May 14, 2018
Feast of the Ascension (Transferred)
Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
When I was growing up, one of the things my siblings and I loved to do was jump on our neighbours the Lancasters’ trampoline. The Lancasters were all really into gymnastics. So, they taught us to do front and back flips, double flips. And seeing that we were young and fearless, we would attempt all kinds of body contorting maneuvers that scare the Hell out of me today. I remember that feeling of total freedom as I would launch my little body into the air, as if I believed that that same air was holding me and protecting me, as it gracefully guided my feet back down to the mat. Well, that is until the day of the Great Trampoline Disaster. I was in 9th grade, I went over to the Lancasters to play like I normally did. But I noticed that the protective guard that wraps around the trampoline frame was missing, and I decided to jump anyway. Not only did I jump but I attempted to do a flip. Alas, I was unsuccessful and my mouth landed right smack on the steel frame, knocking four of my front teeth out. Everybody came running, including my parents. And as I stumbled to my feet and saw my parents, the first words out of my mouth were not, Take me to the emergency room, or please, can my new teeth be made of gold. No, I began to scream, “Don’t sue the Lancasters! Please don’t sue them. I knew there wasn’t a guard but I jumped anyway.” Perhaps I had been watching too much Law and Order, or maybe I was actually paying attention to the world around me and how it was growing overly litigious, but regardless of where I got the idea, deep down I knew that blame and the desire for revenge were toxic. And I had experienced enough of the world to know that it’s so easy to go into blame and then on into revenge, especially when someone you love has been hurt. Well, my parents did not end up suing the Lancasters. Our families remained friends and my siblings continued to jump on the trampoline. I did not.
Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Great Trampoline Disaster because it’s Ascension Sunday. Like, obviously. And because, besides for the part where Jesus defies the laws of physics and catapults out from Earth’s atmosphere, the other part from today’s readings that I have a hard time wrapping my head around is the utter lack of revenge–and that’s on the part of both Jesus AND the apostles. I mean, if this were any of the horror or thriller movies I love to watch, this would be the part of the movie where Jesus hunts down Judas for betraying him, and then he’d go after all the disciples who abandoned him at the cross, and once he had wiped all of them out, Jesus would band together with those few disciples who had remained faithful to the end and they would all go after Herod, Pilate and the whole Roman-Jewish military temple industrial complex. Like seriously, If this were any other story than the Gospel, it would be scorched earth by now. And so, as Jesus’ still wounded body begins to rise from the Earth, we can’t blame the disciples for asking, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” We can’t blame the disciples for wondering if Jesus is ascending precisely in order to mount his war horse and lay waste to their enemies. But that’s not what happens. In place of blame and revenge, Jesus does something totally nuts. He blessed them and tells them to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. As an aside, I much prefer David Bentley Hart’s new translation, which reads: And in God’s name transformation of the heart and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Transformation of the heart and forgiveness of sins are Jesus’ instructions to the disciples. But these words are not only instructions for the disciples to go out and forgive, but they represent Jesus’ forgiveness of the disciples as well. I mean, here in this moment Jesus has all the power–he’s literally floating above them like some Jedi master, and thus it’s safe to assume he could have done whatever he wanted. But he blesses and says to forgive, and all this to those who had just betrayed him. What I would have given to trade places with the disciples, because that kind of forgiveness is the kind of forgiveness that changes everything. That’s the kind of forgiveness that must have sealed the deal. The disciples had to have broken out goosebumps, their hair had to have been standing on end, because while it had to have been amazing being witnesses to the resurrection, witnessing the ascension had to have set fire to everything they thought they knew. I mean, if I betrayed someone and that same someone all of a sudden starts levitating, then you’d better believe that I’d be shielding my face from the death ray that was sure to come. But with Jesus, there is no death ray or lightning bolts or swift sword, there is only blessing and the command to pass on that blessing through the forgiveness of sins and the transformation of the heart.
Because for Jesus forgiveness of sins is the gate through which we access who we truly are. When we see ourselves and others through forgiveness, we not only see who we are right now and who we have been. We see who we will become. We see what is possible when God has finished her work in us. When we see each other through forgiveness, we see each other the way God sees us, as a work in progress that will always be completed by God. But to see through forgiveness doesn’t mean that we come to accept that everything we do or everything that has been done to us is okay. It’s just that the evil we do and the evil done to us is not all that we are, it’s not all that our enemies are. We are all caught up in the systems and powers of this world that oppress and harm our neighbors and ourselves, and yet, we do not belong to those systems. We belong to God. Therefore, to see each other through forgiveness means to place the blame and to exact revenge on where it rightfully belongs, on those systems and powers that enslave and oppress, rather than upon the children of God caught up in those systems.
I know that in my own life forgiveness has often only been possible when God enables me to distinguish between the person and the power. Between the person and the power that enslaves them. One of the most painful experiences in my life was when I came out of the closet and my parents called me an abomination. There was something about that word. It cut deep, and for long time I blamed so many of my problems in life on the fact that they used that word. Blaming them, I spiraled into a cycle of self-harm through drinking, drug use and promiscuity, which is often what revenge looks like for me. I turn the anger, sadness and resentment inwards, as if I were my own personal voodoo doll, imagining that somehow my pain will cause them pain too. But when I hit rock bottom and found myself all alone, I realized that my attempts at revenge had failed. I was no closer to the reconciliation I sought deep down and so in desperation I had to take another path.
I got sober and through the process of the 12 steps, I discovered what Jesus calls forgiveness of sins and transformation of the heart. Through the 12 steps, I discovered that my attachment to blame and revenge is called resentment and that my resentment was eating me alive. And so I had to find a way to distinguish the people who had harmed me and the power that was ultimately responsible for that harm. And for me, that meant coming to the realization that the word “abomination” wasn’t my parents word. It didn’t belong to them. It didn’t originate in them. The word abomination had come from a power that ultimately didn’t have their name on it. The word abomination belonged instead to a corner of the church that had forgotten what Jesus said and did at the ascension.
Which is the moment where Jesus ultimately pulls back from blame and revenge, and gives the Church the only job which is ours to do- to preach forgiveness of sins and the changing of hearts. That’s it. Nothing else. He does not say to the church: it’s our job to police who’s in and who’s out; or to separate the men from the women; or to make black people sit in the balcony; or to civilize native Americans; or to protect the right to own guns; or any of the other jobs that the Church has claimed as its own. No, all Jesus asks is that we tell others that they are forgiven and that God wants to change our minds about who we ultimately are. That we never again have to be bound to what we did today or what we did yesterday, because ultimately we are who we will become and we become what we receive. And what we receive is not blame or revenge, but pure blessing and forgiveness. To the glory of God. Amen.