Are you going up?
Are you… climbing the ladder… increasing in stature… measuring success in leaps and bounds?
Are you going up?
I’m not asking if you are climbing the corporate ladder… or increasing your standing in the community… or raking in the dollars and cents.
Are you going up?
Are you climbing Jacob’s ladder? Are you increasing in holiness? Are you more successful today than you were yesterday at obeying God’s will?
Are you going up?
In the United Methodist Church, we have been talking a lot lately about growth and fruitfulness and effectiveness. And we are focused on those things because… well, lately we seem to be in a downward slide. Fewer members. Less money in offerings. A decrease in the number of baptisms and confirmations. Fewer people entering the ministry.
Down… down… down.
In fact, at General Conference, I heard words like “death tsunami” and “urgency” and “crisis.”
Evidently, downward movement and momentum isn’t a good thing.
We are supposed to be going up…
As a local congregation, the powers that be tell us that we should have more people in worship today than we did five years ago. We should have more baptisms and confirmations than funerals. We should be increasing our stewardship of resources and financial giving. Our numbers should be climbing. In fact, our very own Bishop Julius Trimble set a goal for our conference to have 10,790 new disciples in four years. That is 13 new disciples per congregation… that is only 3-4 new disciples every year for four years… We should have more new people in more new places. If we look at our numbers, they should be going up, up, up.
Are we going up?
I find this to be a very interesting question to think about today, because it is Ascension Sunday. Today is the day we celebrate that although Jesus died… he rose from the dead! And not only did he rise up from the grave and walk among us… but about forty days later, Jesus rose up into heaven. He ascended to the father.
And as our scripture from Acts tells us, the disciples who witnessed this amazing miracle were so dumbfounded that they stood staring, mouths wide open in astonisment, faces to the sky. They stood like that, staring at the heavens… looking up… for such a long time that angels had to come and remind them: Hey! you’ve got a job to do.
We can get awfully obsessed about what is happening up there. (pointing to the sky).
We want to follow Jesus up there and go to heaven.
We want to know that the big guy up there thinks about everything we say and do… or… maybe (eek) maybe we don’t. Maybe we want to hide everything we say and do from up there.
In fact, I bet if you really thought about it, you could plot out the points on your life when you were attaining the heights and growing in wisdom and stature and getting closer to up there. We could probably plot out the times when we were going up…
There are some half sheets of paper in the pews there and I want to invite you to take one of them and grab a pen or pencil.
I want us to start by drawing a simple graph. Put an x-axis on the left hand side… this will stand for the highs and the lows of your life. Now draw a y-axis through there… this will stand for the years you have been here on this earth.
Alright… now I want to give you a minute… just a minute… to roughly sketch out and plot some of the most successful and least successful times of your life… the highs and the lows. Think about this first graph in worldly terms – jobs and education and family and success… but also those times that were difficult like deaths and struggles with work or school. Just hit the most important and significant things for you right now. And when you are finished, connect the dots…
Okay… now I want us to make a second chart… right there on the same graph is fine. If you want, switch writing utensils with a neighbor so you can plot out your graph in pen or pencil or something different. This time, plot out your spiritual highs and lows. When were you closest to God (ie: highest on the chart) and when were you farthest from God? When did you grow in grace? When did you backslide? And for some of us, that includes times when we didn’t even know about God – a long time where we were flatlined at zero… I’ll give you a couple of minutes for that…
Now, I want you to look at your graph and answer the question… are you going up?
Could someone else in this world look at that graph and tell if you were going up?
Have the things that you have said and done, the life that you have lived… is it worthy of what is up there?
Have you felt a struggle in YOUR life… always trying to get closer to up there, always trying to reach the point where you have “made it?” Do you worry about how many highs and lows you have in your spiritual relationship with God.
To repeat the question we have been using all morning – are you going up?
I believe that this is a trick question. Or rather, I believe it is the wrong question.
Because you see in the end, we are NOT judged by the upward curve of our slope. We are NOT judged by the number of good deeds we have done. and we are NOT judged by the number of bible verses we have memorized… We are not judged by how long we have been close to God.
The irony is… in order to go “up to heaven” we have to be willing to be low and humble… we are judged by whether or not we have accepted how utterly unacceptable we are… and by God’s grace that dwells within us…
Somewhere this week, I read that holiness is not actually a characteristic that describes us. We are not holy. We can not grow in our own holiness. The only thing that makes us holy is God.
As we sang right before this message… Only Jesus is worthy… only Jesus is good… and only Jesus has the power to save us, redeem us, transform us and welcome us home.
Sometimes we get so focused on trying to do the right things in order to get up there, on living the right kind of life, that we forget it’s not about us at all… it’s about Jesus and what he has done.
And the Ascension story reminds us that Jesus goes up…. not us.
In their preaching helps this week, the General Board of Discipleship reminded us that heaven is not really “up.” As we know from our modern scientific inquiry – and I quote from the GBOD: “If Jesus went “up there,” he would have frozen to death, suffocated, been dangerously irradiated, or ripped to shreds by black holes (if he got that far!).”
The universe beyond the clouds is not a friendly place.
But what we forget with the language of going up… of ascension… is that this is really the “language of enthronement.” In the ascension of Jesus, he rises not simply from the grave, but up to his full authority. He no longer walks and talks among us but he is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.” He is no longer simply the prophetic carpenter from Galilee, but he has risen to his fullest stature as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And that kind of a Jesus… that kind of a holy, awesome, powerful being… that majestic and awesome Lord up there… well, he can share holiness. He can bestow grace. He can transform lives. He can save.
The only reason we can go up…. is because he is already there.
And because Jesus has been raised from the dead… because Jesus has ascended to the Father… because he has demonstrated not just his power, but also his deep and abiding love for us…
I sometime worry that we focus so much on whether or not we are going up… whether we are climbing the ladder… whether we are increasing in stature… that we stand staring at the heavens with our mouths gaping open.
well, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we are going up anymore. We don’t have to graph out our successes and failures on a chart. We don’t have to plot the trajectory of holiness.
As the angels come and tell us – Hey – what are you still looking up for… you have a job to do!
And the Lord of Lords and King of Kings does have a job for us.
It isn’t something we have to do to earn his love or to become more holy… but it is something we do out of deep gratitude for what we have already been given.
The job is simple… Jesus tells us: Go, be my witnesses. Tell the world about what I have done. Love them because I love them.
Rev. Mindi from rev-0-lution.org tells about a sign she saw once in England. It read: “We believe in life before death.”
We can get so caught up in life after death, in what happens up there and whether or not we are going up there, that we forget about this life.
Jesus invites us to live before we die. He invites us to go and share and tell and bless and love. He invites us to not only live, but to share new life with the broken and hurting of this world. As Rev. Mindi wrote: “This is why we work for justice and peace in this world. This is why we stand against hate and stand for love.”
We do not work for the Kingdom of God in order to get up there, but because that Kingdom has already come down here and already dwells in our hearts. Because the King of Kings already lives in our hearts.
Because he has gone up, we can get down and dirty and engage people in the real mess of their lives.
Because he has gone up, we can stop worrying about whether or not we are saved and we can simply tell people about Jesus and invite them to get to know him and us better.
Because he has gone up, we can stop counting dollars and cents and we can start measuring how deep our conversations are, how real our expressions of love are, and how many people we have shared the story with.
Because he has gone up, because he is Lord of Lords, because “up there” there is really not “UP” at all… but is a completely new way of living and thinking and being… well, because of Jesus – we can truly live before we die.