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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 1, 2014

 Up in the Air

John 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11

              In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a painting of The Ascension of Christ done in 1513 by Hans Süss von Kulmbach in Nuremberg, Germany. In the center of the canvas, at the bottom, you see the twelve disciples and Mary the Mother of Jesus, all looking up in the air with puzzlement and awe. At the top of the canvas all you see of Jesus are His feet and the trailing red robe He is wearing as He is lifted up into heaven. You know it is Jesus because von Kulmbach shows the wounds of the crucified Jesus still on His feet – but all you see of the ascending Christ are His feet and His ankles!

             It reminds me of the college student who was given a final exam in his course on ornithology. His professor told the students the day of the final that they would have to identify birds based on seeing pictures of only their feet. This student couldn’t believe it. “Unfair!” he cried out, “This is completely unfair! I won’t take the exam.” “Then you will fail the course,” his professor said. “I don’t care! This exam is ridiculous – it is totally unfair to expect us to identify birds based on their feet only. I’m not taking it.” “Then I’m going to flunk you.” “Fine!”, he said, seething by now. As he was leaving the professor said, “Give me your name, so I can enter your F.” He took off his shoes and socks and said, “No. You’re going to have to guess who I am by looking at my feet!”

             Today we turn to the Ascension of Jesus Christ – an event only reported by Luke in the end of his Gospel and in the first chapter of his Acts of the Apostles. We usually don’t spend much time pondering the Ascension of Jesus. We do say in the Apostles’ Creed, “the third day He rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty….” We mention it almost every week in worship, but we honestly do not spend much time pondering its significance. Mostly, we probably are like von Kulmbach’s disciples – we are perplexed and stunned at the thought of Jesus being taken up into heaven. Thoughts of “How did that ever happen?” or “How did God do such a thing?” do not lead us anywhere that we can really go. The Biblical text is wholly disinterested in most modern or post-Newtonian questions we might ask of Jesus’ Ascension. I think the early Church was equally befuddled by it. In Jerusalem there are grand churches dedicated to most of the significant events in Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Not so with the Ascension: A very small octagonal domed building that was once a mosque marks the spot believed since the 320’s to be the place where Jesus departed this earth for heaven. It is no longer used as a mosque, but many Christians go to Jerusalem and never visit this small, almost overlooked domed structure that marks the traditional spot from which Luke tells us that Jesus ascended into heaven.

             What are we to make of the Ascension? Fortunately, Luke thinks it is so important that he offers us not one, but two accounts of Jesus’ leave-taking from this earth. Both make some very interesting and important assertions about Jesus and the Gospel.

             The first thing we ought to note about the Ascension is where it happens. It takes place in Jerusalem, and to Luke, this is not just geographically important, but also theologically vital. Luke’s Gospel begins in Jerusalem when Gabriel appears to the Priest Zechariah in the Temple and announces that the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth will finally have a son, and the Gospel also ends in Jerusalem with the Ascension. Jesus says in Luke’s account of the Ascension that His name is to be proclaimed to all nations, “beginning in Jerusalem.” “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” As soon as Jesus is born in Bethlehem, His parents’ first stop on the way home to Nazareth in Luke, is the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus is presented to Simeon. It is also in the Temple, in Jerusalem, as a boy, where Jesus is found by his frantic parents astounding the Elders. In Luke 9, we are told that “Jesus set His face to Jerusalem.” This is a key turning point in Luke’s Gospel. Jerusalem is, of course, where Jesus will be crucified. And in Acts, Jesus says, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria.”

             Luke is the only Gentile to write in the New Testament, but for him, the Gospel must always begin in Jerusalem. The mission of the Christian Church grows out of the soil of Judaism, and Christianity will always be inseparably tied to the history of Israel. Christians will always feel a real linkage to our Jewish brothers and sisters, to whom we owe so much. In fact, the story of Israel and the story of the Church are finally both part of the very same story. The story of Israel and the story of Jesus are both part of one grand story of God’s intention to redeem and reconcile the whole world that He created. The Gospel always begins in Jerusalem, where Jesus was taken up by God into heaven “to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

             But while the story of the Church begins in Jerusalem, it does not stop there. It extends and spreads “to the ends of the earth.” “You shall be my witnesses,” Jesus says, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In Luke, Jesus says just before His ascension, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations.” The Gospel message is universal – it is meant for everyone, and is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. This, of course, is also the message of God’s call to Abraham. Remember in Genesis 12, when God calls Abram, that “wandering Aramean”? “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and by you, all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” There is nothing narrow or exclusive in the Biblical story – from Genesis to Revelation it tells of God’s great passion for this world and for the human family, created by Yahweh in the Divine image, and bound for His purposes.

             This is why I so love the Bible! It tells of a God who not only creates but redeems, and whose reconciling love relentlessly keeps calling us to our reason for being, and keeps beckoning us to be witnesses to this Divine love. “You shall be my witnesses,” Jesus says, “to the ends of the earth.” This is not the calling of some, but of all Christians. It is what I love about First Presbyterian Church! Flip Wilson, the once popular comedian, said, “I’m a Jehovah bystander. They wanted me to be a witness, but I didn’t want to get involved!” Well, at First Presbyterian Church, we are involved! Our mission starts right here in Nashville, but it extends beyond our own country “to the ends of the earth.” Representing you, I have been privileged to proclaim the Gospel in Central and Latin America, in Europe, in Africa and Asia, because the call of Christ is always to witness to God’s love “to the ends of the earth.”

             Finally, note that the movement of Jesus in the Ascension is from earth to heaven. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes from heaven to earth in the Incarnation, born as a baby in Bethlehem. Then in the Ascension Jesus returns to heaven. He comes from God and He returns to God. This is Good News for those left standing on the Judean hillside, and for all who follow Jesus since that day. We come from God and we return to God. Our calling in the meantime is to keep our lives centered on God, rooted and grounded in God, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

             Yesterday I sat with a member of our church who knows that he is going to die. (We all are going to die! We all have an appointment with destiny.) This man has lived over ninety years, and as we sat and visited, he said, “I know I am going to die soon, and I am not afraid. I trust in God, and we are told over and over again in the Bible, ‘Do not be afraid.’ I’m not afraid of death at all.” My dear friend was being a witness. He was witnessing to the resurrection, to the Gospel’s promise that, like Jesus, we come from God, and by His saving life and death, we will return to God. The membrane between heaven and earth is permeable, and it is thinner than any of us can imagine! Heaven is, in fact, our home. Like Abraham, we look forward to that “city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

             In Luke, when Jesus ascended, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, where the Gospel always begins, “with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple blessing God.” That is how I want to live my days here on earth. I don’t know how many days that will be. None of us do. But I want to spend mine “with great joy,” “continually blessing God,” who has blessed me so richly beyond my deserving! How about you?

                                                                                     Amen.

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