Easter 7A Sermon (2011)

7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:1-11;
Acts 1:8-14


I’d like to spend a few minutes this morning getting our prepositions straight. We’ve made a big deal in recent years that our salvation is not in the last analysis about going away somewhere else. It is about God’s power of life coming to this Creation, coming to us, in a way that renews everything and everyone. We aren’t going away to heaven, but heaven is someday coming to us. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s Kingdom to come to us — on earth as in heaven.

We’ve also reversed the usual up metaphor for heaven. It’s not about going up to heaven someday. It’s about heaven coming down to us, most especially in Jesus Christ coming down from heaven and being made flesh and dwelling among us. During this Epiphany season, we said, “Down is the new up.”

So what’s with all this Ascension stuff about going up? In Luke’s account of the Ascension, Jesus is definitely taken up into the clouds. Well, first we need to notice all the talk about going away and coming back. No sooner than Jesus disappears, angels are there to tell the disciples that he’s coming back the same way. And even more important is Jesus’ own promise before he leaves that the Spirit is coming. In Luke’s timetable, Ascension Day comes forty days after Easter, and then Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, comes fifty days after Easter. Mark and Matthew don’t give us a timetable for these events.

And John, as usual, is quite different. Ascension and Pentecost basically all happen on Easter itself. Think back seven weeks to Pastor Dave’s Easter sermon. He highlighted the part where Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him. Do you remember why? “Because I am ascending to the Father,” he tells Mary. Ascending. It’s an up metaphor, but in John’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t literally go up. He’s ascending to the Father as he remains standing in front of Mary. He does appear and disappear from locked rooms, though. That was the second week of Easter. We heard John’s story of Jesus appearing to his disciples on Easter evening. And what does he do? He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Pentecost. Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost all in one day. Why? We saw that last week in John’s story of Jesus’ Farewell Address to the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus tells them he’s going away. But that’s OK because he’s going away so that he can send the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel, we don’t have the prepositions of up and down. We have the prepositions of away and back. Jesus goes away to be present with the Father so that he can come back to be present with us in a different way, through the Spirit. Jesus no longer will be physically present with us, though he does promise to come back that way, too, someday. But in the meantime, he does come to be spiritually present with us. He goes away in one form and comes back in another.

Luke tells the same stories differently. He has a different timetable. But he also uses the prepositions of up and down. Jesus is lifted up into heaven forty days after Easter; then the Holy Spirit comes down fifty days after Easter. Either way, the importance is that God promises to be present with us in a special way, through the Holy Spirit, because Jesus has gone to be back with God the Father until that day of great consummation when God’s power of life fills the entire Creation with newness and life. In the meantime, you and I are filled with that power of life so that we can partake in the healing and ongoing creation of everything and everyone, the healing and ongoing creation that began with Jesus. The Spirit comes to us so that we may truly be the Body of Christ in this world.

I think Rob Bell‘s prepositions might be better, overall. Instead of “Down is the new up,” as we had this winter, his book Love Wins titles the chapter on heaven as, “Here is the new there.” They are metaphors of presence rather than absence. Jesus is present with us through the Spirit, even if he appears absent.

But before we conclude, let’s consider Luke’s up and down metaphors for a moment, even if they might confuse us a bit. I think the significance of Jesus going up has to do with the way we talk about going to a better position in life. Our child go up a grade in school this time of year, right? And we prefer to move up the ladder at work, rather than down, right? I think that’s what the metaphor of ascension is about. Jesus takes a position of authority with God the Father. We may have people in authority over us in this life — teachers, bosses, judges and presidents. But the true Lord in our lives is Jesus. He takes number one authority in our lives, even over the President of the United States, the most powerful person in today’s world. Jesus Christ is the one we most want to follow, even if that means coming into conflict with worldly authorities. Our boss can ask us to do something unethical or unloving, but we are followers of Jesus.

But it is a completely different kind of authority and power, based on loving service and self-giving. And so we end by looking forward to Eucharist, especially the breaking of the bread, as a parable for how to follow Jesus in moving ‘up’:

  1. Take your whole life in your hands, as I am about to do tonight and tomorrow.
  2. Thank God (Greek: euchariste), who is the origin of your own goodness. Make a choice for gratitude, abundance and appreciation beyond the self, which always de-centers the self. Your life is pure gift, and it must be based in an attitude of gratitude.
  3. Break it, let it be broken, give it away and don’t protect it. The sharing of the small self will be the discovery of the True Self in God. “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24). The broken grain becomes the broken bread.
  4. Now chew on that, drink that! “Take this,” “eat and drink together until I return,” and you will have the heart of the message, a “new covenant” based on love and divine union. Your drinking and eating is your agreement to “do what I can to make up in my own body all that still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body the church” (Colossians 1:24). (1)

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 5, 2011

1. Based on words of Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007), p. 216.

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