O Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
The writer of Acts tells us that a cloud took Jesus up from the sight of the Disciples.
As we celebrate this Ascension Sunday, it is important to remember that the Bible tells us that Jesus had a way of always disappearing from his Disciples.
Remember the story of Jesus in the Temple? He was twelve years of age. He disappeared from his family when they were returning from a trip to Jerusalem with members of their village. Now Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was playing with other village children in the entourage. So they did not worry until they could not find him at the end of the first day. Then, after three hectic and frantic days of searching, they found him. Bright and precocious prodigy that he was, he was in the Temple in discussion with Temple theologians.
Mary said, “We’ve been horrified, Jesus. Why have you treated us this way? The twelve-year-old Jesus replied, “Why were you searching for me? You should have known I would be in my father’s house, teaching and preaching.” He had disappointed them. They needed to know exactly where he was, and he was intentionally absent from them.
Now, I’m mindful this is Mother’s Day. And knowing mothers, and especially how Mary is depicted in Scripture. Scripture shows us she was never intimidated by Jesus’ genius or his divinity. So I suppose that Jesus was summarily taken by the ear, out of the Temple and down the road towards Nazareth.
But as usual, the Bible puts this in poetic language. The Bible says, “Jesus’ parents did not understand or accept what he said. “Then Jesus went down with them to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”
Sounds like the old ear-treatment to me.
Then, there was the feeding of the five thousand. These poor, oppressed peasant people are so impressed with Jesus’ ability to manage such mobs of people, and his miraculous power in feeding the five-thousand, that some of the militant groups within the great crowd wanted Jesus to be their King. And they tried, by force, to make him their rebel lord. They wanted him as their Messiah who would overthrow the oppressive role and occupation, and they pledged him their loyalty. But Jesus disappears in the rush and the crowd of admirers who saw in him themselves, justification of their ambitions and views. But when they needed him, he was gone.
You will remember the storm on the Galilean lake. After a heavy day of teaching, Jesus is exhausted, and he asks his Disciples to take him across the lake for rest. And as they sail, a great storm arises, and the boat is about to be torn apart. They row and they bail, they lower the sails and they pray. And then they look for Jesus. But in the chaos they cannot find him. They needed him. They wanted him. But they could not find him. They wanted him to be anxious, to be a victim like them. But when they discovered him, he was asleep….asleep in the stern of the boat!
So they wake him, and they say, “Teacher, do you not realize we are dying here. Get up, man, and do something! Bail some water. Pull down the sail. Do something! “ But to their surprise, Jesus speaks to the storm, calms the wind and the waves. And then he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Simply because you cannot see me? Is it because I do not share your fears? Have you still no faith?” Jesus asked them.
Perhaps the greatest and most painful disappearing act was just before the Crucifixion. in Gethsemane, where the Disciples to see the Lord they loved in whom their hopes were invested, led away by Temple police, being led away helpless, submissive. I think of old tough Peter. Peter who had seen Jesus disappear many times before, and who was probably not the only disciple there with a weapon. But Peter drew his sword as though he was saying, “Now get away Jesus; we can take these turkeys.”
Well, Jesus did disappear. He disappeared into the night, but in humiliation, in submission, under arrest. Most of his disciples never saw him alive again, and those who did see him saw a pitiful, broken man, dying in public shame. He was Lord. How could they win the world when his authority vanished into weakness, into submission, into death, into the cloud of night?
But then there was and were the post-Resurrection appearances. And we all remember the story of the Road to Emaeus, which picks up this theme of disappointment. The two disciples on the road tell Jesus, whom they do not recognize, “we had hoped that this Jesus was the one to be the liberator of Israel, but he’s gone.” When later, in their home at a meal we call the Eucharist, they realized who is was. But then St. Luke tells us, “he then vanished from their sight.”
And then the Upper Room appearances. The Gospel of John tells us that a large number of the disciples, not just the twelve, had collected in the room where the Last Supper had been eaten. And they were hiding for fear of the Temple police and authorities, those who had arrested Jesus. Jesus appears to them, and bids them, “have peace,” and then Jesus breathes into them the Holy Spirit.
The Greek participle, (sounds like) hinayboosasin, means literally “to inflate,” like you would blow up a basketball or blow up a tire. This is what the Holy Spirit does. It fills us. It revives us with hope and love and courage and renewed faith when we are flat with fear and desperation.
And then he comes back and appears to Thomas, who said, “I won’t believe unless I can touch him and put my fingers in his wounds.” And Jesus says to Thomas, “That’s great Thomas, but bless are those who have never seen me, but believe.”
And now we come finally to the Ascension. Luke tells us of all the appearances Jesus tells the Disciples, “You will be overwhelmed by this Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the essence of who I am, you will be. And when you are overwhelmed, inflated with this Spirit, you will be my witnesses in all the world, even though they do not see me.”
And think about it. Even here in this Cathedral this morning, I would wager that there are Christians here from every continent, not because of the physical presence of Jesus was there, but because of the power of the Spirit of the witness of God’s people, there are believers.
We, today, can often be the like Disciples on that final disappearance, searching for the concrete ways in which we can hold on to Jesus, feeling like they felt, “Jesus, why did you leave? We need you to prove to the world that you are alive, if you were physically here where we can define you, then we can speak to an incredulous world.”
But Jesus refuses to be confined to our specifications. But we keep trying. We keep trying. We try to seek to hold Jesus in doctrinal theologies. We want Jesus to be defined by creeds, by statements of faith, by Biblical proof-texting. We are certain if we can get people to agree and to see that this is Jesus defined in “this way” they would somehow be witnesses to the world. But all it produces is dogmatic religion, rigid orthodoxy, and fundamentalism Л so unattractive to the world. And it divides us as Christians.
We seek in Sacramental theology, we argue about “the real presence”, we argue about the proper forms of liturgy and of worship. And it produces is elitism, spiritual arrogance, and more division within the Body of Christ Л and such an unattractive witness to the world we would win for Christ.
We seek an historical theology. We want to find “the historical Jesus.” We have scholarly seminars to determine exactly what did Jesus say, what didn’t he say, and what maybe he said. And it only produces, as we hold rigidly to it, rational atheism. If it doesn’t fit my reason categories, it is not acceptable. And it divides us, and it does not make an attractive witness.
There is so much that we hold in common that Jesus has left us the power of his Spirit, the grace that gives us power to love and to be a witness in the world. And yet, with all that would hold us together, more and more we are divided as the Body of Christ.
I think of that wonderful story that exaggerates this point. It was given to me by one of our volunteers. It tells the story of a man who said he was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw a man standing on the edge about to jump off. He said, I ran over to him and, said Stop; don’t do it’. “Why shouldn’t I?” the man said. I said, “Well there is so much to live for.” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” He said, “You are?!? Are lay minister or ordained minister?” He said, “I’m a church organist.” “Wow,” I said, “so am I! Are you Protestant Church of God, or Protestant Church of God the Lord?” He said, “Protestant Church of God.” I said in my excitement, “My brother, me too! Are you original Protestant Church of God, or Reformed Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Church of God.” I could hardly contain myself. “My brother, me too! Are you Reformed Protestant Church of God of 1879, or are you Reformed Protestant Church of God Reformed 1915?” He said, “Reformed Protestant Church of God Reformation of 1915.” I shouted, “Die heretic,” and pushed him off the bridge!
Like Mary and Joseph, we too are often seeking a Christ we can define, one we can discipline and predict, rather than a Christ that defines us, who disciples us, who determines us. Like the five-thousand, we want a Christ who will address our comfort, our safety and our political agendas, rather than a Christ who calls us to risk, to sacrifice, to be willing to take up our cross daily for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of justice, of healing, of peace. Like Thomas, too often we want a Christ who satisfies our doubts before we will live our faith.
Jesus continues to disappear on us, not showing up in the ways and at the times we want him to. Jesus still disappoints our assumptions, our assumptions about who’s in and who’s out, about who is truly a child of God and who is not. How often have his words caused us consternation when he said, “They who do the will of my Father, they are my brothers and my sisters.” Or when he said, “Blessed are those who work for peace, whatever their denomination, even whatever their religion, for these will be called the children of God.”
We like him even to look exclusively like us. We want him to be a man. We want him to be a woman. We want him to be brown and yellow, white and red. We’d like him to be black. But he won’t be. He tells us in Matthew, the twenty-fifth chapter: if you want to get a clue of who I am and where I am, you’ll find me in the hungry, you’ll find me in the stranger, you’ll find me in the thick and those who are in prison, in the poor, and the outcast.
So this day, let us crown him. Let each of us determine we will crown as Jesus as Lord. We will place Him and acknowledge Him in that exalted place that God has given Him. But let us remember that the ultimate crowning of Christ is not by the rigidity of doctrine or creed or liturgy or stained glass windows or great architectures or even reasoned theology. The greatest crowning of Christ as Lord is when you, and you and I, crown him with our lives. When our lives are lived with the love of God, the radiance of His hope, He has been crowned as Lord, and He will draw the world unto Him.
For God is love, and where true love is, Christ is present.