The Ten Days After Jesus Left – May 29

A sermon based on Acts 1:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 29, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Last week I mentioned I would be adding humor back into the sermons. I kinda regret it. Do you know how hard to is to find Ascension of Christ jokes? Here’s all I’ve got. A Sunday School teacher read a picture book version of today’s Lectionary lesson to her class and asked if any of them had heard about the Ascension before. Tommy raised his hand and said “I’ve heard it during blue light specials.” Confused the teacher asked “What do you mean Tommy?” “The man on the microphone at K-mart always says ‘Ascension, Ascension K-Mart Shoppers, there’s a blue light special.’” Yeah, I didn’t think that’d get arise out of anyone. But I thought I’d lift it up anyway.

Thursday was the official day on the church calendar marking the Ascension of Christ. Every year it arrives forty days after Easter on a Thursday. Throughout church history it’s mostly been known as the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, but it is sometimes called Holy Thursday. A number of churches hold off until the Sunday that follows Holy Thursday to lift the event up, like we are today.

Jesus’ physical body is said to have gone up on that first Holy Thursday and has been on the right-hand side of God in heaven ever since. For a poor, itinerant, executed criminal of the state that’s quite an accomplishment. And boy was it a scandalous claim to make in the First Century Roman Empire, especially since in Jesus’ day and age ascension stories were reserved for noteworthy people considered deified, like an emperor– or those approved by God, like a prophet. It was not a story to tell about poor executed criminals. For Christians Jesus, of course, is both deified and divinely approved and noteworthy– so the story works out well for us, but it was counterculture at the time. Just as Caesar’s titles “Lord,” “Prince of Peace” and “Savior” were given to Jesus by His followers, the ascension genre story used to glorify the elite in the culture was also co-opted by them.

And the version Christians told was (and still is) a very compelling story. After Jesus’ life on the edge touting how all humans matter to God and how all of them ought to matter to his followers, His life ended with extreme suffering through a torturous humiliating death as a criminal. Jesus was thrown away by Rome for promoting love. But God had other plans. Jesus was not just rescued and raised from that discard to live again, but was also raised to heaven to be by God’s side. In forty days, Jesus moved from degradation and death under Rome’s thumb to resurrection on earth and then exaltation into heaven by God’s own hand. Being lifted up like that was the ultimate in glorification back then, and remains so.

The Ascension marks the transition of Jesus physically leading his Jesus Following, to spiritually leading it. Next week Pentecost marks the start of His spiritual leadership, when the Spirit he sent ignited a fire in Jesus Followers that has been burning ever since. There are, though, ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost that mark the Jesus Following’s own transition. After Jesus moved from earth to heaven, His followers had to figure out how to move heaven to earth. During those ten days we are told the men and women in the Jesus Following met and prayed and prepared.

Their efforts bore fruit. On Pentecost they were blessed with the Spirit Jesus sent to lead the church onward. To get there they needed to be prepared for continuing on His Way without the physical singular person Jesus they knew before Easter, or even the resurrected singular person Jesus they knew immediately after Easter. The Followers of Jesus needed time to figure out that He could be experienced as more than just exalted beside God, but exalted in their very own beingness, inside in their hearts and community– and outside in their hands and feet and voices. That transition was critical to the survival of Jesus’ Way and the Jesus Following.

Christianity could not have gone forward without the realization and acceptance that – post-Ascension– those following Jesus were tasked together and alone with being human re-incarnations of Jesus though their words and deeds. They needed to figure out Jesus can and will live on in his followers. The buy-in to Jesus’ Way is striving to make that so. The transition to that way of being for his followers made all the difference. Instead of Jesus being a one man show, following him and his Way, since the Ascension it has become a billions of men and women show following Him and His ways. And the efforts to be Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in action by those billions of men and women have made a great difference in the world– and despite what we might hear– a good and Holy difference.

And it is sad that nowadays in the West the word “Christianity” beyond the walls of churches often brings to mind images of not so good and holy differences. People have used the name of Christianity to create and support cultural unwellness and oppression and its pinned on Christianity as a whole. It’s fair to criticize Christians and churches that don’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and it’s fair to hold them accountable for misbehavior that treats humans as if they do not matter. Its’ NOT fair to let instances of misbehaving Christians overwhelm notions about the faith, as if that’s mostly what Christians do and what Christianity is about. What many critics fail to realize is the irony that the standards they use to criticize misbehaving Christians are Christian standards.

Those standards have always been the heart of Jesus’ Way. But they have not always been cultural standards in the West. It’s Christian influence over time that’s given Western culture the sense of the value for all human life and individual well-being. Humans matter in Christianity. They matter secularly now too. The heart of Christianity has become pervasive in Western culture. It is now common sense that misconduct occurs when humans are treated as if they do not matter. That was not the Western cultural ethos when Jesus was born.

The sanctity of life was not applicable in the Roman Empire beyond the ruling elite and those in its supporting institutions. Human beings not in that elite circle were thought to be, and treated as, expendable, even disposable for entertainment and expediency. They did not matter much. See, the sense of respect for all human life was not a thing in the West two thousand years ago. Women, children and slaves were literally considered property, not fully equal people. They had nowhere near the value of the elite at the time– to God they matter much, but not to the Roman Empire.

That was the hard cruel reality of the world Rome ruled, the world that Jesus was born into. Jewish ethics and morality that valued creation and all human life and taught love neighbors and to not kill and to provide a just world existed for sure, but was limited in practice and belief to a very small portion of the population in the Roman Empire. None of that was Western Europe’s general way of thinking and being and behaving. It was, of course, very much Jesus’ Way and he emphasized and lived out those Jewish teachings in his words and in his deeds. He created an egalitarian sect of Judaism by acting and teaching in a Way that emphasized inclusivity and loving God and others and seeking justice and loving kindness and believing everyone mattered much. Jews, Gentiles, Slave, Free, Men, Women, Rich, Poor, Sick, Imprisoned, Strangers and the Least in the culture all mattered–equally. Creation mattered too, sparrows and lilies of the field were tended to by God. In short, that “all world mattered and was to be treated as mattering” was front and center for Jesus and on Jesus’ Way.

Eventually Jesus’ Followers understood that after His ascension they needed to continue to make it front and center and to continue to act and teach like Jesus did. The story handed down to us is that it took ten days so that by Pentecost the Jesus Followers were on fire for Jesus’ now Spirit led Way. And the Way spread. One thing the Jesus Following did differently than other forms of Judaism was allow Gentiles to easily join. Initiation Rites of circumcision, cleanliness and food limitations were made optional and replaced with baptism and communion. This allowed Gentiles to more easily join a religion that honored all them regardless of their status treating everyone as equal and mattering in a culture that took the opposite approach. This was very attractive to those the culture did not honor. The Jesus Following grew in relatively short order. Consequently, the notion that non-elites were loved took off in Western Europe and influenced Western culture more and more. So much so that a good and Holy difference Jesus’ Way made was its influence on the value of human life and individual well-being.

It’s taken far longer than we’d like, and there have been many setbacks, and we have a long ways to go, but as a rule all human life and well-being is valued much, much more now in the West than it was in Jesus’ Day. While some (far too many) still treat other’s lives as not mattering, as even expendable; the culture ethos, the pervasive higher standard we are held to, does not. That standard is deeply rooted in Jesus’ Way and was carried forward and spread about by his followers and eventually incorporated into Western culture. That standard is what critics of misbehaving Christians turn to and lift up. It is what both secular and religious critics of misbehaving nations, armies, political leaders and citizens now turn to and lift up.

It’s even a part of our visceral heartbreaking frustration with the continued horrors of shooting massacres in the news this past week. The nation as a whole wants them to stop, we value the lives of those lost in malls and schools and elsewhere. We want our leaders to do what needs to be done. That they won’t do it is not a failing of the people or Judeo-Christian standards. It is a failing of our leaders to enforce the Judeo-Christian standards long ago made secular– standards to value lives and well-being over monied interests; standards to value lives and well-being over the costs of fixing the problem. We are upset at the events because lives and well-being are not mattering over whether this person or that will lose an election. Our nation’s leaders are sacrificing children and neighbors to the ways of the gods of power and money, rather than sacrificing power and money to the way of the God of love. God’s way is that lives matter far more than power and money. Elite politicians have long had issues with this. Our nation’s history is littered with lives they sacrifice and instances where they have not measured up to the basic standards of valuing humans lives and well-being. We the people have a history of breaking through the hurdles and horrors they put us through and eventually holding them to that standard. Again, it takes far too long, but there is hope that the standard will and does win out– as long as we keep holding them to it.

The Judeo-Christian standard that humans lives and well-being matter, is more than the rule we measure behavior by. It put Christians in action and led to Christians creating caring places like hospitals, orphanages and other organized help for the poor and sick on a scale not seen in the West before Jesus. Over time they also led to universities and writings for the study of science, medicine, philosophy and laws aimed at well-being. Which in turn eventually led to the secular culture providing such places of care and study and laws on a magnitude unthinkable before Christianity influenced the culture to do it. Christianity’s positive influence on the value of humans saturates the West now. Human rights, as we know them, are deeply rooted in Christianity– whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And yes sadly and very tragically there have been Christians, past and present, who propound inhumane, unjust and unloving ideas. There have been atrocities committed in the name of Jesus and by those claiming divine backing for ungodly ideas, including wars, slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. But every single one of those atrocities have been judged wrong – and challenged as such– in the West by long ago adopted and widespread Judeo-Christian standards. It is no accident that Judeo-Christian communities and clergy have led or helped lead challenges in every civil rights movement in this nation’s history. And it’s no accident that every one of them has made great strides, because this nation cannot escape its founding on Judeo-Christian Standards which by 1776 had become so ingrained in the West they were not just deeply religious ideas, but also deeply secular notions.

The self-evident truths held by our forebearers that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights are inescapably rooted in the Bible and Jesus’ Paul’s and the early Church’s teachings. And scholars and politicians and voters and agnostics and atheists and the Western culture as a whole have been influenced by them for the betterment of all. The catalyst was Jesus teaching his Way to his followers; and then his followers figuring out after his Ascension how to continue with Jesus’ Spirit infused in all they do. The result of their effort was Pentecost, the day the Spirit ignited Jesus followers on fire with Love. Today marks the day that Jesus left it to His followers to start that effort and figure it out before Pentecost. AMEN.

Happy Ascension of Christ Sunday!