Today’s readings are assigned for Ascension. The Ascension of Jesus into heaven forty days following Easter was celebrated this past Thursday. Ascension was once a rather large festival in the church. These days we do not make that much out of Ascension and probably do not spend that much time thinking about heaven either.
But the first reading and the third reading are two stories of the Ascension. The two readings are written by the same person. The reading from Luke is the end of the story of Jesus known as the Gospel of Luke. It is volume one of a two volume series on early Christians. The first reading today from Acts is the beginning of that second volume in the series. The end of the first volume is the beginning of the second.
This year when I focused on these Ascension readings, I noticed how they reveal the tensions of the Christian faith. Notice in the passage from Luke, as the ministry of Jesus comes to an end; the disciples wonder when the earth and its peoples will be transformed by the gospel: when things on earth will be different and evil is overcome. They are focused on changing this world. When will this world be transformed?
But then notice how their attention is drawn away from their worldly perspective into a heavenly perspective. They become focused on Jesus ascending into heaven. And their attention is turned to heaven.
But then notice how the angels shift their attention back to things on earth. Why do you stand here, gazing up to heaven? It’s time to get back to Jerusalem. What should be our focus? Earth and its condition or heaven yet to come? That tension is here in this story.
And this tension is still with us. Sometimes the tension becomes a difficulty between denominations or in church groups. But the tension really lives within each one of us. We want our faith to be engaged in this world. We want to make a difference here and now. And yet we also sense that there is more to the faith than this world. We sense that it all does not end in death. And yet we don’t want to get so caught up in the afterlife that we forget this life. Part of being a disciple in this two volume series is living with this tension between focus on earth and focus on heaven. Sometimes disciples stand for justice, work for peace, and spend their time and energy focused on caring for those in need. Other times we all gather in the heavenly light of God and sense that we are not in the end bound to this world but will be moved by God’s love beyond it. And a thoughtful faith engages all of that tension.
There is a second tension embedded in these Ascension readings. It is the tension between mission and maintenance. In these two books of church history, the church is deeply committed to mission: sharing good news about God’s love for all, helping those in need, healing, offering common meals, and sharing goods with those who have nothing. In these books of the Bible, there is nothing more important than this mission. Volume Two is called the book of Acts or we might say, the Book of Action.
And yet it appears that the disciples also spend a lot of time in prayer, worship, in fellowship, in mutual support, and bearing one another’s burdens. They sing, and they pray. And they wait for the spirit of God. All of that is the nurturing maintenance side of the faith, the undergirding of the mission with prayer and song and fellowship and waiting on God.
And once again this is a tension that we cannot avoid. We do need to get out there and get the job done. People depend on that and we make a substantial difference in this community. At the same time, we need to worship, pray, sing, support, and love each other in our time together so that we are equipped for the effort.
And just as people or churches can become too focused on changing the world or too focused on heavenly bliss, so also some churches can become so focused on maintenance that they never get to the mission their supposed to be maintaining. While others get so deep into getting things done, that they forget to pray.
And there is a third tension in this story. For the end of one book is the beginning of another. This morning an ending becomes a beginning. We see the tension built into, not only this book, but in all nature: as what ends, brings the beginning of something else. In nature what dies gives rise to new growth. And the closing of the book on the life of Jesus is the opening episode of the lives of the apostles.
I wonder, especially in the spring with things like graduations, and the fall with its sense of harvest, about the endings and beginnings in our lives. What is ending for you? And how is that ending leading to a new beginning?
Today, many think the institutional church is ending or in decline. It may well be. But that sense of ending is a beginning of a new and different church founded not so much on the supporting momentum of a culture that was religious, as it is on the enthusiasm of new generations for sharing and helping with a compassionate heart. In such transitions of endings into beginnings there is always a lot of tension.
So today, as we look at an ending that’s a beginning, the need for both maintenance and mission, and the tensions between the worldly view and the heavenly view, I think we are called to look at our own lives, consider the tensions we feel, and what those tensions mean.
Often in family life there is a tension as two things pull us in opposite directions. In your family, what are those tensions you feel and how do they shape your life? Often in our life at work or school there is a tension as things pull us in opposite directions. What are those tensions you feel at work and how to they shape your life? Often with friends there is a tension as things pull us in opposite directions. What are those tensions you feel in your friendships and how do they shape your lives?
These tensions often involve themes of independence and loyalty, freedom and responsibility, old and new, self care and caring for others, being nice and being direct, focusing on the long term or short term, and whether one is practical or emotional. All of these tensions can be destructive unless we begin to see that these things are working together, sometimes with struggle, to help us find the way or path we need to take. The true, the good, the right are not found by just heading off in one direction. They are found most frequently as we shape the balance we need in order to accomplish the greater good on earth as it is in heaven.
And perhaps it helps when we face these and other tensions to reflect on the two volumes of the Bible we have today. For ending actually becomes beginning, the maintenance of faith leads to our shared mission, and the heavenly is accomplished on earth in, with, and under the love we share.
At first tensions seem like the collision of opposites, two lines headed in completely different directions. But in these stories, tensions are actually two different sides of an arc, reflecting on each other, revealing a unity that undergirds all tension. What appear to be opposites are really people moving along the arc of a circle around a common center as all things eventually come together. And whenever we sense ourselves being pulled apart, being pulled in too many different directions, then (to use circular language) it is time to discover again the compassion which we say is the center of all things.