Thursday, May 26, 2022

Desperate for Ascension Day


May 26, 2022 - Ascension Day
Luke 24:44-53

I want to start by confessing that I do not have a very good (ie well developed) theology of the Ascension. Every year, part of me is sad that Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, which means that so few of us will participate in the celebration, while another part of me is thankful that no more people get to hear me try to make sense of an event I don't really understand. But the more I think about it the more I am convinced that we need Ascension Day now as much as ever.

Luke tells us that Jesus bid farewell to his disciples and then, as he was blessing them, "withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." I want to note two things about Luke's description of the Ascension. First, Luke is the only one who mentions it. Second, he says a lot more than that.

Luke is the only one who describes the Ascension with any narrative detail. Here at the end of his gospel account and again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes what happened when Jesus was taken up (note the words) into heaven. In John's gospel account, Jesus talks a few times about the Son of Man ascending into heaven (1:51; 3:13; 6:62) and, at the empty tomb, tells Mary not to hold onto him because he has not yet ascended to the father (20:17), but none of the gospel writers besides Luke makes any attempt to convey what happened when Jesus took his leave of the earth. Mark finishes with the discovery of the empty tomb. Matthew describes how Jesus commissioned the disciples to preach the gospel to all nations, promising to be with them even to the end of the ages. John finishes his account with a meal of bread and fish and a commissioning of Peter on the seashore. But Luke is the only one to try to explain what happened in the end.

I think that's both a symptom and a contributing factor for why we have such a poorly developed theology of the Ascension. All the gospel accounts talk about the cross and empty tomb, but only one says anything about Jesus disappearing up into the clouds. It's hard to understand. It's hard to imagine. If Jesus isn't here any more, where is he? Where is heaven? Where does God really live? Up there somewhere? Is that where we go when the world comes to an end--up into the sky, into the stratosphere, into outer space, into another galaxy far, far away?

That brings me to the second aspect of Luke's account of the Ascension that I want to talk about--everything else he says. This isn't just a story of Jesus disappearing up into heaven. Notice all the richness of the text. Jesus says to his disciples, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me...must be fulfilled." His parting words are about fulfillment and completion. The Ascension is inextricably tied to and an expression of the fullness of Christ as the fulfillment of God's loving promises.

In Luke's account, like those of John and especially Matthew, Jesus uses this farewell moment to commission his followers: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." Thus Luke makes it clear to us both that this Ascension moment is a completion of his identity and ministry as Messiah but also, at least in part, the enabling act for the disciples' proclamation and witness of that fulfillment. In other words, the Ascension is both the culmination of Jesus' identity as Christ and the focal lens through which his followers bear witness to that culmination.

Finally, Luke notes that, as Jesus was ascending, he blessed those who watched, and they responded with worship. This is the first time in Luke's account that anyone worships Jesus. Worship, of course, belongs to God alone. That's the first commandment on the top ten list of commandments. The Ascension of Jesus, as Luke recalls it for us, is also a moment when Jesus' identity as one who is worthy of worship, which is to say God himself, is proclaimed and received by humanity.

The Ascension, in other words, is not just Luke's ending to the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is, in fact, the culmination of our understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promises, which is achieved as God with us. The Ascension is not only the logical conclusion or corollary to the cross and empty tomb--God's vindication of Jesus--it is the very means by which the incarnate one "returns" to God (inadequate language) while still remaining God-incarnate.

I live in a world in which evil is rampant--Buffalo, Uvalde, Ukraine--and I am desperate to know that what Jesus said and did and represented to the world was not just a moment in time--an event for the history books--but an offering and a promise that have already changed the way the universe works. If Jesus were just a prophet, his remarkable words would be worth receiving and embracing, but they would have no power over evil because evil cannot be defeated by human intentions. If Jesus were simply God trapsing about the earth in a human suit, adopting our lifestyle for a while, his life and death would be inspiring, but they wouldn't make an ultimate difference in my life or in this world. 

Only because in Jesus Christ God has assumed the fullness of our humanity and retains that union beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus can I know that what happened in the cross and empty tomb was not just a fireworks show for the ages but the ultimate defeat of sin and evil. Jesus is not just a chapter worth rereading but a fundamental shift in the power of the universe that does not have an expiration date. Jesus is still flesh and blood, wounded by the cross and vindicated at Easter, but now present with God the Father just as God the Son has been for all eternity. That is our future. That future is assured, even now, even in the midst of gun violence and narcissistic warfare, because in the ascended Christ we can see ourselves in the presence of God. The Ascension means that Jesus did not shed his humanity when he returned to God but brought us with him. And that's a hope I need to hold onto, especially today.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Healing of Our Incapacity for Self-Improvement


May 22, 2022 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:50.

When Jesus was learning how to be a rabbi, it’s clear that he didn’t pay attention during CPE. CPE is an abbreviation for clinical pastoral education, the grueling but enlightening program that is designed to teach would-be ministers how to provide spiritual care to others. For me, it was ten weeks of full-time hospital chaplaincy work with a bunch of reflective practice and group discussion thrown in. But, as much as anything else I did in seminary, CPE taught me how to be a pastor because it taught me how much I didn’t know. It taught me that, no matter what I thought I knew about the patient in front of me, they were always better at telling me what they needed than I was at assuming. One of the most important lessons you are supposed to learn is how to let a patient be in charge of their own healing—a lesson that Jesus clearly ignores.

“When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” And the man never said yes. Instead, he recited for Jesus all of the reasons that he could not be healed: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Literally, by the time the man who could not walk had crawled down to the water’s edge, dragging his lifeless legs behind him, the miraculous bubbling of the water, which was known to be a source of physical healing, had been claimed by someone else—someone who could get there more quickly. And so the man was stuck.

At that point, the textbooks say that Jesus should have said something like, “That sounds really difficult. What do you think you’ll do about that?” Or Jesus could have just stared back at him, offering a well-rehearsed look of pastoral concern, silently waiting for the man to ask him for help. But Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t wait. “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus said, working within that paralyzed man the miraculous healing that somehow Jesus knew he sought even before the man found the voice to say it. 

Thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight long years, the man had waited and hoped for a healing that was always beyond his reach. We don’t imagine that he stayed by the pool all of that time. Surely he had a doorway or a lean-to where he could drag his beggar’s pallet when the weather was bad, but he always came back to the place where healing felt close by even if it was still too far away. If only the man could recognize the one who was standing before him—the one who had asked whether he wanted to be healed. If only he could see beyond his own predicament and realize that Jesus wasn’t looking for a justification for his thirty-eight-year incapacity but offering a way out—offering him the healing that had eluded him for so long. When Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, why didn’t the man just say yes?

Maybe he did recognize Jesus. Maybe he had heard stories about this miracle worker. Maybe he had learned from others that this rabbi had the power to grant a healing that even the magic waters could not give. Maybe, in that split second after Jesus asked him whether he wanted to be healed, the man sized up the situation and decided that the rabbi was more likely to grant his request if he laid out his pitiful story, tugging at Jesus’ heartstrings.

Or maybe the man had been lying there so long that he had forgotten how to hope for healing. Maybe thirty-eight years of watching other people get to the water first had inscribed into his imagination a pattern of failure that seemed unbreakable. Maybe the man did not ask Jesus for healing because he couldn’t—because he couldn’t see it, because he couldn’t dream it, because he couldn’t even hope for it.

What happens to us when even our desire for healing, wholeness, and restoration is so worn out that it cannot stand up on its own? What happens when the thing within us that is the sickest is one the thing we need most in order to get better? It’s like telling someone with depression that they need to try harder or saying to an addict that, if they only made better choices, their life would improve. What good is that? Like the man beside the pool, sometimes we need more than physical healing in order to get better. Sometimes we need someone to restore the brokenness in our spirit before we can start down the path that leads to true healing. Sometimes we need someone else to love us because we’ve forgotten what it means to be lovable.

We believe in a God who loves us even before we love God back. We belong to a God who claims us even before we recognize the one who calls us God’s own. But, somewhere along the way, Christianity became a religion that looks just like every other self-motivated pursuit in the world. That’s because human beings are far more comfortable with a god who gives us what we deserve than a God who loves, saves, and redeems those who don’t deserve it. We’d rather believe that good people go to heaven because they’re good than admit that bad people go to heaven because God loves them anyway, but at least we can find comfort in restricting access to the pearly gates to only those sinners who demonstrate adequate repentance. We might not expect the man to crawl to the water under his own power, but he had better want to be healed bad enough to ask for it—to even beg for it. But what good is a God who only accepts those who think, say, or do the right things or wish they could when we’re the ones stuck on a tattered cardboard pallet, unable even to accept the offer of help that is standing right in front of us?

Jesus died and was raised not in order that reasonably good and good-intentioned people might get something better but so that totally broken, sin-sick human beings like you and me could have even our incapacity for self-improvement transformed and redeemed. We do not believe that people go to heaven because they live a good life or because they sufficiently turn away from the bad. Instead, we believe that we go to heaven because God loves us and heals us and saves us regardless of the choices we make and the life we live. I can think of nothing more hopeless than being responsible for my own salvation—than lying by the side of a pool for a lifetime with the healing I need always out of reach. We need a healing that we cannot achieve on our own, and thanks be to God that, in Jesus Christ, God gives it to us.

I don’t know what went through the mind of that paralytic when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, but I do know that Jesus didn’t wait for the man to do his part before he healed him. God is not waiting for us to do our part. That’s the good news. That’s grace. That’s unconditional love. The healing that God offers us in Jesus Christ starts not when we meet God halfway but when we realize that we don’t even know how to stand up on our own—that without God’s help we can’t even imagine how things could be any different. That’s where God meets us, turning what is as good as dead into a new and flourishing life. Into our deepest incapacity and even into the paralysis of our own volition, God reaches out and offers healing. When we believe that, we, too, can stand up and walk.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Remember That You Belong To Jesus


May 8, 2022 – The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:20

Happy Hanukah! That’s what Jesus and his disciples were saying to each other in today’s gospel lesson. The word Hanukah means dedication, and John tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication—the dedication of the temple. Actually, that was a little unusual because Hanukah was, and still is, a relatively minor celebration in the Jewish year. Back in Jesus’ day, there were three festivals when Jewish observers were expected to make the trip to Jerusalem for the celebration (Passover, Weeks, and Booths), but Hanukah was something you could celebrate at home. For whatever reason, though, Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the courts of the temple, and that changes the way we hear the rest of this story.

Hanukah is the celebration of the rededication of the Jewish temple after it had been defiled by Syrian occupiers in the 160s BC. Antiochus IV, a true enemy of the Jews, was in power at the time. While his predecessors had allowed the Jewish people to continue to worship according to their own tradition, this Antiochus ordered that essential practices like temple worship and circumcision had to stop. To make his point, and perhaps to flex his imperial muscle, he erected an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple and commanded that pigs be sacrificed on the altar that had once been used for daily offerings to Israel’s God.

This abomination was too much. A faithful priest, Mattithias, and his five sons led a rebellion, and one of those sons, who went on to earn the nickname “Judah the Hammer,” became the deliverer of God’s people. Under his leadership, a small but fierce army drove the Syrians out of the capital city, and a quasi-independent Jewish state was established. But the temple needed to be cleansed of the desecration, so a new altar was built and new holy vessels were fashioned. Yet, at the appointed time for the rededication of the temple, they could only find one container of undefiled oil—only enough for the temple lamp to be lit for one day—but somehow, miraculously, God made sure that the sacred oil burned uninterrupted for eight days, long enough for new oil to be ritually prepared. It was and is a reason to celebrate.

Two hundred years later, Jesus walked through those same temple precincts. A charismatic leader with a reputation for religious fervor and a strong following among the people, Jesus was asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” That question sounds different during the Feast of the Dedication, when everyone is sharing stories about how Judah the Hammer led their ancestors to overthrow their unholy occupiers. Could the same be true about this new Jewish leader? Maybe Jesus had come to lead a rebellion against the Romans. Maybe he was the one to restore the kingdom to Israel.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they asked. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” But Jesus answered them, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” In the first nine chapters of John’s gospel account, again and again, Jesus had performed mighty prophetic works in God’s name, revealing his identity as God’s anointed, but they weren’t the sort of prophetic acts that the people were looking for. He had overturned the tables in the temple precincts in John 2, questioning contemporary ritual practices. He had healed a paralytic on the sabbath in John 5, challenging regulations about sabbath observance. He had fed the 5,000 in the wilderness in John 6, rejecting traditional assumptions about how God would sustain God’s people. He had healed the man born blind in John 9, confronting widespread understandings of sin and sinners. And, each time, he had explained to them that his actions and teachings were not his own but those of his Father in heaven. But they couldn’t see it. The majority of the people were looking for a Messiah to come and defeat the Romans, not one to come and challenge their own faith traditions.

Are we any different? Do we come into this sacred place seeking to encounter the one who questions our assumptions about who God is and how God works among God’s people? Or are we here to make sure that the Jesus we follow conforms to our own image of what a savior is supposed to be? Given our tendency to seek a Messiah of our own imaginings, should it surprise us that we so often have a hard time recognizing how God is present in the world today?

To those who struggle to recognize him, Jesus says a remarkable thing about faith: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” Belonging comes before believing. We don’t belong because we believe; we believe because we belong. Think about that. Think about the implications of that. Think about what it means to belong to a God who loves us first and who, in that love, only then invites us to believe. Our faith isn’t something we create on our own. It isn’t a decision we make or an understanding we achieve. It is something that grows out of God’s claim on us. Because God has already chosen us as God’s children, we can believe in the one to whom we belong.

The sheep do not choose the shepherd. They hear his voice, and they follow him. They recognize the one who knows them and cares for them. It is in being known and cared for that we come to trust in the one who calls us each by name. We follow him because we belong to him, not the other way around. And that is as challenging for us as it was for Jesus’ contemporaries.

As long as faith is something that starts in us, we get to decide what sort of savior we need, and we get to decide which religious figure fits the bill. And, as long as it is up to us, we will always design a Messiah who is tailored to our own specific preferences and cast that idol in our own idealized image. But that makes it impossible for us to recognize Jesus. Is it any wonder that contemporary Christians, splintered into our own self-affirming factions, cannot agree about even the basics of who Jesus is? We struggle to believe because we have forgotten what it means to belong.

We cannot believe in Jesus until we recognize the one to whom we belong. We belong not to the one who builds up our own authority but to the one who establishes the reign of God. We belong not to the one who comes to make us rich but to the one who comes to rescue the poor. We belong not to the one who defeats our enemies but to the one who teaches us to love them and pray for them. Until we remember that we belong to that Jesus, we cannot believe that he is the one who comes to give us eternal life. 

If we want to grow in our faith—if we want to know what it means to have confidence in God’s salvation and trust that God will always take care of us—we need to spend less time and effort trying to reconcile Jesus with our own agenda and spend more time and effort listening for his voice. Where will we hear it? It comes when we sit quietly in prayer, seeking the companionship of the one who loves us best. It comes when we stand beside those who are hurting in this world, trusting that Jesus will always be found in their midst. It comes when we listen to those who are vulnerable and who are ignored by people in power because their voices give voice to Christ among us. When we hear that voice and remember that we belong to him—to the one who has come to rescue to lost and lead them into green pastures—then we learn how to trust in the one who has come to save us. If the only voice we’re listening for is our own, where will we turn for help?