Category Archives: Ascension

“The Way” – Sermon on John 14:1-14

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“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. – John 14:1-14

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” John: 14:6.

To be quite honest, whenever I hear this verse, I cringe a little. Maybe it’s because of the many billboards or bumper stickers I’ve seen it broadcasted on. Or the number of times I’ve heard street preachers yell it at complete strangers. Or maybe it’s because of the ways in which it had been misquoted and used by friends and leaders in the campus ministry I was involved in in college.

You see, this “I AM” declaration by Jesus in our passage from John today has often been used to exclude: determining who’s in and who’s out of the Christian club. Christians often use this verse to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our own standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited – and what I believe to be often quite harmful – understanding, I think we miss out on a much deeper meaning of this “I AM” statement.

And so, in order to better understand what Jesus meant by this statement, we need to look at what is actually going on when he says it.

And when we do, we might find it a bit odd to be looking at this text in John several weeks after celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Because we are now going back to the event on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus is gathered around the table with his closest friends, sharing in his last supper with them before he begins his journey toward the cross. (However, I do think it may become a little more clear in a bit about why we are reading this text as we are getting close to Ascension Day.)

Now, throughout this final meal with his disciples, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon, not only in his impending death on the cross, but also in his ascension into heaven, which means he will no longer be physically present with them.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks Jesus right before our text for this morning. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus answers him. “But there will come a time when you will follow me.” Worried about what this would mean for Jesus to leave him (after he’s been with Jesus day in and day out for three years), Peter pushes him: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

But Jesus urges Peter and the rest of the disciples to be patient and to hold onto hope, assuring them: “While there soon will come a time that will feel hopeless, do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Although we may be separated for a little while, we will one day be reunited. I am going to my Father’s house, where there are many rooms. And I am preparing a room there for each of you so that one day where I will be, there you will be also. For you know the way to the place I am going.”

But the disciples still don’t quite understand. And – possibly out of their grief and concerns about Jesus leaving – they try to convince him to stay.

“But Lord,” Thomas exclaims, “we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way to get there if you are not with us?”

I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus replies. “You have already seen the Father. If you know me, then you will know the Father, also.”

But – still confused – Philip chimes in: “Show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied.”

By this point it makes sense that Jesus might be a little frustrated with his friends. “After following me day in and day out for the last three years, you still don’t know who I am?” he asks. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Believe me, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

—–

I’ll never forget what one of my friends who was involved in my college campus ministry said to one of our agnostic friends one day. The friend involved in the ministry said: “You don’t want to burn in hell for all eternity after you die, do you? Because the way to heaven – where you will not burn in hell – is easy. You just need to believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior and ask him into your heart.” Then she opened her bible up to John 14 and quoted Jesus’ “I am the way…” statement.

I was a little taken aback by what seemed to be pretty harsh words by my college friend, who took pride in being a Christian.  And I was also a bit concerned about how my agnostic friend was feeling at that moment.

But what really caught my attention was what our agnostic friend said in response to this. “Really?” She asked. “It’s that easy to not burn in hell? So all you have to do is believe that Jesus is your Savior and you can continue to openly be a jerk to everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe? But those who don’t believe that Jesus is God and yet they love others the way Jesus loved others are going to burn in hell forever? That doesn’t really sound like Jesus’ message at all.”

This conversation – along with many other similar ones I’d observed during my time in that campus ministry – opened my eyes to the fact that just about anyone can shout out that Jesus is their Savior until they’re blue in the face. But that still does not guarantee they get who Jesus is or understand what he’s all about.

And what really struck me in this particular conversation was that it was my agnostic friend who seemed to get who Jesus is more than my Christian friend.

You see, if we read Jesus’ entire farewell discourse to his disciples after his last meal with them before his impending death, we will recognize that the way to God Jesus is telling his friends to take is not as easy as my Christian friend explained it to be. It’s not having belief ABOUT who Jesus is, asking Jesus to come into our hearts, and then going on our merry way. Rather, it is about following Jesus’ way. A way that – as Jesus explains just before our passage for today – involves a commandment to love one another, just as he has loved us… Something that is not – in fact – very easy to do

And yes, Jesus tells his close friends to believe in God and to believe also in him. But he does not say that if they don’t, they will burn in hell for eternity.

Actually, his message to his close friends is quite the opposite. Even though the disciples are still a bit confused at times about who Jesus is, Jesus knows they have already put their faith and trust in him – at least, as much as they possibly could at this point in time. I mean, they gave up everything they had to follow him and stayed with and learned from him for three years, even when it wasn’t the most popular or safe thing to do. If that isn’t putting their faith and trust in him, I don’t really know what is!

“Believe me,” Jesus is urging them.  “I have prepared a room in my Father’s house for each one of you.  We will one day be reunited.”  This is a guarantee.

So now, when the disciples are worried about what their future will entail when Jesus leaves them – Jesus assures them that they are going to be okay without having Jesus physically by their sides. And so they should hold onto this hope, no matter what comes their way.

“Continue to have faith in me,” he urges them. “You have a loving God. You know this because you have already seen God. Because you have seen me. So when you wonder what kind of a God you have and where God is when you encounter times of great trials and suffering, look to me, and there you will find God.”

—–

I think this is a great reminder for us.

In a world that is full of violence, hate, and exclusion of all kinds, many of us may be wondering – like Thomas – where God went and what the path is that we need to take in order to find God. Or many of us may be calling out like Philip, “Show us God!” and demanding to see some proof in the world that God cares.

And so when we begin to wonder what kind of a God we have, we can look to Jesus. We can look to his teachings and look to his works. Look at the ways in which he proclaimed good news to the poor, released those who were captive, gave sight to those who couldn’t see, and liberated the oppressed. Look at the ways he fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. When we begin to wonder where God is, we can look into the faces of the last and the least and look for the people around us who are following Jesus’ way of life and sharing his love to a hurting world.

When we wonder what way to go in order to find Jesus, we can look for the people and the places in this world that need healing and Jesus’ good news the most. “This is where you will find and encounter me,” Jesus is saying. “This is the way to God.”

And Jesus doesn’t just end here. He continues with a commission for the disciples and for all of us to continue this work when he is physically gone from this earth. “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: “Now it is you who will be my hands and feet in the world.”

I think our ELCA moto says this well: “It is God’s work, our hands.”

And soon – on Ascension Day – we will be reminded that we are not alone in this work. The Holy Spirit is with us always, giving us strength, comfort, and guidance every step of the way.

Amen.

 

 

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Finding Meaning in the Ascension: More Lessons from My Wise 6th-12th Graders

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“He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.”

These are familiar words to many of us, as we may have recited or read these words from the Apostle’s Creed at one time or another.

However, we rarely ever talk about the Ascension. And while our church calendar extensively prepares us for Jesus’ birth, takes us through Jesus’ miracles and teachings, and emphasizes his final days on earth, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, we only get one short Thursday at the end of the Easter season to celebrate the Ascension. (And we seldom even celebrate it then.)

However, I think the Ascension is a crucial part of our Christian faith and way of life. And my 6th-12th grade youth have a lot to say about why this is.

Every year, my youth lead the Ascension Day service. Last year I wrote a post with some reflections on the Ascension that some of my youth preached about in their sermons during this service in the past few years.

As some of these wise youth said, the Ascension of Jesus must have been very difficult for the disciples, as they were just getting adjusted to Jesus coming back to live among them after he had been violently killed on the cross and then was resurrected from the dead. And now, not too long after his resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind again. And as several of my youth have shared, it can be quite difficult to understand why Jesus would have left the disciples (and all Christians throughout the centuries) to live out this Christian faith without him physically present on this earth. And yet, in the midst of this confusing story, my youth have found meaning in this event, as it calls us into a particular way of life. And I think we can all learn from their reflections and stories.

As Luz, a junior in high school will say in her sermon tonight:

“I know that when Jesus’s 12 disciples had to see him leave them when he ascended into heaven, it would have been extremely confusing and hard for them. I know that feeling because I know how it is to lose something great…

For many who don’t know me here today, I am a person who very much puts others first before myself. “Love thy neighbor” is something God very much teaches us in the Bible. Funny thing, it seems to me that every year, around this time of the season, something happens in my life and I begin to feel depressed and alone. Two weeks ago, I struggled to get out of bed. I was scared. I was scared of taking two steps back every time I took a step forward. I finally decided to get off my bed, go to school, and then work.

As I was getting off of work, I decided to take the bus back home. A homeless man got on. I could tell he hadn’t eaten much for days and I decided to give him a box of animal cookies. He smiled and laughed and said to me, ‘how did you know that animal cookies were my favorite?!’ I laughed and smiled too and said, ‘my heart just told me you did and I didn’t like them anyways.’ He said, ‘You really are kind and genuine. Like a light that shines. Thank you.’

Little did he know, my name is Luz, which – in Spanish – means “light.”

This has honestly given me a different perspective in life. This loving man made me realize so many things by just a few words. We all sit here and cry about break ups or something that won’t matter five years from now, but this man was homeless with nothing but a bucket and a jacket and he smiled like he was living a happy life. It comes to show that materialistic things can’t necessarily make you happy. You can be rich and still wonder what you’re doing with you’re life and then you can be poor and have nothing and be the happiest man on the planet. This affected me in a way that I would have never imagined, I want to be as happy as this man was and I think everyone deserves that…

What is the Ascension? My interpretation of it is this: Jesus died for our sins. He died and was resurrected because he loved us so much that he wanted us to live a better life than the one we were currently living in. And this is where the Ascension comes in. It marked the beginning of our freedom to choose to live as God calls us to live. It reminds us of how we should be treating our neighbor. Jesus was put on earth to teach us how to live our life not by materialistic objects but by peace, love, and faith.”

As Kylie, an 8th grader will share in her sermon:

“A story I want to share with you today occurred a very long time ago during the 1940’s in Poland. Janine Oberrotman who is now 89-years-old came to my school to tell us the story of how she, a Jew, survived the Holocaust. When she was fifteen, Janine was living in the ghettos with her mother and one day as they were walking, they found this gate that was unguarded and Jewish people from within the ghettos were escaping. They soon realized that this portal to safety was closing up so they rushed there and when it was just about to close her mother did something that Janine will never forget. She pushed her daughter on the other side. Janine remembered how she cried and cried out of sadness and fear. She was now alone and there were no familiar faces to be seen…

In 1953 Janine immigrated to America and settled down with her husband. She has kids and grandchildren and she continues to share her story to this day at the Holocaust Museum and at other schools.  The lesson of Janine’s story is very strong to me and it ties into the passages that we have just read from the Bible and also into my life.

In the gospel readings, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples with only the memory of himself and his teachings. However, Jesus comforted the Disciples and reassured them that they would be okay. Jesus told them that they had his words and that everything about him would be fulfilled. He gave them a blessing, and then ascended into heaven. While Janine’s sudden parting from her mother during the Holocaust was traumatic, she was given the opportunity to survive and to tell others her story. The Disciples were also able to tell the story of the promises of Jesus.

Although Janine’s story and the disciple’s story are very different, there are threads that they have in common. It might have been scary at first but they found courage to carry on. As for me, I am going to be confirmed this year at my church. This ceremony represents the time when I get to take the lessons I have learned in my confirmation class and use them independently. I will be confirming my faith in the teachings of the Church and in promises that Jesus shared with the Disciples. Janine Oberrotman, the disciples, and I all had to get prepared for our next phase in life. I am thankful I got the opportunity to learn about Jesus and his stories because this gave me the opportunity to incorporate the lessons into the decisions I make throughout my life.”

And as Katie, an 8th grader, will preach tonight:

“Tonight we celebrate the ascension of Jesus. The night that Jesus died, rose, and came back to his disciples for 40 days before essentially abandoning them and returning to heaven. The disciples are told that they will be baptized by the power of the Holy Spirit instead of with water. Easy enough. Right? Listening to the story like that makes it sound like the equivalent of being energized by a caffeinated soda for your entire life and suddenly, one day, you’re told you can only drink coffee for the rest of your life because it follows the norm.

You have to think to yourself, though, that Jesus did this for a reason. He didn’t suffer and hang on a cross for no reason. You don’t go to school for no reason. Even though it might not seem like there’s a legitimate reason for both occurring, you have to look into Jesus’s words and maybe into the future. Sure, you can not go to school. But your future might be affected. In the same way, Jesus could have not hung on the cross. But we wouldn’t have been forgiven. We wouldn’t know how strong God’s love is. That minute that Jesus left this earth after being ascended into heaven, humanity was baptized with God’s love for all of eternity. We only felt that because of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Why I’m not still confused by this story amazes me. I’m not as confused by God as I was before, but I am bewildered by his power. To understand why, my story really starts early last summer when my eating habits were a little off. I had lost five to ten pounds in a week and I didn’t understand why. I went to the doctor where they checked my blood and tested it over a fairly long period of time. It took a few months to get a fair result, but in those few months… I felt so alone! Why was this happening? Why was I so depressed? Why did I hurt inside when nobody had done or said anything wrong? Why did everything seem horrible when in reality, I had a normal life like everyone else? Why was I super cold when everyone was hot? Why did I feel so abandoned?  To be honest, I began to push God away because I didn’t think he was doing anything for me. If he didn’t do anything for me, then why should I put my trust in him?

…It’s time I introduce a new character. This character normally goes by Maggie. Before I knew her, she seemed to the world a normal but quiet individual who liked to play on her tablet and listen to music as loud as possible. She was (and still is) very friendly and loves hugs. I didn’t know her too well, so we didn’t talk much.  Some time in late November 2014, I had no idea what I was doing. I can’t remember if someone had said something to me or what, but I felt so alone… She became one of my best friends. We understand each other fully, are able to share anything without thinking twice, and love each other with everything we have…

I was sitting in my room one night, thinking back to my questions, and it suddenly hit me that they had been answered. When I had been alone, God came to me, but indirectly in the form of Maggie. I never felt alone around her. This new happiness came because of her, and from the cold I normally felt, I felt a comforting warmth because of her. I found God again that day. He had never left, but sent his love through Maggie to help me. I could have become an emotional trainwreck, could have destroyed everything in sight, could have lost my mind. But I didn’t. God (and, of course, Maggie) is to thank for that.

You have to think to yourself that God doesn’t always present himself as a luminous figure or a reincarnation of Jesus. He almost never appears directly. You have to think to yourself, have you ever felt alone and been comforted by someone who loves you? Have you ever thought of what you could have become without that person  Or if God was behind that person?

Maybe that was the purpose I had been looking for all along; to spread that love that is so desperately needed. Think about it. God is within all of us. It is our mission to express his love when it is needed. This is my message. Take it home, think about it, thank all those who have done good for you and thank God for being here. Go out and spread the love.”

And so I leave you on this Ascension day, with these powerful words from my very wise youth.

May you, too, find meaning in the Ascension and be blessed.