“A Prophetic Summons” – A Sermon from Luke 24.44-53

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One of the problems of the modern era is having an answer for everything. Celebrating the ascension of the Lord exists in tension with this idea of knowing what we know. We think we know so much. Humanity understands so much about science, medicine, and engineering. It reminds me of a video that went viral back in January. A chiropractor in Idaho posted it, and in the video, he made a number of false and misleading claims about the vaccine. One of his concerns had to do with “spike proteins.” He said, “No one knows how big they are.”

Scientists do, actually, know the size of spike proteins. They know a lot. There are a bunch of different examples of how much humanity knows. The rapid development of a successful COVID-19 vaccine is just one. In fact, it’s been so successful that we who have been vaccinated can gather without masks, worship, and sing. It’s fantastic!

With so much human knowledge and the ability to accomplish incredible feats, spiritual matters, especially when we reach the miraculous, can be hard to accept. In matters of faith, we don’t need to be convinced of the literal event. We need transformation. We need to be changed by what happened, no matter how it happened. The Bible is full of stories that confront this notion of having all the answers.

I read and re-read the stories in Luke 24 and Acts 1 this week. I thought about what it must have looked like. At first, as I was reading, I applied my reason-based thinking. I tried to visualize the group of eleven following Jesus to Bethany. When he blessed them, were his palms raised up or down? The most significant (or troubling) image in Luke 24 is Jesus ascending to heaven. What did they see when Luke says “he was carried up into heaven”?

Is heaven up? That makes no sense. If it is, in 1961, the first people to leave the surface of the planet, Yuri Gagarin (4/12/61) and a month later Alan Shepherd (5/5/61) would have passed through the pearly gates, right?

After the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840s), humanity kept making improvements and accepting the narrative theology of Luke’s ascension story got harder and harder. In 1941, Rudolf Bultmann wrote about these stories. He suggested that we do not need to doubt the “content of [the New Testament’s] objectifying representations” but we can question what really happened.[1] Essentially, Bultmann and other theologians of the modern era would push us to find the meaning in Jesus’ ascension, instead of getting caught up trying to figure out what Luke meant by going up to heaven.

An English Jesuit named George Tyrrell wrote directly about the conflict between science and faith. He predated Bultmann by a few years and has a quote that seems to fit this dilemma of trying to make sense of Ascension Sunday. He writes, “The reductio ad absurdum is God’s favorite argument.”[2] Reductio ad absurdum is a reduction to absurdity. A good example of reductio ad absurdum is “The Earth cannot be flat or people would fall off the edges.”

The reductio ad absurdum I already used to address Jesus’ ascension is “Heaven can’t be up, or Yuri Gagarin would have passed through in April 1961 as he blasted into orbit.”

Luke depicts Jesus ascending because Jesus had to make space for us to do ministry. It’s our chance to respond to everything he taught, and we get to live as people who believe in the resurrection. If we were not supposed to do anything, we could profess our faith in Christ once and there would be no need for churches. Maybe we would need just one to tell each new generation, “Hey. Profess faith in Christ so you can go to heaven too.”

That’s not how it works. Nothing in Jesus’ life or ministry supports that kind of view of God. Too many religious people live like it though. C. S Lewis described this kind misinterpretation of transformation in Christ in his allegorical book The Screwtape Letters. He wrote, “The greatest evil isn’t done in those ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps. But it is conceived and ordered in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices…”[3] That’s what Hannah Arendt wrote about in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.[4] She writes, “Good can be radical; evil can never be radical.”

God calls us to the good. We are called to be the radical good. It’s that kind of good that transforms people’s lives and changes the world. Luke 24 looks both backward and forward.[5] It’s about what Jesus said and did and his calling for us for the future. After the resurrection, the risen Jesus left because he called the people who follow him to live out the faith journey. “The redeeming efficacy of Christ depends upon the being of God in Him.” Considering this, the disciples recognized Jesus as “the Son of God without having the faintest premonition of His resurrection and ascension.”[6]

We don’t have to have that level of faith because Easter already happened. This allows us to allow God to open our eyes and understand our calling. A few verses earlier, we read about Jesus opening people’s eyes. At Emmaus, the risen Lord ‘opened’ the eyes of the two disciples (v. 31). Then, he ‘opened’ the scriptures to them (v. 32). In our reading (v. 45), Luke uses the same verb. It says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” “The message of the Scriptures is not self-evident; one’s mind must be opened to it, and they are rightly understood only in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”[7]

Once our minds are open, we become participants in the story. We don’t get hung up on the rational, modern idea of understanding exactly what happened at Bethany. Did Jesus rise slowly from the ground? Who cares? Those first disciples didn’t “limit themselves to reporting an event; they become involved with it, making it their own.”[8] When we become active in the story of faith, we are witnesses, not of some supernatural event, but “of the kingdom of life.”[9]

We can’t just hear about it. We live it. We let our lives reflect it. Celebrating the ascension of the Lord means loving our neighbors as ourselves. It means trying on each of the fruits of the spirit and making them the centerpiece of our lives. We don’t need ‘proofs’ of the resurrection. We need action. We need to get involved. The witness of the people in the New Testament makes our proclamation of the resurrection credible. Still, the resurrection isn’t a data point. It’s not part of the evidence of the modern era. It’s an experience of the presence of the risen Lord.[10]

Today, we can all ask ourselves, “What is my experience with the presence of the risen Lord?” Our lives reflect that experience. I talked to a friend the other day. He’s a committed, life-long Christian. Right now, and for the last several years, he has felt like he’s been in a desert. Everything relating to God has been a struggle. He has gone through some really hard times, and God appears to be absent. I didn’t have an answer for him.

Instead, I listened. I invited him to try the rituals of faith for a while and see what happens. Remember: he knows all of the Christian language. He even knows the Sunday school answers. So, I invited him to make himself attend an online worship service (like ours). If our conversation had gone longer, I would have invited him to try praying or reading his Bible too. When people struggle with living out the faith of the resurrection and ascension, we don’t have to pretend to have the answers. That’s a modern solution. The spiritual and faithful response is to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

We can pray for our friends and neighbors. We be there for them. We can love them where they are, not where we want them to be. When we do all these things, we live out an Easter faith.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 10.

[2] George Tyrrell, Life of George Tyrrell from 1884 to 1909, vol. 2 (London: Edward Arnold, 1912), 146.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 1942), Preface.

[4] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963).

[5] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 486.

[6] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. Hugh Ross Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart, trans. D. M. Baillie, et al. (New York: T & T Clark, 1999), 418.

[7] Culpepper, 486.

[8] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 110.

[9] Gutiérrez, 111.

[10] Culpepper, 490.

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