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Sermon – “Why Looking Up?” – May 12, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2013 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Why Looking Up? Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; Luke 24: 44-53

The Catholic Church established Pope John Paul IIʼs connection with a miracle while he was alive. That entitled him, after he died, to be “beatified,” a step on the way to being made a saint. All heʼd need to qualify for sainthood would be evidence of his being felt responsible for a miracle after his death. That may be in hand. Doctors now have found that a cure credited to the spiritual intercession of the deceased pope–the pope in heaven- – has no medical explanation. If theologians and cardinals accept these findings and other criteria for canonization, John Paul II might be made a saint as early as October.

I was sitting in the same room with John Paul II twenty-eight years ago. It was in the audience in a large auditorium next to St. Peterʼs Square. The only thing between me and the Pope was few hundred feet of air. There he was, up on stage at the end of this big room, greeting us all in multiple languages and giving short summations of his teaching in a few different languages, an amazing man–the activist Polish pope who encouraged Eastern Europeʼs peaceful pull-away from the Iron Curtain era.

And now, though he has died, heʼs still being credited, by his church, with useful work on behalf of God. I am reminded of a day on the beach, thirty-one years ago. A high school classmate, a kid who had been in Sunday School with us, had died of disease. Two of us whoʼd also grown up in the same church were there, sitting on the wall, looking out over the Sound, and my friend said, “Do you ever wonder?–and here he mentioned our friend who had died–”is he out there somewhere?” and he gestured toward the empty blue of the sky, shading off toward the horizon where it would blur with the blue of the water: All indefinite boundaries and fluid space.

Even though people being made saints isnʼt our tradition, most of this fits the common image Christians have from scripture about the existence of heaven. The faithful credit God with miracles, and all of us who believe in life after death know that beyond this world there is a realm in which the deceased continue to live. I say all this to remind us that though we know there is something poetic and metaphorical about the language of “heaven,” it is and always has been part of our own perspective about what life includes. The account of the Ascension in scripture seems like one of those myths which express truths the writers of the Bible donʼt have any other way of sharing, and I donʼt want us to get stuck on how ancient or odd a story it is. I donʼt think it is helpful to be reminded of all the Christian art down through history which depicts, in a literal-minded way, Christʼs leaving this world and entering a heavenly realm. The big point of the story is that Jesus, after his resurrection, has spent time with the disciples, giving them a chance to grasp whatʼs happened, and what it means. The formulaic “forty days” may or may not be so important  – the important thing is that the resurrection, which at Easter is only shocking, and stupefying, and scary, is given a chance to become part of a coherent religious understanding of what God has achieved. This otherworldly event is given a framework within the traditional conceptions of God and the established habits of spiritual life, and that permits the disciples to aspire to incorporate it into their own lives, and eventually to share it with the world.

None of us usually notices how important it is for things to fit some kind of expected pattern or sense for us to include them meaningfully in our lives. In little ways we are reminded of the truth of this when something upends our routine, or interrupts our going about some familiar errand. Then, by the time we return to what we began to do, we canʼt recall whether weʼve done it or not, or sometimes what it was we were about. Perhaps the thing we picked up to carry back into the kitchen we set down somewhere in the midst of the interruption, and we have to rediscover the sense, by retracing our steps, and thinking hard about what happened at which point.

If we hadnʼt had something interfere with that, everything would have gotten done automatically. We are capable of doing all kinds of things, routine things, without paying much attention. That relies on things going the way they always go.

When people have what are called “religious experiences” or variations on them like “out of the body experiences”, they are exposed to this weird “out there” weʼve been discussing, this alternate reality, and it is even more disorienting than being interrupted by a phone call during the automatic routines of everyday. Something happens, and someone perceives themselves to be looking down from a great height, or the person has a vision of another kind, and the next thing they know, theyʼre back in the world we all share. They donʼt forget the strange experience, but they donʼt know what to do with it. They canʼt work it into the sense of the rest of their lives. It is such a mismatch for the rest of their remembered reality that eventually they wonder if it really happened.

Thatʼs what Jesusʼ time after the resurrection does for his disciples. It allows them to regard the resurrection not only as a wondrous event, but to link it in a convincing way with the rest of their experience of God. Only then can it become part of their religious life.

Jesus has three things he says which amount to his final words to the disciples. The first is his reply to their asking if he is going to begin to reign over Israel. Jesus takes the topic of his assuming control in an earthly sense to say something about final things. He tells hs disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

This amounts to the same thing Jesus says elsewhere, as in Mark, chapter thirteen, about the end times “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The explicit teaching of Christ is to avoid trying to calculate the arrival of Judgment Day, because it will be a waste of time, and because the point of Jesusʼ referring to Godʼs conclusive wrapping up of history is to encourage people to live their entire lives with the spirit they would exhibit if they knew they were to meet God momentarily. All you really need to remember is that Jesus has said that nobody ever will be able to predict the end of the world. People keep trying. People are fond of predicting the worldʼs end, and more people are excited to hear about it. Itʼs hard to do what Jesus says and see Christ in the needy stranger. Evidently itʼs easier to turn religion into a matter of when the world will end, but Jesus has warned us thatʼs a foolʼs errand.

What are the other two things Jesus says? He tells his disciples to wait until they have received power from God, to equip them to be used by God for a good purpose. What do they do in the meantime? They stuck together, and they prayed.

We are apt to underestimate the power of both of these pursuits. Sticking together may merely seem like huddling together against the storm, and it sometimes is that. When thereʼs a death in the community, or some other kind of trouble, people come together and help one another.

Trouble, however, is not the only time the New Testament envisions the church maintaining close relationships and frequent contact among its members. Part of the vision of the New Testament is for believers to work at a common life, in all kinds of ways. They worship together, they eat together, they sing together. We still do those things, but when we do we often forget how important the Bible regarded the effort to create a harmonious household of faith. The New Testament styles fellow believers “brothers” and “sisters”, and believes in the merit of each individual regarding himself or herself as responsible to God to create the best– the most fair, the most respectable, the most kind–community possible.

What purpose does that serve? That by itself witnesses to the Christ who taught that God is love and who gave as his own commandment the commandment to love one another. “By this,” Jesus tells the church, “all will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” How does that look in our midst? Where is the generosity of spirit and openness of heart which show that the love of God dwells with us? How does the profound care for one another which built the church come through in our interactions?

The conscious forming of a holy and humane fellowship for all who believe isnʼt all that there is to witnessing to the resurrected Christ. Disciples are to be Jesusʼ witnesses near and far, locally and globally. Having experienced the resurrection, and having had the astonishing impact of the resurrection interpreted in terms of their religion, they are asked to share the story with others. Patience– patience with what God will provide– and personal commitment to one another, and a willingness to say what they believe, are to be their response to Christʼs having been among them. They have things to do, as they are reminded by the two who show up at their sides while they behold Jesus ascending to heaven. They have a life to live in this world while time lasts, as those privileged by God with the witness of Christ.

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