Sermon May 22 2023 Acts 1:6-14 Ascension Rev. Betsy Hogan
So, I think I've figured out what we all need.
Or maybe that's a bit presumptuous. And I shouldn't be projecting. So I think I've figured out what I need. And you get to make your decisions about what you need.
But what I've decided I need... is those two men in white robes. The ones in this passage from the book of Acts that we just heard. Who suddenly pop up out of nowhere. With a message.
And not for the first time! Because if you remember, back on Easter Sunday morning -- at least as we hear about it in the gospel of Luke -- when the women go to Jesus' tomb bringing all their perfumes to anoint his body, and they find the tomb is empty and they're kind of freaking out... who pops up out of nowhere?
Those two men in white robes. With a message.
It's fantastic. Whenever the followers of Jesus are just standing there, staring at something inexplicable, and they don't have a clue what they're supposed to do next, boom. Two men in white robes.
Who kind of "hey... wake up", clap the disciples out of their mouths agape trance... and get them moving again.
At Jesus' empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, when the women are standing there, just staring, with their arms full of perfume and there's no body there to anoint – two men in white robes.
And "hey... wake up – why do you look for the living among the dead?"
And now here, forty days after the resurrection, when Jesus and all the disciples are gathered on Mount Olivet, and suddenly the disciples are left there, just staring, while Jesus floats away up into the clouds – two men in white robes.
And "hey... wake up – why do you stand looking up toward heaven?"
Exactly when they're needed, those two men in white robes, they always turn up exactly when they're needed. To shake the disciples out of their trance and get them moving again.
"Go and tell the others," they say to the women at the tomb, "that he's risen just as he said. And he'll come there and see you."
And "Go and tell the others," they say to the men on Mount Olivet, "that he's ascended into heaven just as he said. And he'll come back and see you."
They're fantastic, those two men in white robes. And of course they're meant to be like angels, messengers from God – and I'm not even going to try to explain that in concrete empirical terms that'll stand up to peer-review because there IS no explanation for that --
They're just meant to be like angels, they just pop up out of nowhere, but they're fantastic. Because however we want to try to get our heads around it, either spiritually or metaphorically or neurophysiologically… exactly when they're needed – when the disciples don't have a clue what they're supposed to do next – there they are. The two men in white robes.
Clapping the disciples out of their bewilderment and telling them, "Okay, now go".
Go and tell. Go and celebrate. Go and get ready. Go and start. Go and live. Go and continue. Go and be.
And what I love at least as much as what they actually DO in these stories, these two men in white robes, who always turn up when they're needed – is the fact of the recognition that they ARE needed.
That we DO HAVE these moments when we're just standing there, sitting there, staring at this weird inexplicable bewildering new reality, and it's like we're in a trance. Like what do we even do now? And we've got nothing.
Those moments are real. And so I love the fact that in these gospel stories that are meant to actually speak to us in a way that's relevant and meaningful and useful in some way, there's a clear recognition of the fact that sometimes the disciples were just bewildered. Didn't have a clue.
Needed two men in white robes to wake them up, give them a bit of a shake, and point them in the right direction.
Which if that makes us feel a bit envious, the good news is that their message to the disciples on that day on Mount Olivet, when Jesus is suddenly taken up into heaven, it can be a message to us too. Just as surely. Even if it's kind of a weird scene.
Because it IS kind of a weird scene. In the official church calendar, this is the Day of the Ascension. Forty days after Easter, after Jesus resurrected has been appearing here and there to various disciples in various places, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on the beach where they've gone back to fishing...
Forty days after Easter, and now THIS piece where they can literally see him – all of what Godness is in a person – this piece is done. The next piece is going to be all of what Godness is in a Spirit, and that's what Pentecost is about. It's God's breath, the wind, the movement, the Spirit moving in and through, around us.
But the Ascension, for the disciples it's the end of this piece where they can see Jesus. And up he goes, into heaven, into the clouds, above the clouds, beyond their vision. It's a weird scene. And it's easy to be cynical about, with our jaded twenty-first century perspective, because clearly it was technically necessary.
The disciples have experienced Jesus risen, will continue to proclaim Jesus risen – that not even crucifixion and not even death have the last word because God has the last word and where there was death there is new life –
But that's technically going to get difficult for them if they can't then point to him. So obviously he needs to no longer be visible. And so it's really easy to be cynical about the Ascension as a kind of technical solution to "risen, but not here".
But the gospels aren't history. They're testimony. And whether we accept the picture they paint of this scene on Mount Olivet as we receive it, as miraculous, or whether we think of it as a story meant to bring to life the moment when the disciples had to get their collective heads around "risen but not here" – the meaning of it is exactly the same.
This is the moment when they have to choose. Do they spend the rest of their lives looking up, looking toward heaven, just missing what was? They might have wanted to. When they're all standing there on Mount Olivet, mouths agape, some of them or even all of them might have thought "well, let's stay here."
"In this beautiful place, nearest to heaven, where the clouds remind us of where Jesus was taken up, and the stillness fills us with peace. This beautiful place where we feel most connected. We could stay here." And they might have wanted to. We can hardly blame them for that – we have those places too.
That are MOST restful and MOST peaceful and MOST holy, and can't we just stay here and forget about everything else? They might have felt like that.
Or they might not have known WHAT to do. Because now they've got to accept that what WAS just isn't anymore. Which is kind of terrifying. And maybe just has them stuck. Which we can hardly blame them for that either, because most of us – or maybe even all of us – sometimes we also get kind of stuck. And need guidance. And need a push. And need direction.
But who's popped up? for the disciples and for us? Two men in white robes. Maybe just what we need.
Because, first of all, no. "No," they say, to the disciples and to us, "No, you can't just sit here gazing up into heaven and forget about everything else. You were created for life in the world, and the world was created for your life to be lived in. Messy, annoying, beautiful, boring, interesting – so, no. Don’t let yourselves get stuck.
“That sense of rest and peace and connection with the holy in the memories of what WAS that you’ve found in this moment,” they say to the disciples, to us – “the point now is to take it all, in all its goodness, and keep on. Different, shaped by it, changed by it, but moving.”
Which isn’t easy. So, second of all, those two men in white robes say to the disciples and to us, start practicing.
For the disciples on Ascension Day, they get shooed off by the two men in white robes to start practicing. How are they going to be disciples of Jesus with 'invisible Jesus'? Back to the upper room to figure it out. “Devoting themselves to prayer” is what our passage tells us, and I can well imagine. A great many prayers that amount to “please help! Please help, because we’re going to give it a go. Keeping on.”
One tentative step at a time, into the newness. Into a changed everything.
It didn’t happen by magic, for the disciples. It took practice. It took two men in white robes to clap them awake out of their bewildered trance of stuckness – look NOT where life WAS but where life IS, and GO. Start practicing, it’ll come, you’ll learn it on the way. One tentative step at a time, into the newness. Into a changed everything.
And they did. And I guess they did pretty well, because here we still are.
Possibly wishing we could have our own two men in white robes who helpfully turn up whenever we’re stuck and bewildered and need a good clap awake and a bit of direction out of our stuckness –
But maybe we do and we just can’t see them. Because if there’s one thing the disciples learn on the day of the Ascension, it’s that there can be an awful lot of power and meaning and strength and comfort in what’s become invisible. Thanks be to God in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.