What Happens Now? – A Sermon on the Ascension for May 20, 2012

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, and sinking realization hit me: I was on my own. I wondered, was I ready? Could I do it? And most of all, what happens now?

I sometimes wonder if that’s what the disciples were thinking on the day that Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven. It seems like he is leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then had been resurrected. I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back in their midst for good. I wonder if they expected him to stay. Or were they ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin?

I always imagined that the disciples were there saying, “Where are you going? You just got back?” But Scripture tells us that they receive Christ’s blessing, and after Christ returns to heaven, they return to Jerusalem with “great joy” and that they are continuously in the temple after that, celebrating.

I wonder how long that lasted?

I was the youngest of my parents kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris. This was before the days of cell phones, and so I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks in to my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before they had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? I wonder if they too realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing sometimes. We can feel like we are on our own. As much as we beleive that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like the disciples had it easy. They at least got to have some face time with Jesus. We haven’t gotten that.

Have you ever played that game where you answer the question, “If you could have dinner with any person living or dead, who would you pick?” The answers have their fair share of presidents, famous artists, and historical figures. But whenever I’ve heard it played the one answer I hear more than any other is Jesus.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence, especially for those of us who would follow the way of Christ. I’d like to think that maybe some Tuesday Jesus and I could go down to half-price pizza night together. (I’m sure even Jesus likes a good deal.) We could sit there and talk about what how we Christians are doing on creating the world he wanted us to create. And then we could talk about how we who would be disciples sometimes get it wrong. If I could just sit with him, and talk to him, and get my marching orders directly from him, face to face, I’d know what to do. I’d be sure I was on the right path.

None of us have had that chance yet. At least I’m assuming. (If Jesus has been down at La Toscanella and you haven’t been telling me I’m going to be really sad.) Instead we have to trust the witness of the disciples, who had those sit down dinners all those years ago, and who tried to pass on what they remembered to the ones who came next, who passed it on to the ones after that, and the ones after that, and all the way down to us.

But, for those of us 2,000 years later, though, we might, understandably, ask where is God now?

Like I’ve said, I believe Jesus is still here. I believe Jesus is here with us today in worship. I even believe Jesus is down the street at the pizza place on Tuesday nights. I believe Jesus is always with us.

When Jesus returned to God he stopped being with us in a physical way. That means that he no longer was just with a small group of people in one place long ago. He now was able to be with all of us, all the time. Christ is here right now in West Dover, and he’s down the road in Brattleboro, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting AIDS. He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school, or the veteran returning from Afghanistan.

Jesus might show up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wanted me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them. That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me. And I’ve found that as hard as it may be for me to see Christ in some people, when I can do it, I’m blessed by it.

But then there’s the other side. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christ’s” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

I’ll give you an example that was shared with me. I’ve been given permission to share it with you too. Someone I know lost their father suddenly, and traumatically, when she was 9 years old. In the aftermath of his death, her Sunday school teacher went out of her way to may time and space for her. She gave her space to ask the questions she needed to ask, and reassured her that God was still there, still loving her. It didn’t make the pain go away, but it did help the girl to feel that someone was making time and space for her and taking her faith questions seriously.

That Sunday school teacher was a little Christ to the little girl who needed to know that Christ was there with her. Maybe you have your own stories. Who has been Christ to you in your life? Who has stepped in when you have needed it most, and treated you the way Christ would have? Who has seen the Christ in you, and met it with their own?

And now the harder part: How are you going to be Christ to the people in your life? To your family? To your friends? To your neighbors? To that person that annoys the ever-living love out of you?

And here’s the question for all of us gathered here today: How is this church going to be Christ to the people in our community? To those who are hungry? To those who are just getting by? To those who are sick? To those who need hope? To those who want to see who Christ really was, and how incredible that love really can be?

These are the questions we Christians ask ourselves everyday: Where can I see Christ in my life, and how can I be Christ to others? Here’s my challenge to you this week. Each day, try to see the image of Christ in someone you meet. The more difficult the better. And then, try to find Christ in yourself, and be Christ to that person. I promise, Christ is there. In both of you. And when you find him you will find that he was not the only one who was lifted up to greater things on Ascension Day. We all were. And we all continue to be. Amen.

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