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, a sinking realization hit me: I was on my own.
I wonder if the disciples were panicking like that the day Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven, seemingly leaving the world behind, and on its own.
It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then resurrected. And I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back for good. Were they really 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? Or were they scared to death?
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.
But this was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks into 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 the disciples had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? And I wonder if like me they 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. Like the disciples, we can feel that void and that uncertainty sometimes. As much as we believe 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 sometimes we are on our own.
When Jesus returned to God he did stop being with the disciples in a physical way. But the blessing in that is that this means that he is no longer with just a small group of people in one place long ago. He now is able to be with all of us, all the time.
Christ is here right now in Exeter, and he’s down the road in Boston, 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 depression He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school. Or the veteran returning from war.
Jesus shows 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 wants 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.
But then there’s the next step too. 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 Christs” 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.
But only when we do that well.
Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over.
They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.
That problem didn’t start, or end, with us though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.
In fact, standing there looking up in the sky after Jesus, the first disciples were doing literally just that.
My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”
They were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they heard this voice. And there were two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”
Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.
But we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.
And so here is the reminder of the Ascension: the church would never have gotten anywhere if those first disciples hadn’t stop looking at what didn’t matter, and instead start looking around at one another. That doesn’t mean don’t ask the big questions. And that doesn’t mean get busy and stop taking time to be with God.
On the contrary, I think it means something else. It means that sometimes when we get distracted by the fears, anxieties, or distractions of minor details, as every church does, we have to get our head out of the clouds too, stop being paralyzed by what matters little, and start being the church.
It is a luxury to spend our time focused on things like building and spreadsheets and committee structures and the like. Yes, it’s necessary to do these things, but ultimately we are not here for that work. It’s just cloud cover. These are the things that help us to do our ministry in this world. They are not our ministry. They are tools. They can never become our idols.
Instead, we have to look down, and look at one another. We have to figure out how to be Christ embodied to one another, and to the world.
Today we have a good reminder of why we get our head out of the clouds. Today we are baptizing James, who is all of eight months old. We already know James, and love him. And today we are going to pledge to help to teach him who God is, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ. He is going to grow up in this church, and he is going to learn from us.
And so, what are we going to teach him that church means? What are we going to teach him is most important?
I hope this is what he learns most of all: I hope he learns that God loves him, and that God needs him to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I hope he learns what it means to love other people. I hope he learns to pray, to ask big questions, and to serve. And I hope he learns that clouds come and go, but the firm foundation of faith is always there. And I hope he learns that here in this church, and from us. Amen?