Sunday, May 20, 2007

Into The Wild Blue Yonder

Seventh Sunday of Easter– Year C
(Ascension Day Propers)

2 Kings 2:1-15; Psalm 47; Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:49-53
Sunday, May 20, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

One of my most vivid and fondest memories of my elementary school days was a trip to the school library. I was in fourth grade in Denver. Periodically, our entire class would go to the school library. Seated at rows of tables in the back of the library, the school librarian would tell us about all sorts of fascinating books, undoubtedly in an attempt to peak our interest in the wonderful world of books, and entice us to read more. As part of her presentation, she would often read to us from books that she though might interest us. On this particular occasion, the librarian read to us from a biography about Amelia Earhart – the early 20th century aviatrix, writer, and feminist. For some reason, I was enthralled with the story of Amelia Earhart. At least part of it was the fact that she was from Kansas, which, at that time of my life, I considered to be my true home. But I was also fascinated by her spirit of adventure and daring.

As many of you will recall, Amelia Earhart was foremost remembered for being an adventuresome and accomplished aviatrix. In her short career in aviation, a field that had only existed for about 20 years when she had her first flying lesson, she accomplished many firsts. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, the first woman to fly non-stop coast-to-coast across the United States, and the first person to fly solo across the Pacific between Honolulu and Oakland, to name but a few. Amelia went missing 70 years ago, on July 2, 1937, as she attempted the last portion of the flight that would have made her the first woman to fly around the world.

I guess you could say that Amelia Earhart has become something of a hero for me. She had a passion for flying, and turned it into her life’s mission to be the best aviator possible. In so doing, she had to face some pretty tough odds. She developed her skills and her passion under the guidance and leadership of other experts in the field. But to make it, she had to prove that, as a woman, she was at least as competent, if not more so, than her male counterparts. Her nickname of “Lady Lindy,” a take-off of Charles Lindbergh’s appellation of “Lucky Lindy” proved that in the hearts and minds of many, she was not only capable, but also among the best aviators of her time.

For me, today’s commemoration of Jesus’ ascension calls forth some of the same themes as does reflection on Amelia Earhart’s life – and not because she and Jesus both ascended into the wild blue yonder, or because they both (quote) disappeared inexplicably. In fact, the correlation between Amelia Earhart and the Ascension actually has little to do with Jesus, but more so with his disciples.

Both of today’s New Testament readings, as you might have noticed, deal with the subject of the Ascension. The Gospel lesson from Luke provides the account of the Ascension itself – the only such account provided in the four Gospels. And the reading from the Acts of the Apostles provides a very brief summary of the Gospel According to Luke, with emphasis on the final event of the Gospel, namely Jesus’ ascension. Rather than being viewed as two lessons from two separate sources, these readings are actually of a single piece. As indicated by the introduction to Acts, the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same author and provide a continuous story. The Gospel tells the story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Acts is the sequel, telling the story of Jesus’ disciples following his ascension. Like any good sequel, Acts begins with a brief summary of what went before, so as to set the stage for the subsequent story.

Ascension is one of the major events in the history of Christianity, to the point that in the Roman Catholic Church, it is one of the Holy Days of Obligation; and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is one of the twelve Great Feasts. But interestingly, the two readings on the Ascension provide very little description of the event itself. The Gospel tells us little more than the fact that while Jesus was blessing his disciples, he was “carried up into heaven.” Acts does say a little more, but not about the Ascension itself. What is particularly interesting to me is the fact that in this portion of Acts, more of the back-story is revealed than was recorded in Gospel lesson. In fact, the back-story is the bulk of the reading, with little more than passing reference to the Ascension. Jesus gave instructions through the Holy Spirit to his disciples; after his suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus appeared alive to his disciples and through many convincing proofs, spoke to them about the kingdom of God; he promised that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit – a lead-in to Pentecost, which we will celebrate next week; he engaged in theological discussion about the disciples query regarding the restoration of the kingdom of Israel; and by the way, then he was lifted up into the clouds. So, if Ascension is such an important event, why does Scripture not tell us more about it?

Because it’s not so much the Ascension itself that is of importance, but rather, what happened afterwards that is important. Don’t get me wrong. The Ascension is an incredibly important event in Christ’s incarnation and in our history as Christians. It is important because it is one of the hinge points in the story of who we are. It is one of those critical, pivotal moments that serve to define who we are as the Body of Christ. The Ascension “both closes the period of Jesus’ ministry and opens the period of the church’s mission” (Culpepper, 488). This is the pivotal moment that would forever define how we function as the Body of Christ in the world. As such, it was not so much the Ascension itself that became of great import, but rather how the disciples responded. How they chose to respond in that moment following Christ’s ascension would be critical.

Acts tells us that while Jesus was going, the disciples gazed up toward heaven. At that moment, one of several things could have happened. One option would have been for Peter, who had become the de facto leader of the disciples following Jesus’ crucifixion, to say something like “Well guys, it’s been great knowing you. We’ve had a wonderful three years together, but the boss has left us. There’s nothing more we can do without him. So, I’m going back to my old life – back to Capernaum, my wife, and my fishing business.” If that were the case, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. But that didn’t happen. At the end of his Gospel, Luke tells us that “they worshiped [Jesus], and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” This could have literally been the end of the story. For their second option was to keep what they had experienced to themselves – to continue on as a band of eleven followers of Jesus, keeping to themselves and spending the rest of their lives in private devotion, blessing God in the temple by day, and sitting around at night commiserating about the good old days they had spent with Jesus. But that didn’t happen, either.

The disciples chose the third option, the more adventurous, the more daring, the more dangerous option. They chose to continue the mission that their leader had started – even if they were a little uncertain on what that mission really was. As you recall, even up to the end, they seemed a little fuzzy about what the previous three years had been about, what their master’s mission had been about. Just before Jesus’ ascension, the disciples asked him “‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ [Jesus] replied, ‘it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority’” (Acts 1:6-7). According to Robert Wall, Professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, this brief discourse, in light of Jesus’ subsequent departure “frames the religious crisis it occasions: Will the new age of God’s promised salvation, which dawned with the Messiah, continue to unfold in his absence?” (Wall, 37).

In his reply, “Jesus does not respond to speculations surrounding what is ‘not yet’ but insists that his disciples engage in a mission ‘right now’” . . . “The apostles are to wait for a different redemptive reality” (Wall, 42). Wall notes that “While Jesus thereby agrees with the theological subtext of the apostles’ query – [that] the Spirit’s outpouring does indeed signal the season of Israel’s restoration – he applies it to their vocation: God’s reign will be reestablished among God’s people not by some apocalypse from heaven but by a mission on earth” (Wall, 42). Jesus then assures them the promise of the Father, that they “will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” While the disciples may have not consciously or rationally understood what Jesus was telling them, they somehow knew on an inner level what was being said. As Wall posits, “Luke understands that all Jesus did as God’s Messiah is ‘through the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of prophesy’ who calls forth, empowers, and authorizes the Messiah’s prophetic ministry and will ensure the continuity in his absence” (Wall, 37). The Holy Sprit will provide the disciples with the skills, authority, and guidance they need to continue Jesus’ work.

We cannot know for certain when the disciples made the conscious decision to continue the work that Christ had begun, the beginnings of which they had witnessed first-hand during their three years with him. It may have been in those moments following Jesus’ ascension, as they gazed up into heaven, feeling alone, perhaps scared, uncertain about what they should do; and if they had any inkling of what to do, how they would go about it. But what is certain is that they knew they had to continue their Lord’s mission. They had witnessed first-hand some of the greatest events to have ever happened in human history. They had known and been taught by the greatest man to have ever lived. They had come face-to-face with God incarnate. This was too good to keep to themselves. It had to be shared with as many people as possible. Even if Christ was no longer physically present on earth, he continued to live through those whom he had touched. Their mission was to make Christ know to others so that they too might experience salvation that comes through him and the joy of living in him. I’m sure, at the time, and probably many times throughout their ministries, the disciples questioned whether they had what it took to carry Christ’s message to the entire world. After all, at that time, there were only eleven of them, charged with spreading the message and love of Christ to a world that did not know him or that had not even heard of him. But they knew that this was what they were called to do, and they knew that God, through the Holy Spirit, would provide them with the gifts and resources they would need to carry out their mission.

Two thousand years later, our mission is the same. We follow in the footsteps of those eleven bewildered men who watched as their Lord departed from them. We look around us today at our woefully broken world, wondering what we should do, what we can possibly do, to continue the work begun those many centuries ago. Just like the disciples, we have the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ following his ascension, to guide us along the way, to provide us with the skills and resources we need to continue this all-important mission to make Christ known to all the world, to be catalysts by which the world may experience Christ’s loving embrace.

We all have different skills, different talents, different concerns, different passions. But the foundation that under girds all of that is that we are all members of the Body of Christ, filled with the love of God and love for God made known to us through Jesus Christ. We are knit together by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the “invigorating source of the community’s witness to the world” (Wall, 41). It is through this same Spirit that we are called, individually and collectively, to use our talents and passions to address the concerns of our part of the world – to demonstrate to the world that even though Christ may have ascended, he is not gone – he lives on through us. And his mission to bring about the kingdom of God has not ended, but can be and will be accomplished through his continued presence in the world.

Amelia Earhart took off on her own, without any leader, forging her own path in the aviation industry and through history. She faced difficult conditions, but continued on, driven by her passion, her skill, and her mission. Following the ascension of Jesus, the disciples essentially did the same thing. They were left alone, without a physical leader. But they had a commission and a passion that they turned into their mission. And they were provided with the comfort, assurance, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, to energize them and guide them along the way. And likewise, we are called by a spirit of love for God, out of our own individual and collective concerns and passions, and invigorated by the Holy Spirit, to not just gaze up at heaven and wait for Christ’s return, but to do our part to help transform the world into the kingdom he envisioned.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Wall, Robert W.. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. X of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

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