A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 20, 2012.
In 2009 Disney released an entertaining film entitled “Up” about a crotchety old man who was fed up with the world and wanted to get away from it all. So he concocted a plan to fly himself and his home away forever. At a predetermined moment, he cut his house loose from it’s foundation, and it was lifted up into the stratosphere by a colorful cloud of hundreds of balloons. Pleased as punch over his new-found sense of peace and quiet, the man sat contentedly in his easy chair until he discovered a pesky young boy scout was also along for the ride. That’s when the story gets even more interesting.
“Up” is a charming movie we can’t help but enjoy in part because we realize it’s pure fantasy. What’s interesting is that a good many people, including Christians, feel the same about another story that could be entitled “Up”: the ascension of Jesus.
You can sense the general reluctance to deal with the ascension of Jesus in the way many Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, tend to avoid the subject. The same churches that go out of their way to observe Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, and even Pentecost Sunday will often let Ascension Sunday go unmentioned. Can you imagine the uproar it would cause if we simply chose to ignore Easter Sunday one year? But if we overlook Ascension Sunday, traditionally the Sunday that falls just before Pentecost, nobody says a word.
Why is that?
In part, I suspect we’re embarrassed by the spectacle of Jesus skyrocketing into the upper stratosphere. It sounds too much like a modern-day superhero movie. To speak of God raising Jesus from the dead is pushing the envelope of reality big time. But an airborne Jesus sounds like pure fantasy.
Before you write the ascension off as fiction, notice a couple of things. Notice the restraint Luke uses, both in Luke 24 and Acts 1, when he describes the ascension of Jesus. Unlike Hollywood, Luke’s accounts avoid any eye-popping special effects. As simply and matter-of-factly as he can, this learned physician turned historian relates that Jesus was “carried up into Heaven” back to his Heavenly Father from whence he came. And we’ve simply got to decide if this same Luke whom we rely upon for accurate accounts of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus is just as trustworthy when it comes to the ascension of Jesus.
Then there’s the significance of the event. The ascension of Jesus is a hinge moment in the gospel story, connecting the resurrection of Jesus to the Day of Pentecost. Without the ascension of Christ from this earth, the return of the Spirit of Christ to this earth would have been impossible. And without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the birth of the church would have never happened.
That said, I’ll be the first to admit that questions remain about this story. Why is Luke the only biographer of Jesus to describe in any detail the ascension of Jesus? We don’t know. Why does Luke 24 seem to imply that the ascension occurs on Easter Sunday evening, while Acts 1 places it 40 days later? We’re not sure. There is an air of mystery around this story we cannot completely dispel. But I ask you to keep an open mind about the ascension because there is much to learn here despite its difficulty.
In fact, Luke reminds us in this story just how much Jesus values an open mind. Jesus has had quite a day with his disciples. When the disciples woke up that morning they thought their Jesus was dead as a doornail. But early that Easter morning they were told by some women who visited Jesus’ tomb that it was empty, and an angel had declared Jesus to be risen from the dead, just as he had predicted during his earthly ministry.
Then, later in the day Jesus appeared to two despondent disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus. At first the disciples were seemingly prevented from recognizing Jesus. But suddenly they recognized him when he broke bread with them, and then just as suddenly, he disappeared. For the first time those two disciples understood the very prophecies about the Messiah that Jesus had reviewed with them on the road. And they ran back to Jerusalem to tell their fellow disciples that Jesus was alive!
Then, Jesus showed up again that night, this time among all the disciples, and they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37). But Jesus invited them to touch his hands and feet, and even ate a piece of fish to prove he was no spook.
All of this happened in this space of one day—surely the most climactic day in Christian history! And the day is not over yet.
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
Now listen carefully to the next line: Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise again from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (emphasis mine).
You may have heard the Chinese proverb that says, “A closed mind is like a closed book; just a block of wood.” Nobody understood this better than Jesus. It was people with minds made up with opinions set in concrete that plotted to kill Jesus and eventually had him nailed to the cross. It was blockhead disciples who couldn’t and wouldn’t accept a Messiah who had to suffer and die, who couldn’t and wouldn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ even though he stood in their midst chewing on a piece of fish.
One of Jesus chief goals was to renew his disciples’ minds. And step one in that process was to open their minds. Luke doesn’t explain how Jesus pries open the disciples’ minds—maybe he did it once again through the breaking of the bread. But after he opens their minds the disciples are able for the first time to connect the dots in the Old Testament that describe how the Messiah must suffer and die. This was a revolutionary idea hard to get their minds around, but the did. The next common assumption to fall was that once people die they stay dead. But the proof of the resurrection from the dead was staring them in the face, and now they grasped it.
Then there was the universal span of God’s care and concern. Israelites were confident, and I mean confident, that they were God’s chosen people, the apple of his eye, his first and foremost concern. The rest of the world’s peoples, those losers called “Gentiles”, were just out of luck. Now, Jesus was expanding their minds and horizons by declaring that the repentance and forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed not just to Israel, but to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. This was a mind-blowing idea, but Jesus assured them it had been God’s intent all along. Now, it was finally going to happen.
Then there was the fact that Jesus wanted his disciples to lead the way. This notion was enough to whipsaw the disciples’ wooden minds into sawdust! Here they were, hiding away in some dark corner of Jerusalem to avoid execution for being followers of Jesus. Now Jesus wanted them to step out into the light of day to witness on his behalf? But “not to worry,” said Jesus. “You’re about to get energized with a power from up high that will enable you to do far more than you can imagine today. Just wait, and you’ll see.”
After living with this version of the ascension story this week, I now see it in a new way. What’s most amazing about this story is not that Jesus was lifted up into heaven. It’s that the minds of the disciples were opened up to the mind-blowing gospel Jesus had for them. The opening of a closed mind is a miracle in its own right.
I say this because what I observe in many people are minds closed airtight around ideas and opinions they are confident are God’s inerrant truth. Just like the Israelites were confident that Messiahs do not suffer and die…and dead people do not rise to new life…and God does not come for Gentiles …so we too are inclined to have closed minds around all kinds of sacred opinions.
This applies, by the way, to people on the right and the left, conservatives and liberals. We saw it recently in our own state when we tore ourselves apart over the divisive issue of gay marriage. People on the right were absolutely confident they spoke for the God of righteousness, and people on the left were just as confident they spoke for the God of love. Two sides, shouting at each other at the top of their lungs, convinced they were speaking for God and closed to the possibility they could be wrong. Open-minded, warmhearted dialogue with the issue was rare, and now we have a bruised and battered state to show for it.
You might think it would be better in church, but often it isn’t. Traditionalists square off against progressives, fundamentalists square off against moderates and liberals, and firmly closed minds on both sides ram and slam each other over and over in the name of God. Meanwhile skeptics gleefully use all this religious wrangling as justification for not believing in God. But these supposedly open-minded skeptics betray their own closed minds when they refuse to even investigate the possibility that God exists, and we can know God through Jesus.
Here is where I come down in all of this. The one thing I am absolutely convinced of is Jesus—who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; then he descended into hell, and on the third day he rose from the dead; then he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty (from the Apostle’s Creed). It is this Jesus who is the lens through which all scripture is read and interpreted. And for me, it is this Jesus through which all of life is lived and understood.
Is it appropriate to have firm beliefs and strong conviction? Of course! As Alexander Hamilton said, “Those who stand for nothing will believe anything.” The trick is to hold your firm convictions with a measure of humility that says – I’m willing for Jesus to open and renew my mind with his thoughts and his ways. After all, sitting where he sits at the right hand of God, he sees a lot more than I do, knows infinitely more than I do, and stands ready daily to teach me his truths…if only I will keep an open mind.
Thanks be to God for that day of ascension when the heavens opened and Jesus took his place at the right hand of God. And thanks be to God for the Jesus who has the power to open our minds!