a sermon on Luke 24:44-53
I have a strange love affair with Pixar animated movies. It’s not really about the cartoons for me—it’s more about the wonderful way these folks can tell stories. One of my favorites, Wall-E, manages to begin the story and give us a pretty complete picture of the title character, a robotic trash compactor, without using a single word of dialogue in the first twenty minutes.
And then there’s Up, the story of an ornery and obstinate old man, a retired balloon salesman, facing the twilight of his life as everything changes around him. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so early in a movie in my life—after only ten minutes I was in tears as the brilliant storytellers at Pixar showed a photo album of the man’s life, as he finds and marries the love of his life, they grow in love and age together, and finally she dies before they can truly enjoy the adventurous life of travel that they dreamed of and saved up for throughout their life together. In that beautiful montage, we once again hear an incredible story without a single word being spoken, and its power and simplicity moved me to tears.
But the film’s title comes from the craziest conceit of the story. The city has built up around this old man’s house, but developers can’t convince him to sell until they trick him into being forcibly removed, supposedly for his own safety. Just as they come to take him away, a huge bundle of balloons pops out of the roof and lifts the house off its foundation into the sky, beginning a new journey for this man who had always sought but never found adventure before.
In a strange way, that’s much of what we find here in the story of the ascension—Jesus suddenly, surprisingly, unexpectedly rising up into heaven, floating away to begin a new adventure back where he had come from before coming to earth. But that’s where these stories diverge. While in the movie Up we rise up into the sky with the old man as his adventure begins, here in the story of the ascension we are the ones trapped on the ground, only looking up, wondering what is going on, staring at Jesus’ feet as he disappears into the clouds like the men depicted in the painting on our bulletin cover, challenged to sort out what to do now that Jesus has moved on and ascended into heaven.
Our reading from Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus had prepared the disciples for this moment. Before they went with him out to the mountain and watched him ascend, he had give them two instructions. First, they were to fully and completely learn what he had been about on earth, and then they were to wait in the city so that they could receive power from on high. Surprisingly, after he blessed them, “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven,” they for once actually did what he told them to do. They returned to Jerusalem to wait, and while they waited they praised God for all that they had seen and heard and experienced and believed.
So what are we to do here, stuck on the ground, watching Jesus and everything else go up? How are we to respond? What are we to do in our days of waiting? We could be like a lot of folks in the movie, the construction workers and others who were taken aback by everything they saw, calling out to the man as his house rose up, telling him that he must pop all his balloons and come back down now! Or we could be like some other people who when things start to change get scared and angry and threatened by the uncertainty and loneliness that come in transition and transformation. Or we could watch Jesus ascend into heaven and then just walk away, ignoring it, assuming that it doesn’t matter for us, or saying that because we don’t completely understand it we should just pretend like it never happened.
But I think there is a much better path for us. Back in the movie, there’s actually a stowaway in the house with the old man, an extremely annoying boy scout who had been trying to make the old man a friend and so was lurking on the front porch in hopes that the old man might finally change his mind. As they go up together, their adventures are unlike what either one of them expected—not only do they manage to get beyond their annoyances and frustrations with each other, they end up exploring the new land where the house comes to rest, making a few new friends, and defeating a troubled and disgraced explorer who tries to exploit the beautiful and exotic land for himself.
So I think their path is actually instructive for us. I believe that our best response to the ascension of Jesus is to figure out what the adventure of our faith will be for us in the days ahead. That’s very much what the disciples did. They didn’t just sit idly by and keep staring off into the sky when Jesus ascended. They didn’t give up and run away. They didn’t cower in fear. Instead, they prepared themselves for an incredible journey because they knew that Jesus himself had gone on a new adventure, and they wanted some little part of it.
And so I believe the Ascension calls us to a new way of adventurous life and living, for Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and the old boring way of life just can’t cut it anymore. The things we might try to do just aren’t enough to do this work justice. We can’t simply stand still with our chins in the air and our mouths wide open, gawking in amazement and confusion or waiting patiently and doing nothing until Jesus comes back. We can’t watch in frustration and walk away fearful of what is ahead. And we certainly can’t just confess this amazing thing as we do every Sunday and move on living exactly as we did before.
If in the ascension, we see that God’s reign is real, if we recognize that the power of the resurrection reaches beyond the tomb and out into the world, if we confess that in Jesus Christ God has already won all the battles we may choose to fight, if we acknowledge that in Christ all the things that we seek are already coming into being—if all this is true, then we must step out and act. In this adventurous ascension, we are called to claim something more for all people, to deepen our cries for justice, to broaden our prayers for peace, to sustain our work for new life, and to trust that God always goes before us to make a way for all these things to take hold in our lives and in our world.
In his ascension, Jesus calls us to join him on an adventurous journey, unafraid of where we might be led and maybe even a bit unsure of where we are going but always certain that somehow we are going to join him in going up to the place where he goes before us. So as we celebrate the ascension once again, may God strengthen us for wherever we may go as we follow on this adventurous journey before us until that day when we join Jesus in going up. Alleluia! Amen.