|Image courtesy http://www.cruzblanca.org/hermanoleon/|
When I left home for bootcamp in 1989, my family quoted this song to me in a card:
“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes.”
And for whatever reason, whenever Ascension Sunday rolls around, I cannot help but think of Elton John. My pastor and mentor once told me that on some Ascension Sunday before he retires, he’ll have the church sing “I’m leaving on a jet plane.”
All of this is to say the Feast of the Ascension is one of those holy day festivals in the life of the Church that is important, for a majority of people, due to its theological significance, but otherwise, we aren’t exactly sure what to do with it.
It’s in the Creed, in one form or another; the Nicene Creed says:
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
and usually when the Church takes the time to include a portion of Scripture as a creedal statement, we want people to know it’s a foundational piece of what the Church believes.
That being said, it’s not so important that, like Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we create festivals of lessons and carols around it, or, like Easter, ensure that it’s always on the Lord’s Day, a Sunday.
The Ascension happened 40 days after Jesus rose from the dead. The actual Feast Day was this past Thursday, but because those of us who follow a liturgical calendar believe it is important, we option the last Sunday before Pentecost as either the 7th Sunday of Easter or Ascension Sunday. And 40 is a theologically significant number throughout Scripture: 40 days/nights of rain, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, 40 days of fasting for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. 40 days of continued teaching after the resurrection. There’s so just based on the number of days we know there’s something worth paying attention to.
So what do we make of this particular passage, this foundational piece of our faith. Is the Ascension of Jesus important only because it provides a transition from Jesus to the Holy Spirit? Is it important only because it gets us from earth to heaven? Or is it only about looking and waiting for Jesus to come back for his own?
As you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this...and they come from one particular sentence: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Think for a moment about where the Disciples have been, what they have been through. Jesus called them from ordinary lives of family and the family business to an itinerant ministry of healing and preaching. Then in an unexpected twist, he is arrested and executed, taken from them and just when they thought it was back to the ordinary life again, Jesus is back, raised from the dead. As unlikely and truly miraculous as it seemed, there he was. Teaching them again, going from place to place, showing the victory of God against the power of death. It was kind of like when the Eagles reunited in the mid 1990’s except Jesus’ resurrection was a true conquering of Hell and Death.
So there they are again. Just like the good old days: Jesus and the Twelve--actually the Eleven because Judas hasn’t been replaced yet. It’s almost like nothing really changed. Until the 40th day when he leads them out to a mountain top, commissions them one final time, and rises from earth to heaven.
How do you not stand there watching the red tail lights headed for Spain?
You start by remembering that Jesus told you something important before he rose to heaven. You remember that he gave you a mission, a purpose. And as long as you are standing there, looking at the sky, you aren’t living your purpose.
Luke moves us in the Acts narrative from his Gospel’s focus on the 2nd person of the Trinity to the work of the 3rd person, the Holy Spirit.
With the Ascension we are moved from passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix things to actively participating in the work of the Holy Spirit here and now.
The thing is, lots of folks in the church are still just looking up at heaven waiting passively for Jesus to do something. A lot of us are missing out on the purpose that Jesus gives to us.
I follow Ricky Gervais on Twitter. He’s a comedian, an actor, and an atheist and a critic of the Church. He sent out a tweet a few weeks ago that said something like, “I think I’ll save myself lots of time, energy and money and just pray that the all world’s problems will go away.” Another one said, “Do something? No, I think I’ll just pray about it instead.”
As hard as it may be for some of us to consider advice from an Atheist, sometimes we need to listen to what people who are not part of us have to say about how we conduct ourselves and show that we are precisely NOT what they say we are. Prayer is seen, in the eyes of Ricky Gervais and many critics like him, not as actively working with God, but just waiting on God to do something for us.
Richard J. Foster has this to say about prayer:
“Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly. We are to change the world by prayer.”
But, what is prayer? What does it means to pray rightly? He goes on to say:
“Prayer involves transformed passions. In prayer, real prayer, we begin to thinks God’s thoughts after him; to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”*
In short, to pray is to align our will with the will of God. If we pray rightly, we aren’t just waiting for God to act, we begin to act WITH GOD.
Pastor and Author Dan Kimball says:
“The Church was born for this very mission. Jesus didn’t just call his followers to believe in him as their Savior; he sent them out to follow him and serve the world on his mission. Jesus didn’t tell his followers to sit around, attending church meetings and singing songs, just waiting to die and then go be with him in heaven. Instead, Jesus told his followers to go into the world and with the power of God’s Spirit, live as a people on a mission from God, bringing the love and message of Jesus to others...the Church was created not to be an inwards (or upwardly) focused group of passive people but a Church with an outward focus, on a mission to serve others in the world.”**
Or in the immortal words of Jake and Elwood:
“It's a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses...Hit it.”
Like I said, Ascension is a funny kind of feast day. Not ha ha funny but strange funny and we don’t know what to do with it. But at the core of the Ascension is a promise of presence. And at that, we can begin to sing a song that our Jewish sisters and brothers sing at Passover. “Dayenu” is the song. Dayenu (pronounced "Die-yay-new") means, basically, “It would have been enough for us.” The stanzas recognize the depth of grace in each action of God on their behalf. But each stanza also builds on the previous one, acknowledging that God is never satisfied with “enough” when it comes to His children.
To give you an example, the song sung at Passover begins: ”if God had brought us out of Egypt but not carried out judgments against them it would have been enough...Dayenu. If God had carried out judgments against them and not against their idols...Dayenu...”
Our version might say:
If God had come in person, to redeem our human nature but not raised him from the dead...Dayenu...it would have been enough.
If God had raised Jesus from the dead, to destroy death’s power over us but not lifted Jesus up...Dayenu...it would have been enough.
If God had lifted Jesus up from earth, to open heaven to us but not given us his Spirit...Dayenu...it would have been enough.
If God had given us his Spirit to provide a means of grace and hope but not given us a mission...Dayenu...it would have been enough.***
* Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline. (HarperOne, October 1988)
** Dan Kimball, Adventures in Churchland:: Discovering the Beautiful Mess Jesus Loves (Zondervan, June 2012)
*** I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a sermon by Rev. Joshua Bowron from whom this section of Dayenu is inspired and paraphrased.