June 2, 2019

Feast of Ascension
Witnesses

GOSPEL

Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.  Luke 24:44-53

 

SERMON

As the gospels tell the story, for some forty days after His resurrection from the dead, Jesus gave the gift of His risen presence to his apostles and certain of the other disciples, on numerous occasions and always in a very immediate and personal fashion.  

He made a point of eating and drinking with them.  On one occasion He cooked a breakfast barbecue for a few of them.   And among other purposes, He used this time to continue teaching them about the Kingdom of God – the mystery and triumph of God’s reign as it moves from human heart to human heart.

Clearly, even until now, they still don’t get it.  For they still ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore dominion to Israel? “ Will you make Israel once again that powerful nation that it once was?  Will you make it great again?

Jesus also used this time to teach them, who were so terrified, shaken, thrown and bewildered by His crucifixion and death, how He was indeed the Messiah of God whose coming was anticipated in the sacred stories of their people and how even the Messiah’s gruesome death was anticipated in those same scriptures.

But the time came, when this relatively short-lived, immediate and tangible experience of the Risen Lord, needed to gave way to a new experience of His presence – an experience that remains even to the present day.  

In the iconography of the Ascension, imaged for us by the evangelist Luke, Jesus is pictured as being lifted up into the clouds as His apostles look on and up.  The iconography, invites faith, not in a Jesus whose departure mimics the launch of a spacecraft, but in the mystery of the glorification and restoration of Christ, as He takes his place at the right hand of the Eternal Father.  

The saving work of Jesus is complete.  The Son, who by his becoming flesh surrendered the prerogatives of his divinity to become as a servant, who suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried and who rose again, is, in what is referred to as His ascension, fully restored.  In Jesus, heaven came to earth and now, in Christ, earth is taken up into heaven. The veil that separates heaven and earth is no more. In Him our wounded flesh in all its brokenness is incorporated into the mystery of God.

As ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus assumes the position and the power to make God’s saving love universally operative.   Power to transform not just the disciples, but to transform all who will come to know the peculiar love of God, in its awesome breath and unfathomable depth, thru them.

All that remains is for the disciples to take delivery of the promise of the Father. “Behold the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.  I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh. They will be my people and I will be their God. “  In the words of Jesus, the delivery of the promise of the Father, is their “Being clothe with the power from on high.”  

In the unfolding of sacred history, the stage has been set and the air is ripe for Spirit’s descent on Pentecost – the feast that we will celebrate next Sunday.

As Jesus takes his leave, He gives his disciples their mission, which, once “clothed with power from on high” they will be able to execute. They are to be his Witnesses – “first in Jerusalem, then in Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.”

Now we know that being a witness is simply to stand up and to truthfully tell what we saw and heard.  Witnesses are those to whom something has happened and who then tell others what they have experienced.   

We also know there are good witnesses and bad witnesses.  There is truthful testimony and deceiving and misleading testimony.   During these past few years we have all been exposed to a graduate program in witnessing possibilities when it comes to treason and the obstruction of justice.

The great theologian Karl Barth was fond of describing the difference between the Christian and the non Christian not as a difference in moral goodness or integrity, but rather as the difference between one who knows and one who does not yet know that Jesus is Lord.

You remember the story of the blind man, whose healing by Jesus is recounted in the gospel of John.  After He healed him, Jesus’ critics came and tried to discredit the blind man’s witness. “Are you really sure that Jesus healed you?  Haven’t you gotten a bit over emotional?”  they asked. “And besides”, they protested, “since you are blind, you are clearly a sinner and so why should we who are righteous take the testimony of a sinner as truth”?

But the man who for the first time in his life could see, in the face of sophisticated and assaulting efforts to discredit him, simply witnessed to what had happened to him. “Say what you like about me, but one thing I know for sure.   I was blind, now I see.” You gotta love the guy.

In Jesus something has happened that alters the entire human situation and the possibilities for each human life.  That something which has happened – calls everything into question. Something or better yet, Someone Absolutely Gracious has definitively intruded either into our settled arrangements or into the unsettled chaos of our lives and our world.

The gospel is not some primitive means of finding meaning in life or attempting to talk about the world in some fanciful way.  The gospel is a Witness to something that has happened to us and to the world. The Kingdom of God has broken into our time and space.  We are witnesses in word and deed to the In-Breaking of the Kingdom of God within and among us.

We heard the screech of brakes, the crash of metal on metal.  We turned around just in time to see it. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.   After the accident, in the aftermath, a police officer asked us, “Would you be willing to testify as a witness?”

I hesitated.  Did I really want to become this involved?  “All you would have to do is to tell what you saw and heard,” said the officer.  But an invitation to be a witness is generally not something that is seen as an invitation to a pleasant experience.  As a matter of fact, most struggle with whether or not they want to assume this responsibility. The issue of cost always comes to the fore in this business of witnessing.  Just ask Robert Mueller.

If we have witnessed an accident, we struggle with whether or not we want to get involved.  Being a witness may put us at odds with the group to which we belong. In extreme cases, it may put me at the greatest risk. A number of years ago a little boy in Connecticut, was murdered because he had been a witness to a murder.

While being a witness to the In-Breaking of the Kingdom of God is not to be a witness to tragedy but rather to triumph.  The issue of cost still comes to the fore. As to the twelve, so to each of us, has been given the mission to witness even in the face of the greatest costs.

And if there were ever a time to bear witness to the In-Breaking of the Kingdom of God – now would certainly be one of those times.  Each day there are reports that underscore the urgency of our witness.

Whether it is another case of police aggression against a person of color; or another vicious action taken by this administration against refugee families crossing our southern border; or a pharmaceutical company putting a price tag of $14,000 on 21 cancer treatment pills – the need for witnessing is today as evident and urgent as it ever was.    

We must never settle for the lie that is once again on the ascendency and has established itself as the norm in the public square. Witnessing to the truth that the Spirit of God has poured into our hearts remains our sacred trust and duty. The Kingdom of God invites us to ascend with Christ.  The current administration would have us descend into hell.

The world is not a better place and the common good is not served when power, hatred and greed are in the ascendancy.

When we were baptized we were asked, “Will you promise in word and in deed, to tell what you have seen and heard of Jesus the Lord?”  It is simple, even if costly.  

The template for our response is the witness of the man born blind. “Say what you like about me, but all I know is that once I was blind but now I see.”  Will we too bear witness to the truth that the healing affected by Jesus Christ and our acceptance of Him as Lord, are The defining moments of our lives?  Will we do this with a dogged commitment to being truth tellers no matter what the cost?

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

June 2, 2019