Easter 7 (Ascension) • 28 May 2017

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Rev. Chris Udy

Aub Podlich
is a Lutheran Pastor from Queensland.
One of his short poems reads like this ...
      Collectors chasing butterflies
      but scorning caterpillars
      rom which they come
      are like Christians
      whose faith is all heaven.
      Yet we are significant creatures
      not only because of what we shall become,
      but also because of what we are.

We don’t talk too much
about heresy in the Uniting Church –
it seems a bit harsh and judgemental for us -
but there are some heresies around today
that are damaging to faith and life
and need to be confronted -
and they tend to be heresies held by Christians
whose faith is all heaven.

One heresy goes like this:
      Life isn’t meant to be easy.
      We are here because we have to be tested and tempted
      to see if we are good enough for heaven.
      Nothing can change how hard life is,
      and we should expect nothing but suffering.
      When we die, we will be judged,
      and if we have failed life’s test
      we'll done for eternity on some divine BBQ.
      But if we are good enough,
      and strong enough,
      and if we suffer enough,
      then God just has to let us into heaven -
      it's all in the contract.
I don't know exactly what good it would do
to be in heaven after a life like that,
because it would surely have killed
any sense of joy or peace
and would leave a bitter fear
and a sense of spiritual superiority
that could never be pleasing to God.

Another of these heresies goes the other way:
      Life is meant to be painless, prosperous and pious.
      Once we are saved,
      we become God’s favourites,
      and we have our suites already reserved in heaven.
      God can't help but make us rich,
      and keep us healthy.
      We don't have to worry about the poor,
      or those who are sick or suffering
            because clearly they’ve been rejected by God.

And that "prosperity theology" -
as it's often called -
conveniently forgets that God himself died
as a political prisoner,
owning nothing,
in mental anguish and horrible physical pain.

One journalist, writing in the Australian
cynically said he wasn’t surprised
that the Uniting Church had been involved
in running a safe injecting room in Kings Cross -
because really drugs and Christianity
are about the same thing.
They’re both, he said, an escape from reality,
opiates for the masses.
He was just the latest
in a long, long line of critics
who’ve dismissed Christian faith by saying -
      look at them, running away from life,
      kidding themselves,
      and playing games with the truth.
- and whenever we think can ignore this life,
and not tackle the difficult questions
and the intractable problems
because we hope for the life to come,
they’re probably right.

Some Christian counsellors,
who see the dangers of those heresies,
have a slogan:
      There is no resurrection without crucifixion
      There is no life without death -
            and every light shines out of darkness.
Light and darkness are always together.
Healthy Christian life
means discovering the place where the two meet -
and living there -
because that's where God is.

Go too far into the darkness
and hope disappears, and faith is foolish,
and only bitterness and legalism remain.

Go too far into the brightness
and courage fades,
strength melts away
and resilience is gone, -
and the first nudge of reality pushes us over.

We have to live in the middle of things.

And maybe that's why many Christians have trouble
with today’s reading from Acts:
Luke's account of the ascension.

The gospels agree
that the disciples encounter Jesus in resurrection,
and it's pretty clear
that even after spending time with Jesus
after he has died and been raised,
the disciples
don't understand what he’s doing.
They think that resurrection is just another miracle,
that now Jesus is back stronger than ever,
and he's going to take political control:
"Lord, is this the time
when you'll restore the kingdom to Israel?"

In one way it's good to know
that they could be just as obtuse back then
as we in the Church can be now.
We haven't changed too much
and we still come up with excellent suggestions
for what God should be doing
about all sorts of political and social issues –
especially those that have to do
with the lives of other people.
But Jesus says,
"No, don't worry about dates and times -
that's the Father's business.
But you are going to receive power
when the Holy Spirit comes on you,
and your business is to be my witnesses."

Then, as Luke tells it,
while they were watching,
Jesus began to float up
and when he reached cloud level -
he disappeared.

And that's the part that troubles a modern mind.

Why would Jesus rise from death -
only to do a strange disappearing act like that?
He's promised that the Holy Spirit would come -
and surely tongues of fire
and mighty winds
and the whole experience of Pentecost
should have been enough
to convince the disciples that Jesus was with them.

So why come back -
and leave the disciples staring up into the air
in such an awkward exit?

Where did he go?
Any astronomer will tell us
that there's nothing up there
in any physical sense -
and it stretches credibility
to believe that Jesus is in orbit
circling the earth,
waiting till everything's right
for the second coming.

In a way
the ascension is more disturbing
than the resurrection of Jesus -
it doesn’t fit -
it doesn’t sound right -
it seems too much like the faith that's all heaven -
and forgets the realities of human life.
Here we have Jesus, in this body
that has died and been raised -
and the ascension looks like a slightly suspect way
to get the body out of the way and finish the story.

Some questions about the ascension
will always be a mystery;
attempts to explain the physical events
are always awkward and cloudy,
and whatever theories might be suggested,
we’re left with questions
that will only be resolved in another place
and in God’s own time.

But when we’re faced with mystery
and trying to understand,
there’s another angle of approach:
instead of asking what really happened,
or cooking up theories of how,
we can focus on the poetry,
asking why the Gospels tell the story in this way,
and what it might mean for us.

What was the purpose and the meaning
of the ascension of Jesus?
And what does it mean in our lives as Christians?

One of the great insights of Christian tradition
is that we live our lives
by the pattern Jesus gives us -
we live through the life of Jesus
in our own lives -
and each year,
between Christmas and Pentecost,
we move through that pattern again.

Jesus was born -
and we have an awakening to Christian life
that can often seem as miraculous
to those who carried us in faith and love -
as Jesus was to Mary and to Joseph.

We have times of obscurity -
when nothing much seems to happen -
but we continue to grow.

We have high points of commitment:
moments of rediscovery
and reaffirmation of faith -
just as the baptism of Jesus
was his high point of revelation.

We have wilderness days
when we seem to have lost our way -
and we have times of temptation.

We have days of popularity,
when people appreciate our contributions -
and days of challenge and conflict
as Jesus had with the Pharisees.

We have Gardens of Gethsemane -
waiting and agonising
over whether what we are doing is good and right.

We have passion and death -
with betrayal and isolation and pain;
and … we have the joy of new beginnings,
resurrection and new life.

We have that pattern – that template -
and in it we re-live the life of Christ.
We identify with Jesus …
and ascension is also part of our Christian pattern.

We began by talking about living in the middle -
between the blinding darkness
and the blinding light,
between life below and heavenly bliss,
and that can sometimes sound as if
we’re being asked to tread
some clear and stable, balanced line
of perfect moderation -
always finding ourselves
in the right place at the right time.
But ascension says that isn't how it works.
We don't walk that straight grey line at all,
we are continually changing directions,
moving from night to day,
from joy to pain,
from earth to heaven.

Jesus left his disciples
because, in the logic of the Gospels,
if Jesus didn't leave
he couldn’t return
to be present in the Holy Spirit.

Throughout his life, Jesus has chosen
sometimes to be deeply
and physically involved with people and their needs,
and sometimes to withdraw,
to pray, to be alone and with God,
to find new direction, to move on,
and then to return with new strength
and rediscovered purpose.

The pattern of Jesus' life
was that he was always leaving
only to return and be present in another way.
And that becomes part of our pattern too.

We need to build in times that we withdraw,
to embrace solitude, to leave the world for a while,
to be alone and with God -
      times of retreat and study,
      times of re-creation and reflection,
      times of worship and prayer.

Those times, when we ascend,
when we are lifted up and away,
are times for finding a new and higher perspective,
times for finding new directions,
new insights and resources
and new energy to return and live
in our relationships and responsibilities.
We move between body and spirit -
holding them together -
and swinging between the two.

Knowing that we need movement and rhythm
reminds us of our true
freedom -
      freedom to seek peace and stillness even in a busy life,
            freedom to find humour
            even in the face of grief and desperation,
      freedom to find deep meanings
            in times of depression and sadness,
      freedom even to accept and to understand
            people who may be at different points
            in following the pattern of Christian life.

We can't be everything all the time.
We can't be present in every way for every one.
The danger is that we stay in the flesh
and forget to nourish the spirit -
or that we stay in the spirit
and forget that we are incarnate and embodied –
that we are flesh.

The way we follow Jesus
is to move between the tensions of life -
to discover that God is with us in everything we do -
and wherever we go.

We find God's work and love
      in grief as well as in joy,
      in doubt as well as in certainty,
      in the dark night as well as the bright day,
      in the man of Nazareth with dirt on his feet
      as well as in the ascended and glorified Christ.

So may God guide us
as we follow the pattern Jesus provides for our lives,
as we discover his purpose in all we do,
and also as we complete the pattern of Christian life,
and finally ascend ourselves
to be one with the risen Christ.