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We have a profound moment in the Book of Acts today where Jesus says these words of encouragement to the disciples and then he ascends up to heaven and leaves them standing there like children who are watching their balloon at a birthday party just go up until it disappears. Of the many stories in the Gospel, this is an especially beautiful one for the visual imagery of Jesus rising up. He is pictured in this moment as triumphant and powerful. He has done what he needed to do. He has completed the task for which he was sent. And now, 40 days after he first rose from the dead, he rises again to that place which is beyond death.
You get to see some of this in the image of Jesus which is here in this window on the east wall. This is, I would say, the Cathedral’s primary window, high above the altar where people can see it every Sunday. It is the window that our parishioner Andy Park loves and has stared at for almost 90 years. And it’s an image of the Ascension. Jesus is rising above the earth going into heaven. And you know he’s rising above the earth because you can see clouds there beneath his feet. You don’t have clouds beneath your feat unless you are rising above the earth.
I spent some time this week trying to look behind the reredos which covers the bottom half of this window. And you can kind of see there that there are figures there who I imagine to be the disciples standing, watching Jesus go up. It’s too bad you can’t see them better, because the disciples are such an essential part of this story. The ascension is not just about Jesus going away, but it is about what happens to these people after he is gone.
According to this passage from Acts, Jesus’s followers stand there. And I can imagine that as they are standing, each disciple is caught up in his or her own thoughts and feelings. And it’s not long before the two men in white appear to ask: why are you standing here looking up toward heaven?
It’s a great question. Why are they standing there? Why have they paused? Why haven’t they moved on to the next thing, whatever that next thing is? It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in their heads, but I believe that at the moment of the ascension, the Disciples are standing looking up at Jesus, and what they are doing is choosing. They are weighing in their minds what they will do next. Do they continue on to Jerusalem to follow the work of Jesus with the other disciples? Or do they head back to Galilee and return to their old lives?
It’s not a trivial choice. It’s not like choosing between whether you’re going to have chicken or beef for dinner. Or deciding whether you are going to put on your red socks or your blue socks. The choice the disciples have to make at this moment is really a question of deciding who they are.
Because now that Jesus has gone, they can do whatever they want. The ascension of Jesus basically means they have been released from their contracts and obligations. They have completed their training, and now instead of having someone tell them where to go and what to do, they can decide for themselves.
They can return to Galilee. They can pick up their nets again, and find their purpose not in fishing for people any more, but fishing for fish, which is what they used to do. And they can count all of this experience with Jesus as something that was worthwhile, but not as something they want to continue. Because being with Jesus was great. But it was a lot. And I’m sure some of the disciples standing there looking at Jesus floating away said to themselves, well that was great, but it was a lot. It meant living a life of faith, and sometimes that’s just too much.
And so one way of looking at this moment of the ascension in our own experience is to say it’s not uncommon for any of us from time to time to decide whether we want to live a life of faith or not. It’s probably fairly common for us to think: Do I trust and believe in Jesus Christ? Do I put my life in God’s hands and commit myself to Jesus and his teachings and his radical love, or do I not? Because going back to catch fish is way easier.
I think about my own life, and I would say I’m not a person who’s angry or hateful, I’m not overburdened by pessimism. I’m not dour. But I do experience certainly y share of anxiety and fear. And so as I go about my life I have found myself in plenty of situations where, like the disciples, I have stood there looking up at Jesus making the decision about whether I want to live a life of fear or I want to live a life of faith? It’s fear or faith. And the truth is, no one ever choses fear. We just chose what’s easy and safe.
Giving up on Jesus and going back to Galilee is not exactly a fearful move, but it is a safe move. It’s heading back what we know, the tried and true, where we can do things the way we’ve always done them which is both comfortable and predictable. Plenty of people, plenty of churches choose that option. It happens all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with it.
Being with Jesus is not predictable. Jesus would tell you that those people you thought were your enemies you actually need to forgive and love. He would tell you that all the old rules and laws are now moot. All of that Sabbath stuff is now gone. Jesus would tell you that the first, you know, the ones you know in your hearts should be first, are actually last. And that the last, those you knew should be last, are actually first.
Following Jesus means getting out of the boat to walk with him onto the water. It means bending down to touch and bless lepers and people with demons and those who have been cast out. And it means you embrace those who are dirty and those who are our enemies. It challenges you. And it changes you.
And so that’s a lot to weigh on your mind as you stand there looking up at Jesus floating away. And so you must ask – do I want that? Do I want to be challenged to grow and be more flexible and less controlling and have it not be all about me? Or is it just easier to head back to be there with my nets?
When was the last time you really made this choice between faith or fear? When was the last time you stood there looking up at Jesus and asking yourself – what kind of person do I want to be? Am I someone who takes the chance to head into the unknown with God, or am I someone who sticks with what I know and what has always worked so well? Perhaps you have made that choice recently, perhaps you have even made it today in coming to church.
What I know is that whenever I choose faith over fear that two things happen. The first is that I immediately feel this sense of relief, because there is something about having to make a decision that just wears you out. It’s tiring.
It takes so much energy to choose, and sometimes we put off making decisions altogether. We debate them in our head and weigh them in our heart and we make lists. We draw a line in the middle of the paper and on one side we put all the positive things about going forward with the other disciples, and on the other side we put all the great things about going back to our nets in Galilee. But almost always once we’ve made the decision, there is relief.
The second thing I have noticed is that whenever I make the choice for faith over fear, that I am rewarded and blessed with this feeling and sense that I am now part of something bigger. Time and again, I have stood there looking up at Jesus and I have thought that my life when I am following him is just so much more than the life I can live on my own.
And this is part of what we see in the Gospel today. This passage from John takes place at a moment when Jesus is just about to be arrested and taken away by the authorities. And he is praying to God the Father. And he is praying for the disciples, telling God that his hour has come and he asks God to glorify him so that he may glorify God. And he says that now he can go away, his work is complete and his followers know all they need to know. And he commends them to God.
And at the end of the passage, Jesus asks God to protect the disciples so that they may be one, just as Jesus and God the Father are one. And I know that for me every time I make the choice for faith over fear that I get this sense that I am no longer just me. But that I am more. That I am one with you and one with God and one with Jesus and one with all life. And that feeds me and gives me purpose like nothing else I know, and it makes me want to continue to choose faith.
Every day we must decide whether we are a single, solitary individual standing in a field by ourselves looking up to Jesus as we struggle with these many things in our lives. Is that who we are? Or, instead, are we part of a group all of whom are standing in a field together, looking up at Jesus and struggling with these many things in our hearts as one. A group that is able to support each other’s burdens and celebrate each other’s joys. And to give each other encouragement and to share love with each other and with everyone who walks in here and with everyone out there.
That’s where Jesus Christ is found. That’s the meaning of the choices we make in life, that when we make the right choice, it brings us together into this oneness. Our choice for faith unites our small lives into the powerful and unstoppable life of God through Jesus Christ through all things. Can you feel it? Can we choose that?
So what happens with these disciples today? Well, perhaps for them the choice was really simple because they all went on. They chose faith. Some of them went on to die as martyrs. Some of them went on to found churches. Some of them went on to be great people as members of their families and communities who simply knew and shared God’s love with everyone they met. They made the world a better place. But all of them, everyone who stood below Jesus watching him ascend, choose him over whatever fear they had.
And perhaps they didn’t even really have to make a choice because they knew, in their hearts, that their experience with Jesus meant that they would always be his.
We choose faith because we know we can count on Jesus. We can count on him to guide us and direct us to where we need to go. We can count on him to love us no matter what. And we can count on him to put us to work not just mending our own nets but to be out there mending the nets of the world.
At some point today I would invite you to take a minute and spend it looking up to heaven and weighing in your heart the question of who you are and who you want to be. What does it mean for you today to choose faith over fear? How does that choice impact your life and change what you might do?