What is Next? Ascension Sunday Sermon

“Why are you standing here looking toward heaven?” What is next church? The universal church is facing huge changes, a deepening exodus, and growing divisions…. American Christianity is slumbering in an other-worldly era.  A pastor friend shared how his teenage daughter is rejecting Christianity because it is anti-science. Do you know such stories? Is the church more enamored with warming sentimental glow of an un-examined past or preparing to follow God into an uncertain future? Do we cling to beloved traditions or embrace God’s pentecostal winds?  Will wait for a miracle from heaven or live out our faith: “on earth as in heaven”? It is never past the time for reformation.

Text: Luke 24: 44-53 & Acts 1:1-11

44 days ago we entered the season of Easter. Thursday, 40 days after Easter, we celebrated our Lord’s Ascension. Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost.


It stretches my imagination to picture the Ascension. In Luke, Luke offers no flaming chariot, no whirlwind, no parting sky, no angel band singing “glory to God in the highest” or “victory in Jesus”. There is no voice from heaven, the Spirit does not descend/ascend like a dove, no rush of a mighty wind, nor tongues of fire. Unlike Christmas, Easter or even Pentecost, the Ascension comes with no back stories and few details.  

Luke shares, “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, lifted his hands and blessed them. While blessing them, Jesus left them and was taken up to heaven.” They worship and return to Jerusalem. Luke reports the disciples are overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God. Can you get that one sentence scene into your mind? “Jesus left them and was taken up to heaven!”


I like Luke’s retelling in the Acts of the Apostles a bit better. Hear Acts 1:9: “After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, Jesus was lifted up. A cloud took Jesus out of  the disciples’ sight. While Jesus was going away and as the followers were staring toward heaven, suddenly two messengers in white robes stood next to them. The messengers said, ‘Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?’”


“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” I know there are supposedly no dumb questions, but that seems like a dumb question. I wonder a bit about the angels, for on Easter the angels ask Magdalene, “Why are you weeping? “ But maybe the question “Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” is more a question for us who stand 2,000 years away from the Ascension?


Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?

Does Christianity consist of continuously dwelling in the temple praising God?

There are strands of Christianity, both monastic (high, quiet, and set apart) and contemporary (accessible, loud, and communal), that direct our focus towards heaven. Some folks measure Christian faithfulness in terms of achieving deep inner or peace or “overwhelming joy.”   


Mother Teresa counters other-worldly faith: “Prayer does not demand that we interrupt our work, but that we continue working as if it were a prayer. It is not necessary to always be meditating, nor to consciously experience the sensation that we are talking to God, no matter how nice this would be. What matters is being with God, living in God, in Christ and inside God’s will. To love with a pure heart, to love everybody, especially to love the poor, is a 24-hour prayer.”


I grew up narrowly understanding Christian mission as going to church and trying to get people into heaven. At times a scary sermon reminded us a lot was at stake. The rhythmic liturgical refrain of Jesus’ prayer “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” was not our focus.  Jesus’ model prayer calls us to build God’s Kindred Community right now- right here, in this place that we stand.


One day, some will hype the great worship they offered God but Jesus warns, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of our Creator.” (Matthew 7:21)


Jesus whispers, “Come, you blessed by our holiest heavenly parent, inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. For I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… ‘Lord, we never did that!…   When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “The Lord answers, ‘I assure you that what you have done for one of the least of these my kindred, you have done for me.’”


Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” Surely, we come like spiritual sunbathers hoping to soak up spiritual rays. We long for the comforting glow of faith, hope and love. The question, “why are you standing here” resets the focus and ask us “What is next?”  We find ourselves asking, “What is next, church?”


Perhaps life is always asking us what is next! Three summers ago, this very week, my mother moved out of our home after 5 years, her dementia stealing so much of her, she could no longer live in our home.  Two summers ago, I began here. Today, Connie and her sister are moving her parents into Autumn Woods. This time last year my youngest graduated high school. For the next few years, we may be asking “what is next?” Next summer my oldest graduates… what is next?  On Tuesday, Connie and I celebrated 31 years of marriage. I remember walking down the beach on our honeymoon, enjoying the glow of deepest infatuation. As the tide danced at our feet, a strange question bubbled up within me, “who is this I am married to? What will this be like? What is next?”  Life always asks “what is next?”


Some forward-looking folks believe we are in an era of unprecedented societal change. For example, never before could I hold between my fingers a calendar, camera, broadcast studio, matchmaker, all the world’s newspaper, world’s biggest record store, blockbuster, bookstore, department store, arcade, translator, travel guide, fitness tracker, worldwide phone-book, photos album of all my friends’ children, face-time, calculator, altimeter, GPS, weather radar, market tracker, and yes, a phone….  What is next? Is the collective science, application, and understanding that drives our electronic devices: a kind of fuel for a new spiritual reformation? The Reformation does not happen without Luther’s embrace of Gutenberg’s press! Or will technology and scientific advancement resound unanswered alarm bells, as we roll back over and remain in an other-worldly spiritual slumber?


As we wonder what is next, the world may not be looking to the church for answers? The universal church is facing huge changes, a deepening exodus and growing divisions. We mistake a reshuffling of members for conversion.  We measure faithfulness by attendance not transformation. It is a strange era; a pastor friend shared how her teenage daughter is rejecting Christianity because it is anti-science. Do you know such stories? Is the church more enamored with the warm glow of our recent past or ready to walk with God into an uncertain future? Do we love our traditions more than we value God’s pentecostal winds that blow us into unknown territories with Good News? It is never past time for reformation.  


Why are you standing here looking toward heaven? Martin Luther King, Jr. preaches to our moment: “I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.… And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, non Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular…. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the south’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’” (T)he judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” (1963 letter from a Birmingham jail) Perhaps, disgust has turned to indifference.


What is next for the church? I do not have the answer, but I know it is more than standing around, gazing towards heaven, hoping God will intervene. Just before Jesus slips into the clouds to ascend into glory, the disciples ask, “Lord when will you come back and fix everything?” Jesus says, “Rather, rather than me doing it, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses, my martyrs, my little Jesus-es in concentric circles moving out from where you stand, over to your Samartant opponents, to the Ethiopian eunuch, to the uncircumcised, and to the end of the earth.”


Do you think when Martin Luther posted his 99 challenges and questions, he dreamed he might unleash a reformation that still shapes the faith?  In 1963, inside a stinking hot Alabama jail, do you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. thought his words would be inscribed below his likeness on national lawn,  or that President Obama’s portrait might reside in the National portrait gallery?


Oh, let us stop standing around looking to heaven for a miracle or lovingly looking backward upon our once strangely warmed hearts. Rather, let us hear the Good News: Rather, rather than God doing it, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses, little Jesus-es, changing the world!  And let us know, that as we build a community of faith, hope, love, and equality: we will find power from the Holy Spirit in the shape of love that transforms our church and our future. Amen.

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