It’s hard to believe, but Easter was now 43 days ago. It feels like spring just got here last week, so Easter feels like it happened so long ago, at least to me. And yet, here we are, 43 days later.
I know it’s 43 days because we have a lesser-known holiday in the church called Ascension Day that takes place exactly forty days after Easter. So, that was on Thursday. And you all missed the Ascension Day service!
We didn’t have one, of course. It’s not like Christmas, or even Ash Wednesday, where people come out midweek to worship. Churches traditionally celebrate this holiday on the next Sunday, which is today.
And, if you don’t know the story of the Ascension, you’re not alone. It’s an important story, but one that’s hard to explain. Frankly, it’s also one that’s hard to believe. And that’s because this is how it goes: 40 days after Easter, after the day we was raised from the dead, Jesus was teaching the disciples, and they were asking him questions.
One asked, “Lord, is this when we’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel”? What they meant by that was, “So Jesus, we’re about to do this thing, right? We’re about to tell everyone who you are and you’re about to take over and fixed everything here?”
That’s understandable. Here’s Jesus who died and came back to life. It’s amazing, and they know now who he is. They want to tell everyone about him, and they want to show them that they were right, that Jesus was worth following, and that now Jesus was going to fix everything.
So, let’s go Jesus…let’s get started.
But this happens instead. Jesus tells them that they don’t know what’s coming or when, and that all of that is God’s business. He tells them instead that they will be his “witnesses”. And then, while they are still watching him, he lifts up off the ground, into the clouds, and disappeared.
So, I’ve always envied the disciples. They got to know Jesus, to hear him teach, and to see and touch him in the flesh. They never had to ask themselves the questions that we do like “Did he really exist?” or “Did he do all those things the Bible says he did?” or “What was he like?” But this is one time that I don’t envy them, because this must have been absolutely crazy to watch.
I picture them all standing there, with their heads looking up, asking one another, “Did you see that too?”
And so, they were standing there, with their heads, literally, in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are 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. Jesus said that we would become his “witnesses”, the people who could testify to who he was and what he wants for the world. And 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.
And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.
The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.
And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.
And so those of us who are followers of Christ, those of us who are asked to be witnesses, have this big task of showing the world what the love and grace of Christ looks like. We are supposed to live in this world in a different way, one that shows what could be. One of hope. One of promise. One of building up this world.
But here’s the thing…this is hard work. It’s work that makes us struggle, and work that will sometimes leave us doubting. And it’s work that’s too important to do alone. And so, that’s where the church comes in.
Christianity is a religion that many try to practice on their own. They think that so long as they believe the right things and try to act the right way, they don’t really need a community of faith like this. And, I’m not saying that those people are not good people. But, I am saying that Jesus never meant for us to follow him on our own.
Jesus called his disciples into community. He taught them together. He gathered them at the table on the night of his Last Supper together. He showed himself to them after his Resurrection when they were together. And on the day of the Ascension, he made sure they were all there together. And that’s because we need one another in order.
That’s where church comes in. Church is the place we come to in order to remember this story, to tell it to each other again, to sing the faith, to share our joys and our pain, and to do the work of making this world a little better….together.
Church is also the place we come to when we are struggling to be witnesses. Church is where we come when belief feels hard, and when we are filled with doubt. When that happens, perhaps more than ever, that’s when we need the church. Because on the days when we cannot quite believe, the community can believe for us, and can carry us through until we know God’s love in our hearts once again.
Church is big enough for that. Church is big enough for a lot of things.
I think about that today on this Mother’s Day. Every minister I know has wrestled with how to celebrate Mother’s Day in church. On the one hand there’s this pressure to dedicate the whole day to moms and how great they are. On the other, there’s a lot of pain for a lot of people around the day.
For some, this is a celebration, full only of happy memories of their own moms, or their own experiences of motherhood. But for others, this is a painful day. It’s a reminder of painful relationships, or of the loss of a mother, or of infertility, of the loss of a child, or of an unexpected pregnancy.
So, what do we do? Do we ignore it completely? Do we choose celebration or sadness? Or, do we do what the church does, and make room for all of it?
I believe that we do the latter, because I believe in the church as a place that is big enough for our whole lives, because God is big enough for our whole lives. I believe in the church as a place where we can bring all of us. I believe in the church as a place that teaches us to be witnesses, and that witnesses to us when life gets hard.
Flying kites together
Next week – story of Pentecost – in many ways a continuation of today – Jesus says Holy Spirit coming