not help but have an effect on the religious thought of his day. Newton saw God as a master creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of creation. Newton's scientific theories, however, led many to reason that God, producing such an exact and ordered universe, was no longer involved in its day to day operations. After all, if God had set up the universe to work in such a precise and methodical fashion, then any subsequent meddling on God’s part would imply that God had made some sort of mistake from the get go. Therefore, some reasoned, any necessary “adjustments” along the way would be left up to humanity, on our own. Today, we call this theological perspective deism.
Now, I've no bone to pick with Newton, but today, on the Christian calendar, is a sort of anti-Newtonian day for today is known as Ascension Sunday, that day when we proclaim through our own songs the truth that "What comes down must go up." In other words, we proclaim the truth that Jesus, after having "come down" to this earth – to walk among us, to teach and to heal, to die for us and rise for us – did, at the end of it all, go back up for us so that he might sit at the right hand of God, reigning with authority, and interceding on our behalf. What came down must go up.
The writer of Luke's gospel and the Book of Acts (it was a 2-volume work) places great emphasis on the ascension of Jesus. Jesus' ascension is like the hinge point; it closes his gospel and opens the Book of Acts. It marks the transition from the ministry of Jesus in the person of Jesus, to the ministry of Jesus in his people called the Church. In fact, according to our gospel writer, from the moment Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, from that moment forward, the goal of it all, in Luke's terms, is Jesus' "exodus" or his ascension. As important as Jesus' crucifixion is, Luke looks beyond it. As important as Jesus' resurrection is, Luke looks beyond it. There is something beyond the ministry of Jesus; it is the Spirit empowered ministry of the people of Jesus, the Church. Remember that: we are the ongoing ministry of Jesus.
When I was in the 4th grade, my elementary school had us begin to change classes so we would be better prepared when we got to Middle School. One day, the science teacher was out sick and we had a substitute. From the first two classes of students, I began to hear about this substitute teacher. I’m not sure what could have inspired her to go into teaching because she didn’t have any of the attributes that we associate with effective teachers, least of all patience and compassion. When I went into the classroom, I tried to make myself very small – which I can assure you wasn’t difficult – with the hope that I could just get through the class without her noticing me. I succeeded; but, when I left the room, just outside the classroom, another student stopped me to inquire what she was like. She had been very mean; her behavior was unpredictable and frightening. Now, if you’ve ever watched the show NCIS, you might recall those scenes where the coroner, Jimmy, is starting to say something ridiculous or something about Jethro Gibbs and he suddenly gets the uncanny awareness that Gibbs is standing directly behind him. Well, that was me… only without the awareness. As I started to tell my little friend what had happened during class and how frightening the substitute had been, unbeknownst to me, the substitute teacher had come up behind me. Suddenly a set of sharp fingernails dug deep into my shoulder and a hand grabbed my hair and spun my body around. I don’t even remember what happened next. It was a really traumatic experience for me. Somehow I found my way to the nurse’s office and she called my mom to come pick me up. Now, my mom never learned to drive and my dad was out of town. But my brother, 13 years my senior was in town and at home. He went to the school to pick me up. When he got me back home and I told him and my mom what had happened to me, I vaguely recall my mom needing to block the doorway. My brother was furious and he could not get back to that school fast enough. With a little time, my mom was able to calm my brother down and they talked and agreed on the message my brother would deliver to the school… which he did that afternoon.
It was, as a say, a terribly traumatic experience. But, once I got home, I felt completely safe and I also felt safe about going back to school. I knew my brother had intervened and my brother, who was only about 5’2” at the time, could be extremely intimidating when he wanted to be. I knew and I trusted, as a child, that – although he might tease me at home – my brother had the ability and the desire to insure no one would hurt me because he loved me.
Now, we've all had, I assume, some similar experience in our lives; a time when we were wounded, exploited or vulnerable and we needed someone to intervene on our behalf. We weren’t really in a position to take care of things for ourselves. We were hurt or frightened or threatened in some way and we needed someone with great love and power to come to our defense. We needed to know that someone with love and with power was going to intercede on our behalf.
And that's what the ascension of Jesus is about. That's why it was so important to Luke.
Now Jesus, in this morning’s gospel story, tells his disciples that his Spirit is equipping them to continue to do his liberating work and to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins. But what does that really mean? Well, sometimes our understanding of sin and repentance is not as biblical as we might think. “Sin” is not really a laundry list of do’s and don’ts and moral lines in the sand. Rather, sin is that stuff which disrupts our relationships with God, self and others. And to repent, means to change direction, to change our way of thinking and living. So repentance and forgiveness of sins has to do with our lives changing in ways that bring health and wholeness – righteousness or rightness – into our relationships with God, self, and others.
Friends: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health disorders are a bigger challenge in our society than many are willing to acknowledge. And, perhaps the worst part of mental illness is the way it disrupts or distorts our relationships with ourselves, God and others. Furthermore, individuals struggling with a mental health disorder often feel quite vulnerable. It is sometimes difficult for them to access the resources and care that they need. When we are struggling with depression or negative thoughts, we may even doubt that we deserve someone to advocate and intercede for us. But Ascension Sunday reminds us that, first of all, the God we worship knew what it felt like to live in this world with all its struggles and stresses. And that the Jesus who came down has gone up to reign from the heavens; not as some “Deist God” who’s forgotten about us or ignores us. Rather, through his own experience here on earth, Jesus can empathize with our struggles and has the love and authority to act for our good. The writer of the Book of Hebrews reminds us: “[W]e do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are… Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[i]
Friends: our Savior wants and does offer us mercy and grace in our times of need and he calls us, his Church, to do the same for one another. Jesus uses his people, the Church, to bring that grace and mercy into the lives of others; to come alongside others when they need to change their life’s direction or when they need to experience healing in their relationship with God, themselves or others.
Now, this is not to say that all we need is to prayer and believe. As a church, we affirm the God-given instruments of healing that come through therapy and medication. But it is to say that it is also “therapeutic” when people are reminded that we worship a powerful God who reigns from on high; a God who, like my big brother, Dan, is driven by love, authority and power to work for good within our lives. And it is also to say that Jesus has called us to be instruments of his healing in the lives of others. While medication and therapy are often needed to treat mental health disorders, well-being and health also increase when people are reminded of the love of God, and that both we and God want to be in relationship with them; that nothing about their mental health condition denies them the right to be in right relationship with God and others. Let me say that again. People need to know that nothing about their mental health condition denies them the right to be in right relationship with God and others.
Friends: today is Ascension Sunday. It may seem like a complex theological concept or a 2nd rate liturgical holiday. But it is really quite simple and incredibly important. Ours is a God who came down and who went back up. He is the powerful bridge holding heaven and earth together and he has called us, his people, to remind others that we can be in right relationship with God and others. Jesus is interceding for us and he has poured out his power over us that we, too, may be bearers of his mercy and grace – healing and help – in all our collective times of need. Amen.
[i] Hebrews 4:15-16. NRSV.
Sermons are currently available on our homepage.
On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
10 Minute Sermons