When the Sunday closest to Ascension Day rolls around, it always poses a dilemma: Skip the Sunday readings and read the story of Jesus rising into heaven? Or give the Ascension a miss? Last year in my congregation, Jesus didn't ascend to heaven, probably because I liked the lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter better, and because, well, the Ascension is . . . tricky.
A few years ago the local seminary offered a course on the "historical Jesus." For the third time since the early 19th century, there's a lot of interest in trying to use the methods of historians rather than religious scholars to see if the "real" Jesus can somehow be discovered. What prompts these outbursts of academic effort is stories like the Ascension, stories that are just too outrageous for educated, modern, cause-and-effect folks like us to take seriously. According to some of the people who are intent on recovering the "historical Jesus," the church is encrusted with outdated, pre-scientific gunk. We need a little dose of historical research to be refreshed. They will be quick to tell you that the Ascension never happened. It was a story, they say, that the church made up, based on even earlier stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of prophets ascending into the clouds. If you had been there with your camcorder with the disciples on that day, there would have been nothing to record, no feet of Jesus getting ever smaller as they rose away into the sky.
Well, fine. I have an undergraduate degree in history myself, and the history shows on television are among my favorites. Give me a good documentary and some popcorn and I'm happy. But that's in my den, not in the pulpit. It's not a preacher's job to take the Bible's mysterious stories and make sense of them, to get rid of the strangeness or the wildness or the unpredictability. If a story is mysterious, then the church needs to practice being mystified, not jump as quickly as possible to some explanation that removes all the shadows as well as the light.
So we're not going to spend any time today wondering about the "how" of the Ascension--whether Jesus rose into the sky like a helium balloon. Neither am I interested in the "why" of the Ascension, although there is a stack of theology about it that is both interesting and useful. Instead, we're going to look at a different gift in the story; and to receive the gift, we have to think about the story in a new way.
Have you heard the tale about the two coyotes told by the Nez Perce Indians? Two coyotes went up the river and they came to a big ledge. From there they saw people living below near the river. The two friends said to each other, "You go ahead." "No, you go." And for a long time, they argued. Then one said, "You go first. They will see you, and they will say, 'The coyote is going on the trail.'" "I'm not a coyote," the second coyote said. "But you're the same as I am," the first coyote said. "We're the same in every way, and we're both coyotes." "No," the second coyote said. And they argued. Then the second coyote said, "You go first." They were on a ridge that the people below could see. So the first coyote walked on. He went over the small ridge, and the people below said to each other, "That coyote is going upstream." And they came out and watched the coyote going. "See," the first coyote called back to his friend, "What did they say?" They called me 'coyote.' You come too. And they're going to say the same to you. You are a coyote." "They won't," said the second coyote. "But all right, I'll go." And he slowly started walking on the trail. When the people saw the second coyote, they said, "Ah, another one." "See," said the second coyote. "I'm not a coyote. I'm 'another one.'"
Like the story of the two coyotes, the story of Jesus' Ascension contains things we will only see if we stop assuming, like the historians, that we know what we're going to find.
We don't celebrate the Ascension because it's forty-something days after Easter and that's what the church is supposed to do. We don't celebrate the Ascension because the creed says Jesus rose into heaven to sit on the right hand of God, although a coyote is a coyote. We celebrate the Ascension because we're no different from the early church who gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed: the news that they were going to receive power. And perhaps even more importantly, we celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have.
There the disciples were, a fragile little community, anxious and bewildered, watching their Lord leave them, but they aren't distraught and sad. When it's all over, they're worshipping with joy. They had an advantage over us. They knew they had no power of their own.
Any power they would ever know would be given to them by the Spirit, and they aren't even told when or how. Someone in the group does ask the practical question--someone in a group always does. He or she asks Jesus, "Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?" It's not a faith question; it's a political question. It's the question you ask when your candidate comes out on top and you want to know when the platform is going to be implemented. It's the wrong question to be asking, but it's always all right with Jesus to ask the wrong question. "God knows the answer, but we don't get to," Jesus says. "Stop worrying about having things the way you want them and wait for something else, a power that is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it."
We live in an era and in a nation which is deluded by the notion that everything is up to us. To join a church is to stand up and heckle that idea, making Ascension Day perhaps the perfect day to welcome new members into a congregation. Whenever people gather around a baptismal font, they publicly proclaim that they rely on a power beyond themselves, that they believe in God whose love and strength sustains them in all things.
In the Presbyterian Book of Order are these words:
All ministry in the church is a gift from Jesus Christ. Members and officers alike are under the mandate of Christ, who is the chief minister of all. Jesus' ministry is the basis of all ministries, the ministry of "...one who came not to be served but to serve."
One of my minister friends tells a story about a couple who came to see him with regard to possibly joining the church. He was excited about it until he felt the conversation turn into an interview. The couple wanted to know just what Second Presbyterian Church was going to do for them and for their children. The pastor brought them to sudden silence by asking, "What are you planning to do for Second Presbyterian Church?" Soon they left, never to be seen again.
All ministry, including church membership, is a gift from Jesus Christ. Without the gift, without the empowering Spirit that Jesus promised to the disciples at his Ascension, we can do nothing. We can make no claim. And nothing that we try to do that is all our idea and not God's can finally prosper in the end. Oh, our projects can certainly go a long way before they finally fade. A program or ministry or piece of polity that is our doing and not the Spirit's can look very successful and garner much support. But if something is not a work of the Spirit, it will die when our power or energy to make it happen dies. The work of the Spirit, on the other hand, never comes to an end. God will accomplish what God sets out to do and will make use of us and our witness along the way.
Ascension Day is the day to remember that it's the Spirit at work in the church that makes all manner of impossible things possible--things a good deal more mystifying than Jesus rising into the air. Things like the woman who knew she couldn't face it when her husband became critically and terminally ill, who woke each morning for months wanting to fall apart and disappear. But she didn't. She survived and met what came each day. And not only that, when she looks back, she knows she didn't do it alone because facing her husband's death was not something she could possibly have done. By the power of the Spirit of God, a man who had been addicted to alcohol for more than half his years stopped drinking and stayed sober. And when peopled asked him how he did it, the first thing he says is he didn't.
By the power of the Spirit of God, a Mexican priest took communion to the people of a town whose church was overrun with soldiers. They shot at anyone who came near, but the priest came forward to enter the church. They shot at the ground around his feet, and overcome with fear, he started to leave, but then stopped, came back again, and moved forward while the town watched. His courage, which was not his alone, inspired others to fall in step beside him until there was a collection of unarmed people moving toward the church. The startled soldiers no longer had the will to do them harm so great was the complete helplessness of the power that was evident among them. So the soldiers stood aside and the people shared the communion of our Lord, something that moments earlier had been impossible made possible by the power of God alone. Amen.
Let us pray.
Gift-giving God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, open our minds to the mystery of faith and the liberating word that the Gospel is still moving out through the simplest actions of people no different from us. We give you thanks for the story of Jesus' Ascension and the freeing awareness that we can rely on a power beyond our own. Send your blessing, we pray, on the church universal, where our questions find welcome, where there is light for our darkness, and hope for things that would indeed be impossible if we had only ourselves on which to rely. Amen.