7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 1:6-14;
John 17:1-11; 1 Pet 4-5
RISEN LORD SOCIETY
Did anyone note the passing of Ascension Day this week? I don’t think that even I did as a pastor. Ascension Day, the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven, is exactly 40 days after Easter and so always falls on the Thursday in between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter.
It’s easier to observe the Ascension Day festival on its appropriate Thursday in a community like the seminary — where they worship every day. An Episcopalian priest tells the following story about one of his seminary Ascension Day celebrations. It was quite an event, with deans, faculty, and seminarians all suitably dressed in their robes to commemorate this holy mystery. The service ended and, amidst clouds of incense, the entire assembly processed outside singing a rousing ascension hymn. Unknown to the worshipers, an enterprising student had prepared a surprise ending for them. He had taken one of those near life-sized Christmas creche figures — you know, the hollow, plastic, painted kind — and he had stuffed it with some sort of rocket device. As the procession of proper clergy marched into the courtyard, the student lit the fuse, sending the statue soaring up out of the shrubbery, sailing through a cloud of acrid smoke and sparks, buzzing the rapidly dispersing procession, and finally doing a nose dive onto the roof of a nearby dormitory. There, the Ascension Rocket sputtered and died.
The dean of the seminary was not impressed with the student’s defense that he was “simply trying to dramatize my belief in the reality of the ascension.” Nor has his ritual idea caught on, even among liturgical innovators. I can’t understand why!
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Isn’t there a part of us which would be quite content to treat the ascension in this way — as a somewhat humorous vestige from a pre-scientific world? But before we think our worldview advanced compared to those of biblical times, perhaps what ascension Day is all about can show us that we’ve lost something, too. In important ways, we now live in a flattened, ranch style, one dimensional universe, not the three storied creation of our ancestors. The dimension which has been flattened out of our worldview is the spiritual dimension. We have no way of visualizing the spiritual dimension of our existence; so, in our world, nothing goes up but rockets, and the stock market, and taxes. God no longer goes up, or anywhere else.
Little wonder that Ascension Day usually passes by without our taking note. It doesn’t fit our worldview anymore. A baby being born in a manger we can relate to. And a man being executed on a cross we can understand. But ascending into heaven? What does that mean? Who needs it? But before we dispose of it, or let it pass by again almost unnoticed, we ought to at least know what the church was trying to say in its early belief in the ascension. Like the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation, Luke’s story of the ascension doesn’t really care about science. The church never worried about the ascension being scientifically true. The church’s only claim was that the story is eternally true. What the church means to say on Ascension Day is what St. Paul quoted from an early church hymn:
Though Christ was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11)
You see, the ascension is not a story about a place but about a function, that is, the exercise of Lordship. Our worldview, our usual focus on the physical, on the spatial, can miss the whole point of this ascension story. What the church means to say is that there is a cosmic power at work here, something too grand to be limited to our earthbound categories. The same Jesus of Nazareth — carpenter’s son, teacher, crucified and suffering one — this same Jesus has now gone up to sit down at the right hand of the Creator. This Jesus — the One who was rejected by the establishment, crucified by Caesar, dead and buried — to this suffering One, God has said, “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool!” This Jesus now rules with the Creator. The power shown in the cross and empty tomb is one and the same with God’s power.
Ascension Day is about who has the only power that really and ultimately counts. It is the power of the Creator, the very power of life itself, to make something out of nothing, to bring life out of lifelessness. It is the power of the Redeemer, the power of love and forgiveness, to create a saint out of a sinner, to bring new life out of death. Human power is the power to take control. It is a power which can lift some people up, but always at the expense of stepping on others in the process. God’s power is the power to lift up those who have become victim to human power. It is the power of the Son who gave up his control in life, emptying himself in the form of the servant, and who was lifted up by God to the seat of power. This is the power that ultimately counts, and the world, with its scientific focus on the physical and the spatial, has lost its ability to see this power.
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I finally saw this past week one of last year’s highly rated movies, Dead Poet’s Society, a very powerful story which I’d like to share with you this morning. It is set in a New England preparatory school, probably sometime in the early 50’s. The students that we come to meet live under the oppressive forces of adults in their lives who do everything thing they can to make these students conform to their world. All the parents and teachers are portrayed as tyrants ruling over their young peoples’ lives. Into this stifling environment steps one adult who is a breath of fresh air to the boys. He is their new English Literature teacher, John Keating, played by Robin Williams. Mr. Keating captures the boys’ imaginations by teaching them in parables, by using vivid images and having them act out some of their lessons. He makes language come alive with power for them. Mr. Keating also provides some of the boys with the seed for a uplifting community in the midst of their prep school drudgery. He hearkens back to his days at Welton School, when he and some classmates would sneak out at night and go to an old Indian cave. There they would each take turns sharing poems that had meaning and power for them. A group of seven of Mr. Keating’s students grab hold of the idea and begin their own “Dead Poet’s Society.”
But the new life these boys find in their little club ends in terrible tragedy. One of the boys, Neil, has a father who forbids him to take part in extra-curricular activities to make sure his grades are good enough for medical school. But Neil’s greatest passion in life is acting. So when Neil forges his father’s signature on a permission letter to act in a school production of Shakespeare, his father catches him at the first performance and takes him home immediately afterwards. There his father informs him that he will be yanked from prep school, enrolled in a military school, and that he will go on to be a doctor! “But,” protests Neil, “you never listen to what I feel.” “O.K., Neil,” says his father, “tell us what you feel.” After a long pause, Neil lets his chance to stand up to his father pass by. He simply replies, “Nothing.” And then later, in the middle of the night, Neil sneaks down to his father’s office, gets a gun out of the drawer, and makes it so that he does feel . . . nothing. . . .
Now, the school couldn’t take the blame for such an unfortunate event. They needed a scapegoat. John Keating was his name. One-by-one the boys of the “Dead Poet’s Society” were marched into the headmaster’s office with their parents, and one-by-one they each signed a paper laying the blame at their beloved Mr. Keating’s feet. With Mr. Keating gone, the tragedy could be forgotten in time. The movie ends with the boys raising a protest in class. But their time to stand up when it really counted had already past.
For me, that was the double tragedy of this movie. The boys had found a new sense of freedom and power in their little community of the Dead Poet’s Society, but they had not found the strength that comes in true community to stand up to the evil in their lives when it really counted. Neil missed his chance to stand up to his father. Each of the other boys missed their chance to stand up for Mr. Keating. In the end, their Dead Poet’s Society swiftly fell apart.
The point of Ascension Day is that we know where the power to stand up to evil really comes from. The church’s proclamation about Jesus, even though he was a great teacher, was that he started something much more than a Dead Poet’s Society. He started a Risen Lord Society! And we are the members of that community which stands by the name of the One who conquers evil. The forces of evil in this world did their best when they nailed God’s son to a tree. But the Risen Lord Society gathers to this day to remember that their best wasn’t good enough. We worship the One who has ascended to sit aside the power of creation itself.
Does that mean we will never suffer again? Does that mean that we can stand up to the evil in our lives and always win the day? If Neil had stood up to his father, there’s a good chance that he still would have gone to military school. If the other boys had stood up to the headmaster, there’s a good chance that Mr. Keating would still have been made the scapegoat. But the point is that they didn’t stand up to the evil. Their Dead Poet’s Society lacked the power they needed to stand together. Our Risen Lord’s Society may not always protect us from the power of evil in this world, but it is the power to help us stand up when it counts. We have the strength together because we are witnesses to the power which truly counts, God’s power to create life out of death, God’s power to create a saint out of a sinner. It is the power which won the victory over sin at the cross; it is the power which is winning the victory over sin in our lives; and it is the power that will someday win the final victory over the sin of this world. We have the hope and assurance that our suffering, in standing up to evil, is not in vain, because God’s power is the one that finally counts. So stand up you saints of God! Stand up you Risen Lord’s Society! Celebrate the One who willingly became victim to evil and was lifted up above it. Eat his victory feast and be strengthened for standing up to evil when it counts in your own life. Stand up! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 15, 1999