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Faith and Love: a sermon for Ascension Sunday

May 21st, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Faith and love
Acts 1:1-11, Eph 1:15-23, Lk 24:44-53
Isaac S. Villegas
May 20, 2012

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, “and your love toward all the saints” (Eph 1:15). Your faith and your love — those are the two things I want to highlight today. Faith and love — what are they and how do they draw us into a way of life called the church, which is the body of Christ, as Paul says at the end of what we heard from Ephesians. Faith and love as drawing into the life of Jesus, revealed in the church. First, let’s talk about faith.

The ascension of Jesus has everything to do with our faith, because, for us, it’s not easy to believe, it’s not easy to believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The resurrection is not obvious to us, since Jesus is not here to tell us about it, to show us his scars from the crucifixion and to walk through locked doors. He is not here because he has ascended. The ascension means that the resurrected body of Jesus isn’t here like he used to be for the first disciples, as Jesus spent time with them during those weeks after the resurrection. The disciples didn’t need to have faith, since they had Jesus. But, for us, on this side of the ascension, we need faith: faith to believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. We don’t get to have Jesus come over to our house for dinner, so we can eat and talk and maybe go on a walk. Instead, at the ascension, Jesus withdraws from us: “While he was blessing them,” we heard from Luke’s Gospel, “Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:51). And in Acts, which describes the same event, it says: “As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

While Jesus, in a very real sense, withdraws from his followers, he is present in another sense. The ascension is the way Jesus becomes more present than before, present through our lives, present through us and in us. Ascension makes it possible for Jesus to give us his body through the church. The end of the passage from Ephesians makes this clear: It says, “God has made Jesus the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). The church is his body, the body of Jesus.

It’s strange, at least for me, to think about the fullness of Jesus filling the group of people who get together for lunch every Wednesday along 15/501. A bunch of us helped provide the lunch this past week. There we were, eating and talking, very different people, some who drove up in cars, and others who walked out from the woods or from the intersections where they were begging. Before our time of fellowship was over, we gathered in a circle, held hands, and prayed.

Was I supposed to believe that the hand in my hand was the body of Jesus, the fullness of him who fills all in all, even our little group? I guess it takes faith to believe such mysteries.

This same group of people used to meet for worship on Monday mornings, in a clearing in the woods at the end of the service road, with the Interstate 40 onramp in the background. One time I got there just as the service was about to get started and Carolyn, one of the organizers, asked if I would serve Communion. When the time came, I read the words of institution from 1 Corinthians, picked up the bread, broke it in half, and walked around the circle, handing out pieces. As I came to one man, I noticed tears beginning to stream down his face. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” I said as I handed him some bread. He smelled of sweat and stale alcohol. He took the bread from my hands, dipped it in the cup, and ate — and as he ate, he wept. I saw faith in his eyes, in the tears of gratitude streaming down his cheeks. “The church is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Ascension means that Jesus withdraws so he can give us his body through each other, with our hands, with our love, our tears, perhaps. Christ comes among us as a presence of power helping us to stand up for God’s justice; and Christ comes among us as the wounded one, vulnerable, at our mercy, bearing the marks of crucifixion, bearing witness to the pain among us; for “Christ fills all in all.”

Ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus escapes from the world; instead, ascension means that Jesus becomes all the more present to us through the Holy Spirit, alive in the here and now, in solidarity with us. I think this is what the apostle Paul, in Colossians, is getting at when he ties together his experience with the sufferings of Jesus: he says, “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Paul’s suffering adds something to the wounds of Jesus. Likewise, we fill out the body of Jesus, and our pain is his pain, our joy his joy, our life his life. After all, from before his birth, Jesus was called Immanuel, God with us.

“I have heard of your faith,” Paul says in Ephesians. So, what is faith? Faith is whatever it is that moves you to assemble as church, whatever it is that keeps you coming back to join in the body of Christ, to link your lives together, to commune with Jesus, to welcome him with your hands, with your prayers, with our love. Faith is whatever I saw in that man’s eyes, through the tears, as he took the bread and ate it, and worshiped. To come to worship is an act of faith, as we hope and pray that God will meet us here, even if God feels absent to us, as if God has withdrawn from whatever it is that we’re dealing with these days, even if we’re confused about why we’re here anyway, being church together instead of reading a good book or taking a nap.

To be church together is an act of faith that invites us to experience the world as filled with Jesus, with Christ who fills all and is in all — God, in whom we live, move, and have our being. Worship is an invitation into faith as a way of life; church is an invitation to let our faith open up a new world in this world; not as an escape, but as a way to experience the life of God at the heart of all things, the sustaining presence of God’s love. And as we come to live in this world by faith, this world where God is present in joys and tears, we will find God, in the love that draws us together, that holds us, that comforts us — and by faith we will recognize in the love of our neighbor, the love of God. Faith is the way we can experience human love, in all of its ordinariness, as the love of God, in all of its mysterious depths. Faith is an invitation into a way of life that moves with God’s love for the world, the love that saved us, that brought us into the body of Christ, and that draws us into communion with neighbors and strangers — a communion, sometimes, in bread and tears.

Ascension is not an escape; it is not an invitation to follow Jesus into the clouds. Instead, ascension makes it possible for Jesus to give us his body again and again, here on earth, in this world, not in another, among the people God has assembled all around you.

At the end of the ascension story in Acts two men appear in white robes, and they ask the disciples a question, a question that is the invitation of faith, an invitation for us: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). As a way to respond to such a question, let us stand and greet one another with the peace of Christ.

Tags: sermons