A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

Acts 1:1-11

Ascension Sunday

June 1, 2014

Psalms 68:1-10, 32-35; John 17:1-11; I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

I remember the first time I submitted my photograph to my credit card company for security purposes. I naturally used the nice portrait taken of me when I became the pastor in San Antonio. It was a wallet-sized version of the larger portrait that went up on “Pastor’s Row” in the Church Narthex where all my predecessors over the church’s history were mounted. Looking back, we were like big game trophies decorating the wall of the church’s memory.

At the time one would say it more or less resembled me and in those days, store clerks would look at my picture and occasionally say politely, “Nice photograph.”

But there came a point when they stopped saying that. Instead they would hold up my picture then sneak a look at me. Some studied the photo of me to see for sure if I was who I claimed to be. Later, after a second or third look at the photograph, one finally said, “What happened?”

That picture of me, was “a frozen moment of time,” now long ago discarded as I’m no longer the young photogenic guy like I was when I first went there. I comfort myself with this logic: “Being a pastor is lot like being the President … no matter how good the President looks when he enters the White House, he looks old and worn out when he leaves office.” Nowadays I look more like my drivers license photo than of the nice studio shot taken by a professional photographer.

Photographs are great reducers of reality. They flatten the 4 dimensions of reality (length, width, depth and time) by ignoring two of the four dimensions. Photographs capture the reflection of light off the subject and transform that 4-dimensional reality into a 2-dimensional visual image.

In that instance (in the blink of an eye) the captured icon can then only claim to resemble reality. As with all visual images, the significant metrics of reality can be manipulated by expanding or contorting or minimizing or enhancing the image. Every aspect of this so-called “reality” of the image can then be moved about and changed.

My parents once gave me a new copy of a family portrait we had taken a few years ago. However, the undesired former love interest of one of my nephews had been neatly erased. Or, as we say in the Herron clan, “Welcome to the family!”

A snapshot is a miracle of time because it captures a moment and freezes it. In that moment, the world stops spinning on its axis, the whole universe stands at attention, and even the sub-atomic particles stop their constant quivering.

These verses from the first chapter of Acts are a frozen moment in time. It’s a freeze-frame snapshot of a memorable event of the kingdom in the in-between state of what was to what will be. But no doubt the 40 days following the resurrection of Jesus were 40 days of unusual events.

  • First, there was the appearance of Jesus in the Garden to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women.
  • Peter, hearing the report of the women, immediately ran to the tomb so he could see these things with his own eyes and found the tomb both open and empty.
  • Two believers walking the trail from Jerusalem to Emmaus, recounted what had happened earlier in the day, when Jesus himself came and joined them.
  • Jesus met the disciples hidden from the public in a room not unlike the Upper Room where they shared a sweet moment before the Night of Passion. Thomas, called the Twin, was not present and did not believe his friends. He insisted on seeing and touching Jesus before he would believe them. Jesus, not punishing him for his need for proof, opened himself up to inspection.
  • Later Jesus found them fishing on the Sea of Galilee just like he had found them three years earlier … he then invited them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat where they caught more fish than they could haul in.
  • And finally … he was mysteriously taken back into heaven … leaving the disciples standing around and staring into the sky as they watched him float into the clouds.

What an ending! How do you describe this? I did a Google search for images of the “ascension of Jesus” and saw a mostly boring set of religious paintings and drawings. The oddest ones positioned Jesus as though he had just hit the diving board with his hands open wide. Another one had Jesus in cruciform shape but held under the arms by a huge angel that was flapping his giant wings – oh, by the way, Jesus was shirtless, wearing blue jeans and had the body of a weight lifter. Most of these paintings had Jesus outlined by heavenly aura. Oy vey!

If I was a cartoonist, I might draw only the dangling feet at the top of the cartoonist frame as Jesus rose into the clouds and the tops of the heads of his disciples all looking skyward. How would you draw this scene?

The point is that in that moment everything froze … it was as if time stopped while the disciples dealt with the sheer emptiness of Jesus’ departure! It was as if there was a gaping hole where Jesus had once been, so real, so filled with his energy and life.

In the turning of the page from the last page of each of the gospels to the first page of the story of the church told by Luke in Acts, we are confronted with a holy hush. There is a palpable sense of the absence of Jesus and the void of his luminous presence. We hold our breath in anticipation and feel the pounding pulse of our heart beating on as we wait. The disciples waited anxiously for the promise to come true. And then the first pages of Acts take off like a 4th of July rocket! There’s the lighting of the fuse and the slow silence for that one moment of pause until the world of the waiting disciples exploded with flash and lights and fury. Before we get to the account of Pentecost next Sunday, we pause this week along with the disciples and look deep into the moment to see what kind of church was about to be birthed.

I have two minister friends who are brother and sister to one another. Both of them have pastored small churches. Both were created as an act of love by the same mother and father. Both are the first pastors to fall out of the family tree. The eldest I’ve known for a long, long time. He and I were seminarians together and we’ve stayed in touch all these years. The younger, his sister, came along behind us and I never really knew her until she was first making her mark in ministry. They’re both very fine pastors and its fun to be around them as they compare themselves to one another (as in, “who can preach better than the other?”) and to observe them sharing a deep love for one another and respect for what they do.

But a few years ago, grief came to visit them when their dad died the week before this Ascension text came before them. Thus, their grief showed up in their preaching for this day when we recognize the freezing of a moment. In the week before they were both preparing to preach this Ascension text from Acts 1, Richard, the eldest, said to Tracy, the youngest:  “For the first time in my life, there’s someone on the other side I want to talk to. For the first time in my life, the idea of crossing over to the other side is strangely appealing.”[1]

Richard went on to write this in his sermon:  “… when you start reading this passage, it turns out that ascension is just about the last thing indicated for those of us who remain. Ascension is for those of us who have departed, and ultimately for us (who remain). But until we pass from this life, or until the Lord returns, there is still work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.”[2]

These words in Chapter One of Acts are a freeze frame for the moment, giving us a quick look at the circumstances of the church just before the Spirit of God invaded the world of human believers.

Our task is to be ready when the winds of the Spirit begin to blow. We are to be busy being faithful so that when the winds pick up and begin to blow, we can go with them. We are the carriers of the Spirit in our world and God wants us to be ready when the answers come.

[1] Tracy Dunn-Noland, “Jesus Will Come in the Same Way,” Fellowship of Believers, Hereford TX, 5/8/08

[2] Richard W. Dunn, “Time to Move On – Extraordinary Faith,” Cornerstone Baptist Church, Enid OK, 5/8/08

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