Ascension Sunday…. today we celebrate the beginning of Christs work in the world. Yes, I said the beginning. For the real work of Christs salvation begins with those left behind. Forty days after Jesus’ death or on Easter Sunday he ascends to heaven.
There is arguably no festival or Sunday of the Christian year that is more dependent on mythic imagery than the Ascension of the Lord. The superb narrator Luke is the only New Testament writer to literalize an account of the ascension. Although in the final chapter of his Gospel Luke describes the ascension as occurring on Easter Day, in the Acts of the Apostles he introduces the imagery of 40 days to intensify his story line.
In the scriptures, it is for 40 days that rain falls on Noah’s ark, that the spies scout out Canaan, that Goliath taunts the Israelite army, that Ezekiel lies on his right side, that Nineveh is threatened with destruction, and that Jesus is tempted after his baptism. At age 40 Moses murders an Egyptian; 40 years later he meets with God on Mount Sinai; and 40 years later he dies. For 40 years Israel wanders in the desert and for 40 years suffers under the Philistines. Saul, David, and Solomon each reign 40 years, and every woman is secluded for 40 days after the birth of a son.
This may be the reason that Christians have adopted the forty day way of being. You see it is longer than a lunar month. It breaks the rhythm of what would be considered a normal pattern. Gail Ramsay explains it this way;
Perhaps the origin of this metaphor lies in the fact that 40 exceeds the lunar pacing of 30 days. Forty is a long time. But 40 is also mythically alive, a time pregnant with a religious future. Forty is how long we must wait for God’s intent to be realized. Forty is the metaphysical delay which all humans experience, the legendary period of hope, the duration of either joy or sorrow that opens to emotions unknown. It often takes 40 to open the door.
These forty days allows the Christian community to process what Jesus’ life has meant. It allows us to ponder the sorrow and the pain he endured and triumphed over. It gives us time to process the messages and lessons he taught. This may be one reason why the Christian church has adopted these forty days after the resurrection.
But what purpose does the ascension serve? Why did Christ walk this earth as God incarnate after the resurrection? Why didn’t he just leave? This was the time Christ offered companionship. Christ offered further lessons. Christ helped to clarify all he taught and made a path for more, for a more human connection. Christ made a way for us here today. John Martens puts it this way;
The ascension is a proof of the significance of the incarnation and, as a result, the significance of each of our lives. Certainly, the ascension directs us to the uniqueness of Jesus, as God and man, and specifically to Jesus’ enthronement as Lord, but it also points to the uniqueness and value of each human life. Because Jesus’ human being does not cease with his resurrection or his ascension, Jesus’ incarnation, the particularity of his human personhood, is eternal. But that means our personhood, our individuality, will not just melt away into nothingness with death either. We are intended for eternity as unique instances of human beings.
Jesus’ ascension is the hinge between Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, for Acts is not a new story but the continuation of the story of Jesus’ mission and ministry through the work of his apostles and disciples. As we are told in Acts, Jesus, while physically absent for a period of time, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” It is not so much the cosmological description of the manner of Jesus’ “coming” and “going” that ought to interest us but the ongoing reality of Jesus’ eternal existence.
Before the ascension, Jesus gives lessons and opens minds for understanding and offers comfort. He gives promise of the holy spirit to come. Jesus does not ascend until “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles,” this becomes an overlap, if you will. Before sending the holy spirit to the disciples Jesus offers instruction through the holy spirit. This is in preparation for the beginning of the church.
In the last verses of the ascension scene in Acts, two figures from Lk 24:4, the two men who greeted the women at the tomb, reappear. They ask the apostles, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” The Letter to the Hebrews makes the same point, saying that Jesus, who came first for the sins of humanity, “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The apostles are told, in a sense, to get on with their work because while Jesus will return at some point, “those who are eagerly waiting for him” when he returns depends on the church. The apostles have a job to do.
This is the moment when grief turns to joy “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great Joy and they were continually in the temple worshipping God.” Filled with Joy the Church is beginning, filled with Joy they were in the temples. Everyone in town knew who they were, and they were no longer hiding. They were present as joyful witnesses to the truth. This, even before Pentecost, is the birthing of the church. A Joy filled ministry! I was reading this the other day and thought I would share it with you.
When I was about 13 or 14, my father asked me to ride along with him as he cultivated a field of corn. It was a tricky job. The sharp blades of the cultivator had to pass between the rows of corn. If we had veered a few inches to the left or to the right, we would have plowed out four rows of tender young corn plants. The John Deere Model 70 did not have power steering, so holding the tractor and cultivator in a straight path was not always easy.
After a few rounds down the 20-acre field, my father asked me if I would like to try driving. Reluctantly, I sat down behind the steering wheel, popped the clutch, and took off down the field. Steering was harder than it looked. Forty feet of corn, in a four-row swath, were plowed out before I had driven five minutes. My father gently gave me a few suggestions as I went awkwardly—and destructively—down the field and back. After a few more rounds, my father asked me to stop the tractor. I thought he had endured all the pain he could. The carnage in the corn field was overwhelming. He would tell me to stop. I obviously was not controlling the tractor and cultivator.
Instead, my father dropped to the ground and said he had some chores to do in the barn. I was to finish the field and then come in for lunch. All morning long, in my father’s absence, I plied my way back and forth across the corn field. Huge sections of corn were torn out, roots exposed to the drying sun, and stalks prematurely sliced down. But by noon I learned to handle the tractor and the cultivator.
My father’s absence was a sign to me that he trusted himself and what he taught me. It also signaled that he trusted me. His absence was empowering rather than disabling. It authorized me to trust myself and trust what he had taught me. I would never have learned to cultivate corn had I worked anxiously under his critical eye, hanging on his every gesture and comment.
It is through the physical absence of Christ that the apostles become assured of their own experience. It is through Christ’s leaving that they begin to learn to depend on what they have witnessed and what they have learned. It is in the final departure that they are filled with joy and confidently return to the temple and offer god prayers and thanksgiving.
This is the moment when the shift occurs, from this moment on you on your own kids. It is from this moment on that mere humans must try to teach, understand, and lead us to fulfill the kindom of God here on earth. It is from this moment we start to get it wrong! It is from this moment some start to get it right.
Christ came to this world to teach us what it means to be fully human and fully alive. God incarnate affirms that we as humans are Good. We as humans, as creatures of flesh are good. That we as humans our bodies and lives are good. This is the message of the united Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey you are welcome here!
So who are you? Who are we called to welcome? What kind of welcome do we extend? How are we as a denomination called to be God’s still speaking voice. How are you as a congregation called to be God’s still speaking voice? What are some of the opportunities available to us as a congregation working within a denomination setting?
Let me list a few
Faith beyond Bars; WE call for prison and sentencing reform
Deeply connected to the recently renewed dialogue about the criminal justice system, and the pressing need to address the reality of mass incarceration in our country, are issues of justice that are at the core of our faith.
In the lives and faces of those who fall into the criminal justice system, we encounter Christ. Even in the midst of profound brokenness, we are challenged to seek out the image of God in this complex and challenging context. We cannot enter the conversation at arms-length. Because we are followers of Jesus, we are called to be In the lives and faces of those who fall into the criminal justice system, we encounter Christ. Even in the midst of profound present as ambassadors of healing, restoration and justice in jail cells, courtrooms, prison yards and in the lives of the returning citizens and their families.
Building bridges linking our Muslim and Christian Communities
The United Church of Christ national leaders and the Pacific Northwest Conference are inviting the wider church to get involved in building bridges between Christians and Muslims in our local communities around the country. Building on the Conference's Ramadan initiative, 'Honoring Sacred Time,' which posted visible signs of welcome, solidarity and support for Muslim Americans in dozens of churches around Washington state, this is a one-church effort to extend the extravagant welcome of the United Church of Christ to all.
A Wise welcome
Have you ever stood in the doorway to a room filled with people who knew each other, like the lunch room of a new school, or the break room of a new work place, or the party of a new friend? It can feel like being at the boundary between worlds—on one side you are alone and surrounded by a fog of insecurity and on the other side is wholeness and acceptance and, above all, laughter. In the United Church of Christ we talk about outsiders and our radical welcome but there are people in our congregations whose presence is often met with fear and silence—people with mental health challenges.
A resolution was adopted at General Synod in 2015 that would encourage the creation of a network of churches that are welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged for mental health. (WISE). Such WISE congregations would work to break down the profound silence in our churches about mental health. They would create covenants with each other to advocate for the many people who fall through the various safety nets in our communities.
Finally, I would like to share a project that I started with the United Church of Christ Global Ministries. This is the solar empowerment project. we are placing solar panels on the roof of a aids hospice in Tijuana. This is a home for many a person living with AIDS. Sometimes it is the first place a person who is sick comes ot especially after being duped at the border by ICE, because they do not send people home.
A person sick with AIDS gets dumped at the border to sick or afraid to go home will come to the Tijuana hospice for shelter food and medical help. They have beds for men woman and children and they even have a special transgender wing.
Global Ministries partner, Las Memorias Hostel provides dignified care to people living with HIV/AIDS. The population served is very diverse, and Las Memorias works without regard to social status, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, or whether the person is local, from another region in Mexico, or is from another country. Las Memorias Hostel was founded in 1999 and, in addition to providing direct services to people with HIV/AIDS, they also provide education and prevention. Currently 75 of the 89 beds at Las Memorias are being utilized by HIV-positive individuals.
The 32,284 sq. ft. hostel can cost over $2,000 to keep air conditioned in the summer heat. The installation of solar panels would allow Las Memorias to redirect its modest funds from electricity expenses to be used for the medication and food for the patients they serve. It is estimated that over the next seven years, the project to purchase and install solar panels will allow for $40,000 in savings for Las Memorias, and several million in savings over the life of the solar panels.
Las Memorias hopes to install a total of 56 solar panels at a cost of $725 per panel. Global Ministries invites gifts for this purpose in order for Las Memorias to create a more sustainable facility, better equipped to serve those living with HIV/AIDS.
The Body of Christ is the Church. The Body of Christ is incarcerated! The Body of Christ is Migrant! The Body of Christ suffers from Mental Illness. The Body of Christ has AIDS! The Body of Christ Jesus,” took on human life, became incarnate, exactly for this purpose: to save our unique human lives. And Jesus retains his human uniqueness as the ascended Lord as a model for our future life and in order that each of us in our individuality and personhood can share in eternal life.” And we as the Body of Christ are called to live into that eternal life, to be examples of what it can be like in the kindom of heaven starting here and starting now. By reaching out, seeking ministry and being Church. Amen!
 Gail Ramshaw, May 5, Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53, April 14, 2017, accessed May 23, 2017, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-04/may-5-ascension-lord.
 John W. Martens, Gospel: The ascension and the value of each life, April 21, 2017, accessed May 23, 2017, http://www.americamagazine.org/content/the-word/value-each-life.
 Shelli williams, Ascension sunday: Left Behind, May 4, 2017, accessed May 23, 2017, https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/05/04/ascension-sunday-left-behind/.
 UCC still speaking voice, Faith Beyond Bars, 2016, accessed May 25, 2017, http://mass-incarceration.uccpages.org/.
 our still speaking Voice, Building bridges linking our Muslim and Christian Communities, 2016, accessed May 25, 2017, http://interfaith.uccpages.org/.
 Global Ministries, Las Memorias Hostel Solar Empowerment Project, 2016, accessed May 25, 2017, http://www.globalministries.org/las_memorias_solar_empowerment.
 Martens, Gospel: The Ascension and the Value of Each Life.