Sunday, May 12, 2024

Ascension 24-B Divine love for a divine purpose

Note: this sermon can be viewed on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church YouTube channel. See the service of Holy Eucharist, Rite II for May 12. The sermon begins at 23:30.

Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Today we contemplate how we interact with and are affected by the stories in our Scripture. How we do that is as varied as we are. Are you someone who approaches Scripture as a literal, historical account? Or do you approach it as a metaphorical or spiritual story? Or do you have another way?

Whatever your approach is, it is faithful when you let God guide you from where you are to where God wants you to be. No matter where we start, we grow and mature and our understanding expands, deepens, and widens as the revelation of God’s love in Christ lives and moves in us.

How do we interact with and how are we affected by our lectionary today? Let’s review them quickly in order.

The Acts of the Apostles is traditionally thought to be an extension of the Gospel of Luke written by the same person. Then we have the joyful song of praise found in Psalm 47. Next is the letter to the Ephesians, which while often ascribed to Paul, is believed by most scholars not to have been written by Paul but by someone who ascribed it to Paul probably to borrow on Paul’s authority to deal with problems in the church in Ephesus. Regardless of who wrote it, this portion of that letter is, imho, a bit of genius for which I am truly grateful. Then we have the gospel account according to Luke.

These Scriptures move together in a beautiful dance that upholds two main themes: power and enlightenment. The story of the Ascension of Jesus is the story of God’s power and our enlightenment. Let’s look at how.

The author of Acts recounts how Jesus made many post-resurrection appearances and instructed his followers to remain in Jerusalem where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. The followers reasonably ask. ‘Is this when you’ll restore the kingdom of Israel?”

Jesus’ reply is: that isn’t your concern. Those times and periods are set by God who alone has the authority (this word literally means ‘the power of choice’). What is your concern is this: the Holy Spirit will come upon you and you too will receive power.

In Acts, the power they receive is power to action, and the action is to be Jesus’ witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, spreading throughout Judea, and ultimately to the whole world.

Then Jesus is lifted up and out of their sight in a cloud. Clouds symbolize the presence and care of God for the people. They also symbolize that which is beyond human control. As an example, at the Transfiguration, a cloud overshadowed Peter, James, and John who were being overwhelmed as they watched a supernaturally dazzling Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah.  As the cloud descended upon them, they were gently led to sleep. When they awoke, Jesus was alone with them and the reality they could manage was restored – and very much expanded.

The account of the ascension in the gospel of Luke differs a bit from the account in Acts. In the gospel story, Jesus affirms for them that he is the Messiah who was prophesied in their Scriptures. Then he opened their minds to understand this.

In the gospel version of the ascension story, the power they receive is enlightenment. Our version of the Bible says Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. The word used here means “to bring together, as foes in battle; to collect together… into a whole; to apprehend.” (Greek Bible, Thayer translation)

So, in Acts, Jesus’ followers get the power to action, and in the gospel of Luke, they get the power of holistic enlightenment.

In all cases, God chooses what is to happen. This is what we call God’s plan, and it is dynamic, loving, and continually responsive to us. We who have been clothed in the Spirit of God, then act to make God’s choice happen on earth. As Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The author of Ephesians, whether Paul or someone else, was not an eyewitness to this event, yet he affirms that for all of us the eyes of our hearts are enlightened by our faith in Jesus, who is the Christ. Then he offers the genius of his own enlightenment about Jesus: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

How’s that for a beautiful portrayal of the Christ?

In the Gospel story from Luke, as Jesus was ascending, he blessed his followers, and they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” It might help to know that the Greek word “chara,” translated as ‘joy,’ also means great gift and extraordinary power.

So, the great and extraordinary gift given to us is the power to put love into action in response to God’s plan for the world.

This time, they got it! With the eyes of their hearts enlightened, they worshipped Jesus finally recognizing that he is God, and it makes them joyful and they can’t help but continually praise God in the temple.

Do we feel this joyful? Do we feel this powerful?

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he handed over the continuing work of reconciliation to us – the church, the body of Christ in the world. Knowing full well the cost of love, Jesus gave us the power of his love; a love which demands we pray for those who persecute us, forgive those who harm us, and love those who hate us…a love that never gives up on the other, but stands with them, bearing the light of Christ into any darkness.

Upon our baptism, the greatness of God’s love is meant to be what people see when they see us. God is not only dwelling within us but all over us, visible for all to see, including us… and I think that may be what scares us.

As author Marianne Williamson famously said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

We, who are believers now are witnesses of this powerful love in the world today. We are called not just to receive the gift of this love, but to use it.

So I ask you, people of Emmanuel, in what ways is this powerful love being manifest in and through us today? Are we models of forgiveness in a sin-filled world? Are we icons of hope to the hopeless? Light to those trapped in darkness? Comfort to the suffering? Are we welcomers of the exiled, the reviled, the hated?

It’s so easy for the church to get distracted from our mission, but our mission is simple: Be the extraordinary, powerful, transforming love of God in the world. Make known this amazing love to those who don’t know it, or have forgotten it, or had it stolen from them. Be love in the face of hate and ridicule. Detach from anger, from being right, and from the rewards of this world, and seek only the love that forgives all, welcomes all, and judges none.

The greatest, most powerful thing in the whole world is the same now as it was when creation was being spoken into being: love. And this love has been given to us as a gift from the Creator of the universe. More amazingly, it dwells in us, all around us, and emanates from us.

We have heard throughout this season of Easter that Christ abides in us, and we in him - individually and as a community of faith. Jesus also told us that, as amazing as his ministry was, we would do greater things in ours.

On this Feast of the Ascension, we are being challenged to own the extraordinary, powerful, love already in us and use it to heal the world around us. Each person here has within them the extraordinary power of God’s love and the community being gathered within these walls has been chosen by God in this time and place to do the work God has for us to do.

This is our invitation to action. So, let’s be the extraordinary, powerful, transforming love of God in Christ, and let’s enjoy the heck out of the time we’ve been given to be together as witnesses to the world of that Love. Amen.

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