Ascension Sunday, May 20: Interim Pastor Mike Dixon
Text: Acts 1:1-14
The most bittersweet reality of being an interim minister is that the interim times come to an end, and you have to say goodbye more often than we would if we stayed in one church very long. As you know, I tend to lead with my heart, and that makes saying goodbye more painful. It’s especially true since this is our second time around at Second Baptist Church! We have come to care, and care deeply, for one another. I will miss you all. Yet even though there’s sadness in saying goodbye, there’s joy in knowing that I have completed my work and that you are on the phase of a new beginning, and that you are ready to move into the future that God provides for you. Pastor Stephen Mechem will lead you well and faithfully. You’re in good hands. You won’t see much of me for awhile, partly because I’ll be busy working down in Fredericktown, but mostly because of an important piece of ministerial and interim ministry ethics. I need to be out of the picture in order to help Steve’s ministry get established and grow. We can be friends, but I can’t be your pastor after the end of this month. Please know, though, that you will be in our prayers. To that end, let me quote myself (and St. Paul) from my upcoming Annual Report. “Our feelings toward you reflect those of another interim pastor, St. Paul, who told one of his congregations, “I thank God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy.” (Philippians 1:3-4)
Now, onto the sermon about the Ascension.
For all the other geeks, nerds, Trekkies, trekkers, and pop culture fans in the crowd, I have a reminder. the Star Trek exhibit at the St Louis Science Center ends on May 28. So you only have a few days to boldly go and see all the icons of that whole slew of TV series and movies. In the words of Spock, it’s fascinating. One of the most overused phrases to come out of that whole galaxy of make-believe was “beam me up, Scotty.” The Enterprise and all its successor ships came with Transporters, that could disassemble you on the spot and reassemble you somewhere else, perhaps safely back on board the Enterprise.
Could it be that when you heard the scripture story a few minutes ago, as Jesus ascended into heaven, that “beam me up, Scotty” popped into a few minds here and there? Or maybe “beam me up, God?”
The Ascension is a story with spectacular special effects, but it leaves us a bit perplexed because we no longer live in a three-story universe, with hell down there, earth right here, and heaven up above. We know it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yet the story has a place in the larger story of Jesus, and it opens our hearts to a sense of wonder and joy, so let’s dig deeper and see what’s there for us.
Imagine what it must have been like for those followers of a crucified carpenter who had come back to life to see him taken into glory before their very eyes? Like Jacob dreaming of the ladder between heaven and earth at Bethel, like Moses at the burning bush, like Isaiah seeing God high and lifted up in the temple at Jerusalem, like Peter, James and John seeing their Christ transfigured on a mountaintop before they set their faces toward Jerusalem, like the women at the empty tomb, so now the followers of Jesus had come to a holy moment. A transforming moment. A totally surprising moment. A moment so terrifying and awe-inspiring that they were paralyzed, mouths wide open, staring into space. They had seen the power and the glory of God at work, and they would never be the same again. All those things that they had heard before that had never made sense –things about suffering and dying, and rising from the dead in power and glory—all made sense now. Human beings had thrown all the inhuman, terrible, arrogant, self-righteous, self-serving hate they could throw at Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s answer was the open tomb and the risen Lord. All the hate and pride and narrowness in the world would not conquer God’s love.
So now what? What would lie ahead? Would this be the end of the world? Would God’s heavenly rule come in glory? Would the powers of Caesar be overwhelmed by legions of angels? What would God’s next move be? The risen Jesus Christ had just promised them that God’s next move would be through them—that they would carry the good news that the Messiah had come, that God had conquered evil, from near to far. From Jerusalem, to Samaria next door, then to all the earth beyond. After he had said that they would be his witnesses, he was gone in a cloud of glory and light. And there they stood—captured by the moment. Transfixed by the power of God’s love for our little world. Bedazzed, bewildered, astounded. Their reverie was interrupted by another strange event—one that sent them down to earth in a hurry. An angel, a messenger from God, asked them why they were still standing around gazing into space. The show’s over, friends. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The Living Christ is with the Living God, but is still with you, inside you and among you. Now get on with it. Share the good news. Get busy. The world’s waiting, and you’re wasting time.
Angels have a way of doing that in the Bible. Instead of delivering mystical truths that lift us above the world, they send us right back into the world. They say, “Go and do.” “Get on with it.” What did the angel tell Mary? “You will bear a son.” What did the angel tell Joseph? “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to take Mary as your wife. The child she will bear is holy.” What did the angels tell the shepherds? “Go to Bethlehem and see.” “Flee to Egypt,” the angel told the holy family in a dream. Years later, the angel told the grieving woman at the tomb of Jesus, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” That’s what angels do. They give us messages from God—and not just messages, marching orders. “Go and do.” “Witness and serve.”
There’s another to think about with this story besides the angel telling the disciples to get back to work. Jesus had been a living human being in a human body from the time he was born in Bethlehem until the time he died on the Cross. He could only be in one place at one time. After the resurrection, he could appear to the disciples behind locked doors. He had a body, but it was a resurrection body without all the limitations. But still, he could only be in one place at one time. With the Ascension, he returned to be with God, but he also had promised the disciples that he would still be with them through his Spirit. Now, the living Christ could be anywhere and everywhere. The Living Christ would be with them always, and the Living Christ is still with us today.
Sometimes we have mountaintop faith experiences where our souls are deeply stirred and we feel filled with God’s presence—and we want to cherish the moment. We feel a little bit like those disciples, that our lives have been changed because we have experienced God’s presence in our lives. We want to hold fast to the moment and not go on with the nitty-gritty of life. We don’t want to go from the mountaintop back to the desktop. We experience what psychologists call a “re-entry problem.” But we get gently nudged back to reality by an angel or a spouse or a child, and called to live faithfully in the here and now.
Faith isn’t a matter of withdrawing from the world, studying prophecies and waiting for the end. Faith is action, not just belief. Faith is responding to the Christ who is in charge right now. Faith is creatively loving others and serving in Christ’s name at that dull old desktop or work station or kitchen. We are called to serve and witness, because we know that the Christ who went to heaven is still the same Christ that is with us today, calling us to mission. “Lo, I am with you always.”