ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH                                                                                                           MAY 12, 2013

RETURNING HOME

Psalm 97; Ephesians 1: 15 – 23; Luke 24: 50 – 53

The other day my son and his girlfriend were out for a walk in the park.  They came upon a baby raccoon, about 10 inches from tip to tail, that had fallen out of a tree.   It was mewling for its Mom.   Uncertain of what to do they began to phone around to various shelters.  No one could help but each gave the name of another place that might.  While they were trying to track down an appropriate organization, the little raccoon stood up on his wobbly feet, crept over to the tree and started to climb.  By the time they got hold of someone who was willing to help, the raccoon was up in the tree, well out of reach.  As it grew close to its nest, the mother went out, took hold of him with her mouth and brought him home to safety.   Whether we grew up in one, or created our own or simply dream about the possibility, all of us know the value of a loving home.

Our experiences of home can be quite varied.  We can have nurturing homes, dysfunctional homes, or destructive homes.  Some have no homes at all.  So although Jesus came to live with us, he was never quite at home.  Have you ever been away from home for an extended period of time, living out of a suitcase and sleeping in different beds every night?  If so, you understand how Jesus felt.  When Jesus lived among us, he had no fixed address.  His first home was a stable.  Then his family were illegal aliens in Egypt.  Later Jesus grew up in the village of Nazareth. We know Jesus didn’t quite feel “at home” there.  At age 12, while in Jerusalem, Jesus got lost.  When his parents discovered him in the Temple, he said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  (Luke 2:49)    Soon after Jesus ministry began he was in Nazareth.   We read, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  (Mark 3:21)   On another occasion Jesus dismissed his family with these words, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”   Looking at his followers he said, “Here they are.   Whoever does the will of God is my family.”  (Mark 3: 33 – 35).   Jesus described his earthly life this way, “… the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) 

We know Jesus’ life ended in crucifixion and then in his resurrection.  When we speak about the good news it’s these two facts we emphasize, they’re core to our salvation; they impact our souls.  Yet Jesus’ story didn’t end with his resurrection.  Something else happened.  Luke ends his gospel with another significant event.  After appearing to his disciples for a period of 40 days Jesus made his final appearance.   He led his disciples to the town of Bethany.  While there he lifted his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, “he was carried up into heaven.”  (Luke 24: 51)  In Acts, Luke gives more details.  Jesus’ blessing included the promise of the Holy Spirit and the calling of the disciples to be his witnesses.  While the disciples knew Jesus would return to earth one day, Jesus told them only the Father knows when.   Then Luke writes, “When he had said these things, while they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1: 9)  Jesus went home to his Father.  He went to his true home where he is loved and belongs.

Most of us know the joy and relief we feel when we return from travelling – its nice to come home where its familiar and comfortable.  You may remember the excitement expressed on your return. My first experience of that was coming home at the age of 10 from Expo – the entire extended family was there to meet me.     Imagine the welcome Jesus received!  He must have been so happy to finally be home.

But how did his disciples, his closest friends and followers, respond to this final goodbye?  Was it devastating for them to see Jesus disappear into a cloud?  Was it like watching a child go off to war, not knowing when or if you’d see him again?  But they weren’t devastated – just the opposite. We’re told they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy”. (Luke 24:52)   Jesus had died once and he came back to them in his resurrected state.  The disciples knew they could never lose Jesus again.  Jesus had defeated sin; He had defeated death.  There wasn’t anything left that could create a lasting barrier between Jesus and themselves. Now knew where he was and that made them joyful.

In the meantime, the disciples had things to do.  In Acts, Luke says that while they were staring up into heaven, “Two men in white robes stood by them and said, “Why are you standing around?”   With that they went back to Jerusalem and spent time in prayer.  They got on with the task of strengthening their community by choosing a disciple to replace Judas.  They “…were continually in the temple blessing God.”  (24: 52f)  Like Jesus, the disciples found their home away from home in the temple – their Father’s house.  Finally they waited.  They waited for the coming of Christ’s Spirit and they waited for Christ’s return.

So is any of this relevant to us today?  What does it mean for us that Jesus is in heaven?  What are we supposed to do?  Unlike the disciples it’s hard for us to feel joyful that Jesus is in heaven.  It makes faith harder.  We can’t see and touch him.  We have to rely on someone else’s eye witness account.  Yet don’t we do that every time we turn on the news?  Normally, we believe the things we’re told.  We don’t demand proof.  And often what we see stirs us at a deep level.  Who didn’t feel horrified when the twin towers were attacked?  Who doesn’t feel anxiety when a child is missing?  Or awe when a comet is filmed? Or joy when a baby Panda is born?  Jesus’ ascension to heaven is joyful for us as well.  We know from reliable sources where he is and we know that “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 39)

We now have a friend in heaven.  In his eternal home Jesus’ still acts out of love for us.  He speaks to God on our behalf and brings our prayers and praise before God’s throne. He’s still the way by which all communication, all life and all love flows between humanity and God.  Living Faith (3.5.4) puts it this way, “We worship our ascended Lord.  Reigning in glory and power he is our High Priest and Advocate interceding before the Father on our behalf.  Through him we offer our sacrifice of praise, with prayer for all to the Father.” 

Since Jesus went home to heaven, we can find comfort in knowing Earth is not our truest home.   Jesus went to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2).  Like Jesus we’re only visitors and sojourners on this planet for a very short time.   One day we’ll also go home to be with Christ.

Because Jesus is in heaven, we have purpose.  We’re not just biding our time, twiddling our fingers or staring at the sky.  Like the disciples we worship.  Worship was the disciples’ expression of joy for their salvation, for their new life in Christ and for the hope they had of heaven.  Worship is the expression of our love, wonder  and thanks to God.   Often people say “I can worship God anywhere; I don’t have to come to Church.”  I bet 99% of those people don’t worship God at all and those who do, do it sporadically.  The disciples went to the Temple to bless God.  Two big things there to note:  First, they went to a special place set aside for God alone.  Christians have created special places and set aside particular times to encourage people to worship.  When we get too busy with life, we lose our joy.  We’re not focused on the incredible grace and hope Christ offers; we’re just trying to get through the week.  Gathering in our “home away from home” gives us rest, it reconnects us with our joy, it gives us the space to remember Christ, it renews our hope and to helps us to worship God.  Secondly, the disciples went to bless God, not to be blessed.  Another thing I often hear is, “I go to Church to feel good”.  Surprise!  If you feel good after worship that’s a bonus, but we’re here first of all to make God happy.   In Christ God has already given us everything he has, worship gives back to God.

We’re also to spend our time in prayer.  Now that Jesus has ascended, prayer is the way love flows between God and ourselves. Prayer keeps us connected with God and gives us spiritual strength.  Prayer helps us discover the will of God; as we talk and listen Christ mediates between us and our heavenly Father.

We are also to strengthen the community of Christ.  The body of Christ functions on love, laughter and work.  It takes a certain amount of structure.  Together we create the healthiest environment possible; not one based on ego or personal preferences, but one that seeks the well-being and the future of the whole church. 

We live in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be witnesses to Christ’s life, to his death and resurrection and to his mercy and grace.  Because the Holy Spirit is so important, we’re going to be talking about the Spirit and the role of the Spirit in our lives so I won’t dwell on this point now.  Like the disciples, we’ll wait for that.

Which brings us to our final task.  We wait as a community for Christ’s return.  That doesn’t mean we stand staring at the sky.  It means we live with an awareness that Christ could return right now – we are awake and spiritually prepared.  We do the things Christ has called us to do so that he won’t find us slacking off or distracted.  It also means that we are people of hope.  Whatever happens today, or in our lives will all be changed with the blast of a trumpet.  And it means that death is not to be feared; what looks like the end will be resurrected on the last day, in the twinkling of an eye.  We live, waiting to go home.