Ascension Sunday: Life on flat ground

"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. (Acts 1:8-11)

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. (Ephesians 1:17-19)

“Meet back at the picnic tables no later than 7:00.” Those were our instructions. We were a group of 60 middle school and high school students and chaperons who had traveled to Denver, Colorado for a week-long mission trip. It was Monday evening, after our first day of work in the city, and our trip hosts had driven us up small and swirling one-lane roads into the mountains, giving many of us nosebleeds and headaches along the drive. We stopped at a mountain-top park, with trails for hiking, lookouts for taking pictures, rocks to climb, and ledges from which to look out at the rest of the mountains that surrounded us. And did I mention that it was nearly sunset?

We scattered quickly, trying to take advantage of the mere half-hour of free time we had to explore. Rachel and Anthony, best friends since they were kids, climbed up onto a rock together and sat quietly, looking at the vast blue and white mountains that stretched across the horizon. Katie and Anna took charge and led a small group up a steep and winding trail toward the gift shop to buy ice cream. Dannette, Brad, and Chelsea found a scenic spot full of both trees and mountains to take pictures.

I promise that we all tried our best to keep track of time. I promise that we kept checking watches and cell phones. But it was so easy to get swallowed up in the beauty of the mountains and trees, looking down at the world from the top of rock ledges, and watching the sky start to turn colors as the sun slid behind the mountains, bathing them in pink and purple and red light. It took work to pull ourselves away from the lookouts and the rocks and the trails. And despite our best intentions, none of us managed to get back to the picnic tables on time.

There come moments in our lives of faith when we find ourselves on top of the mountain, feeling emotionally connected to God, feeling some otherworldly presence illuminating our hearts and minds. Camps and retreats often lead us to the top of the mountain. We bond with new friends over unrepeatable shared experiences and inside jokes. We worship together, we trust each other, and we get the feeling that we are in a special, closed, perfect moment where faith is so real that we could reach out and touch it with our hands.

Some of us have had worship experiences that have taken us to the top of the mountain, especially if we’ve had the opportunity to worship in extra-large groups in the midst of special occurrences, such as synod or Churchwide assemblies, weddings, ordinations, youth gatherings, or baccalaureates. We see firsthand that we are connected to the larger body of faith, and we are moved by the sound of hundreds and thousands of people singing, and we feed off of the energy of so many other people of faith who are just as anxious and excited to be there as we are.

Some of us feel moved to the mountain when we listen to music that feeds our faith and tugs at our emotions. Some of us feel moved to the mountain when we read books that inspire our faith and open our eyes to new visions of God. Some of us feel moved to the mountain when we are part of large-scale charitable efforts, or when we see impossible, miraculous things happen in our lives or in the lives of others.

The disciples, following Jesus, were transported from mountaintop to mountaintop, it seemed. They watched the skies open and heard the voice of God come down from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. They watched Jesus heal the unhealable, forgive the unforgivable, stand up fearlessly to the unjust and preoccupied religious leaders, raise Lazarus from the dead, feed crowds of people with one sack lunch. And, of course, they watched and grieved his death, only to stand, shocked and amazed, at the mouth of the empty tomb. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be one of those disciples, who saw firsthand all of these impossible and wonderful things.

And today, the disciples find themselves, once more, on top of a mountain. They have followed Jesus all the way through his death and resurrection, and are now standing with him on the mountain peak.

Jesus blesses them, telling them that he is sending his Spirit to them. He tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses to all the ends of the earth. He commissions them, giving them the task of spreading the good news of God’s grace to the world. And then, barely finished speaking to them, Jesus is lifted up. The disciples watch him rise and fade out of their sight.

Can you picture them? I can. They are standing on top of a mountain, perhaps at sunset, perhaps on a clear evening when they can see the whole beauty of the world around them. They are, once again, shocked and amazed, just like they were at the mouth of the tomb, but this time, because they have just seen Jesus pulled away into heaven right before their eyes. I can see them standing in awe and wonder, staring up at the sky, paralyzed by the mystery and beauty of their mountaintop experience.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if the story ended here? If the disciples were left on the mountain forever, to bask in the glory of God and to wait in the sunset until that time when Jesus would return to earth?

But that’s not how the story goes. Two men appear among the disciples, coming up behind them, breaking the silence. “Men of Galilee,” they ask, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This simple question nudges the disciples into remembering that Jesus had just commissioned them to carry on his mission in the world. This simple question nudges the disciples back down the mountain, onto the flat ground of a world that needs to hear the good news of Jesus, onto the flat ground of a world that needs to be helped and healed and served and loved.

Thirteen or so years ago, your parents stood up in front of a community of faith and watched as water was poured over your head. They heard God claim you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They watched as you were anointed with oil and given the name, “child of God.” And they made promises to God and to you and to the community of faith. They promised to bring you up in faith, to teach you the Bible, to live with you and play with you and serve with you among God’s faithful people, to bring you to church and to God’s table, and to find ways to involve you in working for peace and justice in the world.

And over the course of these last thirteen years, each of you have, undoubtedly, had some beautiful, wondrous, exciting, life-changing mountaintop experiences. I can assure you that there are more to come. But today, as you stand up in front of this congregation and commit to taking over responsibility for your baptismal promises, I have to warn you something about your lives of faith. I have to warn you that taking on the full life of faith means that you, like the disciples, will be nudged down from the mountain. God doesn’t want you to camp out on the mountain, gazing at the sky, standing still, hoarding your faith while you wait for the day when Christ will return. God calls each of you and all of us down from the mountain to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Confirmation isn’t about graduating church or about getting a stamp across your forehead that says “faithful.” Confirmation is about bounding down the mountain, ready to live out your faith on the flat ground.

Life on flat ground takes work. Life on flat ground means dealing with difficult people and smelly people and different people. Life on flat ground means getting mixed up in the world of both sinners and saints, where moments of wholeness and moments of brokenness collide. Life on flat ground means working for justice and peace instead of merely wishing for it. Life on flat ground means trusting that God is with you even when you don’t feel it, and trusting that Christ has redeemed you even when you feel irredeemable. Life on flat ground means living faithfully even when it isn’t exciting or easy or inspirational to do so.

It’s not glamorous. And sometimes, it’s not terribly popular. But it is the task that God has called you and empowered you to do: to live your faith, to act your faith, to take the grace that you have been shown and to, in turn, show it to the world.

Sara Miles was forty-six years old the first time she walked into a church. Raised an atheist, passionate about justice and revolutions, emotionally fed by her work feeding people in the restaurant business, one day, for no apparent reason, she wandered into a church, received a piece of bread at communion, and found that what she had been hungry for all these years was Christ. The moment of this awakening was dizzying for her. It was shocking and amazing and confusing. She chewed the bread and tears streamed down her cheeks. The bread and wine of communion transported her to a mountain that she had never thought to imagine. Hungry for community and for faith, she steadily became more involved in the life of the church and the community, heading step-by-step down the mountain until one day, on flat ground, she was approached by the pastor and asked if she would like to deacon at communion. She recounts,
What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: you can’t be a Christian by yourself….I wasn’t getting [communion] because I was special. I certainly didn’t get to pick who else was good enough, holy enough, deserving enough, to receive it. It wasn’t a private meal. The bread on that table had to be shared with everyone in order for me to really taste it….I ate the bread. Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment: It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt….It was about action. Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did. I was tasting a connection between communion and food – between my burgeoning religion and my real life. My first, questioning year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?
This is God’s question to you, confirmands, and to you, St. Timothy members, and you, people of faith: Now that you’ve taken the bread, now that you’ve come down from the mountain, now that you’ve been baptized, now that you’ve claimed your faith, what are you going to do?

Who are the people that God is leading you to love? Who are the communities that God is leading you to serve? What injustices might the Spirit be asking you to resist? What brokenness is Christ empowering you to heal? What grace is God asking you to offer to the world?

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is also our prayer: “We pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

In faith, God’s power works in us. So when you come to the table, when you taste and see the goodness of God, when you drink the wine and eat the bread, when you gather around the feast of all the faithful of this time and every time, of this place and every place; when you swallow the bread and head back down the mountain, what are you, in faith, going to do?

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