Sermon preached on Ascension of the Lord Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
My last year of seminary, I lived in a house with about twelve other students. One of them was a commuter student, Lisa, who lived with us during the weeks and drove home on weekends. She was about my parent’s age, a former business executive with razor sharp brains and a huge heart for Christ. The kind of woman who took charge of a room simply by walking into it. Nothing seemed to faze her. But one night I came down to the kitchen looking for ice cream and there she was, pint in hand, face drawn.
I asked her how she was, even though it was a little unnecessary. Eating ice cream in the dark is rarely a good sign.
“Overwhelmed,” she told me. “I could handle the commute. I could handle school. I could handle my daughter’s wedding coming up. I could handle the ordination process and the internships. But my dad has just asked me to be his power of attorney, and I don’t think I can handle it.”
I was surprised. I didn’t know all that much about what being a power of attorney entailed, but Lisa was so efficient and business-minded, it seemed right up her alley.
“His dementia is still early stages, but it doesn’t really get better, you know,” she told me. “And I always assumed he’d ask my older sister. Even though I’m the business mind in the family, it makes sense, but… how am I supposed to know what he’d want? How am I supposed to act for him?”
I hope I made a sympathetic face, because I sure didn’t have answers.
Lisa kept talking. “He taught me everything, you know. I always wanted to be just like him—successful, but still a good person. I’m going to lose him, and it’ll be up to me to make sure he’s still around. Through me. The power of attorney is just the legal part of it, but it just brought it all up for me—I’ll be acting for him in all the ways now. Trying to keep who he was alive.”
I’d certainly never thought of it that way. Lisa sighed. “I’m going to say yes. I have to say yes. For him, for mom. It’s a huge honor. It’s a huge responsibility. It’s just huge. Hence the rocky road.”
It’s amazing what a pint of rocky road can solve. We talked for awhile longer, but Lisa’s words stuck with me. The huge honor. The huge responsibility. The commission to keep someone’s legacy, their ethics, their mission alive after they’ve stopped being able to carry it out themselves.
I am remembering this conversation with Lisa because when I was discussing this morning’s scripture with other local pastors this week, someone brought up the idea of the church as Christ’s power of attorney. It’s not a perfect metaphor; Christ isn’t incapable of action. And yet at his ascension he makes a choice to hand over his mission to his disciples, to us:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” Christ says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
That’s entirely Christ’s choice. To give us power. To give us power to be his body on earth, as the more familiar metaphor goes. To leave the building of the kingdom of God in our literal, physical hands.
And to be honest, I’m kind of flabbergasted by that choice.
I mean, have you seen us?
We’re kind of a mess, we humans. The original disciples were a motley crew of bumblers, deniers, and glory hounds. Even here at the end, when Jesus has been crucified and resurrected and stuck around teaching them for an extra 40 days, they’re still not satisfied with all he’s done. They want him to restore the kingdom of Israel. They want him to do it.
And yet Jesus turns around and signs over his power to them. Power to preach, to teach, to heal, to gather disciples together, to create new communities, to share the good news across the globe.
And we have inherited that power. We are still Christ’s guarantors on earth, making the choices we think he wants us to make, acting out his mission, pursuing his goals. And it’s just huge. A huge responsibility. A huge honor. Huge and heavy.
As soon as I said the words power of attorney, I imagine a few of you had a stress reaction. Either because you have served or will serve in that capacity, and you know Lisa’s feeling of being overwhelmed. But some of you may have even harder stories—of fighting between siblings, of being passed over, of abuses and misuses of that power. In fact, google “power of attorney” and the first listings are all about the horror stories that happen when powers of attorney abuse that power in ways the people they are acting for would have been appalled by.
And to be entirely honest with you, the church is not immune to that. We have abused our power over the years. We have murdered our siblings of other faiths, endorsed slavery and racism, covered up sexual abuse, denied the gifts and callings of so many disciples, stockpiled money and property, hobnobbed with earthly powers and thrown only bread crusts to those whom Christ most cared for. If our job has been to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, God would have every right to fire us.
And yet God hasn’t. God continues to pour power into the church, and I am constantly amazed by that. That God doesn’t give up on us. All our failings, all our misuses, all our abuses of the power we have. God still stays with us, nudging us, shaping us, calling us.
God loves the church. There’s no other reason for it. The church may believe in God, but I have to think God believes in the church even more.
And so God pours the spirit into us, over us. God directs our attention where it needs to go. God challenges us to open our arms, our hearts, our minds wider. God gives us, as Paul says, “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know God.”
And it is that spirit, that spirit of wisdom, that helps guide us to be the church that can truly act in Jesus’ name. It’s that spirit that guides us to joyfully welcome wiggly children and achy adults. It’s that spirit that guides us to fill paper bags with snacks to cover the weekend. It’s that spirit that guides us back into the scriptures, time and time again, to better know God’s heart. It’s that spirit that drives us to our knees in prayer, asking for another chance, another chance to be the church, to be the bearers of Good News, good news for all.
The ascension story is a strange one. Strange, true, to think of Jesus floating up into the sky on a cloud; but stranger still to think that he has left us to do his work. Trusted us. Believed in us.
On my worst days, I think of church as a burden. A series of tasks and duties that must be carried out, a to-do list of activities to plan and run, a schedule to attend to. I think we can all fall into that trap.
But on my best days, I remember what an honor it is, to be part of the church. To be part of the group given power from on high—not the kind of power found in state rooms or courthouses or war rooms, but the kind of power that comes from millions upon millions of ordinary people working to serve Christ every day, in whatever way they have been gifted to.
That kind of power isn’t glamorous. It takes a lot of work to use it. But it changes the world as slowly and steadily as water carving out canyons.
A few weeks before I graduated, I found myself in another late night ice cream confab with Lisa. Her father had passed away unexpectedly early.
“There’s still tons to do,” she said. “I’m glad it’s summer break. But even when all the legal stuff is wrapped up, even when I’m not signing any more checks or closing out any more accounts—I’ll always be his representative. As long as I’m alive. He gave me the power of his trust. The power of his love. His knowledge. I’ll carry that forever. It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge honor.” She smiled, repeating her words from before.
Friends, we are the church. We are the ones God trusts to get stuff done. To love God’s people. To feed God’s children. To welcome God’s odd ones. To preach God’s good news. To heal God’s broken hearted beloveds. To be Jesus to everyone we meet.
It’s a huge responsibility.
It’s a huge honor.
So I too, with Paul, pray for that Spirit: that spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know God, so that, with the eyes of our hearts full of light, we may know the hope we are called to. The hope that working hand in hand with the Spirit, the presence of Christ still in our hearts and our world, we can be the church God dreams about.
The world needs Jesus. And Jesus has offered them us.
So let’s get out there.