Endings and Beginnings
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23
May 17, 2015[i]
This week we honor our high school graduates. It’s not coincidental that we call the ceremony through which they will pass a “commencement.” This ceremony will mark the ending of their high school career, but it also marks the beginning of life as an adult. They are able to vote, able to wage battle, able to live on their own with the possible exception of writing the tuition checks. Graduation is an ending and a beginning.
Is it coincidental that we honor our graduates on the Sunday that Christians mark as Ascension Sunday—a day that in our understanding of the Gospel marks a cosmic ending and beginning?
We don’t talk a lot about Ascension in the United Methodist Church. Our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches celebrated the Feast of the Ascension this past Thursday, the 40th day of Eastertide. We Methodists tend to mention it, if at all, on the Sunday following. It isn’t that we have taken a pair of scissors and cut those words out of our Bibles. I suspect that it we just don’t quite know what to do with this story. Ascension doesn’t quite fit with our understanding of the universe and the laws of physics. We hold on so tightly to our understanding of the material laws of the universe that we fail to miss the deeper levels of meaning.
Ascension also is difficult because we tend to see it as a departure. We hold on to those we love. Ascension means that Jesus returned to His Father in Heaven. Regardless of how they take place, we don’t like good byes. We try to hold on. I had the privilege of being present with Mary Miller and her family when Mary drew her last breath. We all wanted to hold on to her—to keep her with us—but we couldn’t.
In the same way, when Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ in the Garden where He had been buried, she reached out to embrace Him. She thought she had lost him, but now she has found him and she doesn’t want to let Him go ever again. But Jesus says to her,
Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17).
It almost seems as though the rest of the disciples felt the same way. They were staring into space, when two men in white robes suddenly appeared and stood by them and asked,
why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11).
If they had really understood who Jesus was, if they had listened to His words, if they had truly known Him, they would not have felt the need to cling so desperately to his physical presence.
Almost two thousand years have passed, and I suspect that we still approach Ascension in the same way as those first disciples, gazing up into the sky and trying to figure out the how and missing the why.
Even if we suspend our questions, we still tend to see the Ascension as the ending of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth and we miss the “why” of Ascension. We miss that it marks the beginning of a new era in God’s relationship with His people. We mistakenly think of Ascension as a departure that marks Jesus absence from us, and we miss that Ascension is part of a ten-day transition that leads us to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, making God’s presence available to us at all times. When you look at Ascension from this perspective, Ascension gives us an opportunity to reflect on just who Jesus Christ is—to contemplate the mystery that Jesus is God, the Word made flesh, who came to live and dwell among us.
Ascension is the portal, the point of entry, for us to ask again the question, who is Jesus for you?
This is not a day for solving the mysteries of Jesus; this is a day for encountering the Risen and Ascended Christ. It is a day for contemplating that in the ending of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we can encounter God and enter into a new beginning of the life that Jesus called “abundant.” (John 10:10).
But in that contemplation, we need to change our opening question from “how did He do that” to “who is He?” Once we have answered the “who” question, the “how” question becomes almost irrelevant.
Who is Jesus Christ for you? Do you know Jesus Christ as a miracle worker? A moral philosopher? A great teacher? An itinerant preacher? A Savior? The Son of God? And what do all of those answers mean to you? How have they made a difference in your life?
A few weeks ago, Carol and I spent a few days with some dear friends of ours—friendships formed 35 years ago in Kent, Ohio, when I was a lawyer, Carol was a teacher, Bob was a minister, Becky was an insurance adjuster and Milt was in computer sales. It was Milt, the computer salesman, who introduced me to a book entitled Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered. The book was written by Martin Copenhaver, a pastor ordained in the United Church of Christ and currently the president of Andover Newton Theological School. In one chapter of this book, Copenhaver talks about the problem we have in responding to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Copenhaver tells about the last sermon he gave to the First Congregational Church in Burlington, Vermont, a church he had pastored for nine years. He concluded that sermon with these words:
As I am about to leave, there is something I want to tell you. I want to tell you what Jesus means to me. I want to share my belief that everything depends on him. I want to urge you to learn from him. I want to assure you that you can lean on him in times of trouble. I want to ask you to listen to his words of challenge. I want to tell you that I believe that you can entrust your life to him. I want to affirm that he is Lord of this church and that in his name you are freed to love one another and empowered to share that love with a hurting world. I want to profess that, though once people could not look at the face of God and live, now we are invited to look at the face of God in him, in Jesus, and live as we have never lived before. He is Emmanuel, God with us, God with us all, whether we are together or apart. That’s what it’s all about. That’s all I know. Amen.[ii]
Those words engage me. Do you know any people who claim the name of Jesus Christ, but who really don’t know Him? People who remain in the beginning stages of their faith journey, treating the beginning as the ending? People who never take that next step in their walk with Christ to encounter Him in all His fullness. People who are willing to accept the gift of salvation that Christ offers, but stop short of accepting the transformation that He offers as we walk with Him. I, for one, don’t want to be stuck in the beginning.
On this Ascension Day, I ask you and I ask myself the same question. Who is Jesus Christ for you? How would you answer the question? Can you join with Copenhaver and say that “everything depends on him,” that you “learn from him” and “lean on him” and that you have “entrust[ed] your life to him?” Have you experienced the freedom He offers “to love one another” and the power “to share that love with a hurting world?” This is what the Methodists mean when they talk about “going on to perfection”
The Christian life is more than a philosophy. It is more than a religion. It is more than a passive approach to living. The Christian life is an active relationship—a relationship that begins in God’s love for us, but is made evident in our love for God and our love for our neighbor. It is a relationship that begins with that experience we describe as the “New Birth” or being “born from above” but it does not end there. As we continue in our Christian journey, we continue in love, we accept God’s love, and in response to God’s love we share it with a world in need.
As we are transformed, we are able to change the question yet again from “Who is Jesus Christ for you” to “Who are you for Jesus Christ?” How do you respond to His love for you? It is in that context that we can challenge ourselves with three questions that Christians have been asking for centuries:
· What have I done for Christ?
· What am I doing for Christ?
· What should I do for Christ?[iii]
As you celebrate Ascension Day, I join with the Apostle Paul in his prayer for the Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.” (Ephesians 1:17-19a, Common English Bible).
Whether we are facing our endings and beginnings through graduations, through final illnesses, or any place in between, we can open our eyes and hearts to the Jesus Christ who calls to us and invites us to follow Him. When we do this, we find what the hymn writer Natalie Sleeth was writing about. “In our end is our beginning...”[iv] May it be so!
[i] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on Ascension Sunday, a day on which we honored our High School Graduates.
[ii] Martin B. Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), Loc. 1502 of 2044.
[iii] Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, trans. by Joseph Mullan, reprinted in David Fleming, Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises—a Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading (St. Louis, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 48.
[iv] Natalie Sleeth, “Hymn of Promise,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 707.