The Wizard of Oz, this great old movie came out in 1939. And ever since, it has become many people’s all-time favorite until now. The movie begins with Dorothytrying to get her aunt and uncle, and other farmhands to share her story about an incident related to her dog, Toto. But all of them are too busy to listen to her, so her aunt says, “Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” So Dorothy walks off by herself, musing to Toto, “Some place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain...” Right there, watching the sky, she begins singing the greatest song of all time, “Somewhere over the rainbow way up high…” And the song describes the place where “skies are blue,” where “dreams really do come true,” and where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” This song, just like the movie, is just unforgettable not just for its beautiful melody but also for its message that deeply evokes human emotion of longing and dreaming for a perfect place beyond our troublesome ordinary life. No wonder, this song is ranked number one on the “Songs of the Century” list.
It’s true that sometimes we wish to go somewhere beyond here… somewhere beyond our hectic life full of duties and burdens, and somewhere always joyous and worry-free. We Christians know that there certainly is such a place promised to the people of faith. We may call it the heaven or the coming Kingdom of God where we can live in perfect peace and eternal rest, where we have boundless joy and no mundane struggles. Yes, that would be the place that Christians would imagine while singing, “Over the rainbow.”
Today we are celebrating the ascension of Jesus Christ. We read the Scriptures testifying that a cloud takes him out of the disciples’ sight. And the Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God until he will come again to judge the living and the dead. What does it mean to us that Jesus ascended to heaven? Does it mean that we only imagine and yearn for the perfect place in heaven to where the resurrected Jesus is lifted up? That we only dream of the new kingdom to come with Jesus some day? I don’t think that’s everything about this Ascension Sunday. Rather, the Lord’s Ascension reminds us of the task we are responsible for, the task that Jesus leaves to us so we must earnestly take while we await Jesus’ coming again. Yes, we are here not just waiting for somewhere like Oz, over the rainbow. So today, we better listen to two voices in the Scriptures guiding us during this in-between time.
The First voice we better listen to is the voice of two mysterious persons in white robes standing by the disciples at Jesus’ ascension. Watching their resurrected Lord and Savior take off heavenward, the disciples are confused. They want to know where Jesus is going and when he would come back and restore the kingdom to Israel. But Jesus says, “It is not for you to know, but wait until you receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he is gone. The disciples are standing there looking up, staring at the sky, wishing to see some sign, or to hear some more words of assurance, or to find at least a glimpse of the kingdom of God in heaven. Instead, the disciples heard an awakening voice from two persons in white robes, “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 1:11). I think what they were saying was: “Don’t just be the spectators, but be the disciples to follow Jesus and prepare the way of coming Christ. Don’t just look up, but look around and do your work of faith as Jesus taught you.”
The second voice we must listen to is the voice of Jesus. As you may know, it is widely accepted that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. So they are two volumes in one series. The readings for today show us that Luke concludes Jesus’ story at the end of his Gospel and starts a new story about early Christians’ lives that we see in Acts. Between these two stories, Jesus’ ascension is like a bridge. Luke writes the same narrative in both books, because it’s important and because at the moment of ascension, Jesus leaves us his very final commandments. What are the commandments? Let us read them together. “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49). “But 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” (Acts 1:8). Here, if we put together the common thread in those two versions of Jesus’s final words, it’d be like this, “Be my witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Be my witnesses—don’t just passively wait and long for somewhere to come, but bear witness to what you already saw and what you have come to believe.Jesus is asking, be my witness and tell others, “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48). So go and be my witnesses till the ends of the earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this Ascension of the Lord Sunday, we have to listen to these voices, the voices that call us into our Christian vocation: to be his witness and to bring heavenly joy and peace here and now. If heaven is the place where we dwell with Jesus, and if the kingdom of heaven is where Jesus reigns, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can bring that heavenly place on earth from within our gathering. So stop looking up somewhere above the chimney tops and somewhere over the rainbow. Jesus is right here with us in his Spirit always and we are here to follow him. Until Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, and we shall be lifted up to somewhere beyond…until then, let us earnestly work to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In the power of the Holy Spirit, be my witness in all you do, and do it all to the glory of God… Jesus commands us today.
As the Gospel reading for last Sunday did, the reading for today takes us to the upper room in the night when Jesus was betrayed. There, something so significant, so unforgettable, happens. Prior to his departure, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and shows them how to serve one another with the self-emptying love. Then, Jesus sits with the disciples, shares bread and wine with them, and teaches them how to be one with God and with one another in his self-giving love. And the night grows late. The time of Jesus’ suffering and death is coming very close. Now Jesus delivers his last words to his disciples. What does he say in his last words, in the so-called “farewell speech”? The center of his message is again, love. In the night, Jesus literally pours out his love upon his disciples by washing their feet, by sharing bread and wine, and by delivering the last words. How wonderful it is that someone’s last words and deeds are just about love!
Truly, Jesus is the love incarnate, the living embodiment of divine love. And thus, for the followers of Jesus, there is nothing more important than to understand this love of Jesus, and to practice it in the way that we are called to do. Last week, we reflected on the farewell speech and learned that this love that Jesus is teaching is neither a fuzzy emotion nor an abstract idea. But this love has three key features; Jesus’ love is just love, self-giving love, and fruitful love. And today, as we are looking at the later part of the speech, we find another aspect of love. That is…for those who follow Jesus, love is not simply a valuable or beautiful thing that we choose to do in our lives. But love sometimes is a commandment, actually, the foremost commandment for us to obeyand to abide by.
I believe Jesus really means it, when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). And the First Letter of John emphasizes this as it writes,“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3). But I know…when we hear the words “commandment” and especially, “obedience,” we feel a little tight and uncomfortable. We think that love is something we better do from our heart and at our free will—not by obeying a certain commandment. And we somehow agree that mature love fully comes true only when we are free and independent. Freedom and independence…these virtues seem quite far from the virtue of obedience.
Yes, I understand… Jesus seems quite authoritative about love here. And we, as reasonable and autonomous human beings, have our rights to doubt and raise questions on him now. Right? But here, listen carefully. We should remember… following Jesus is to do more than just the things that make perfect sense to us. Sometimes, following Jesus includes to obey his commandment even when it looks absurd and difficult to us, even when there is no clear reason to do so, and even when it goes against our desire and will. Yes, this obedient way of following Jesus, keeping his commandment of love, is easier said than done.
One day I heard somebody sharing his parenthood experiences. He talked about the most challenging time in raising his kid. At that moment, I immediately thought it would be the time when his child was just born. You know I see my friends with a newborn baby, and lack of sleep is just their life. And newborns are so weak and small that parents always need to give extra care to them. Right? But his answer was different from mine. In retrospect, he said, the hardest time was when his child finally began to say “no” to everything and ask “why” on everything. Do you agree?
Today, I feel like we do the same to Jesus. Sometimes we say so many no-s to Jesus’ call to follow him and ask so many why-s to Jesus’ simple command to love, even though our heavenly parent never leads us to anything harmful or wrong. We refuse and hesitate to take just one step closer to Jesus until we have understandable reasons to do so. We ask Jesus to convince us first before we obey his commandment of love against our desire, against our will. In so doing, we might be giving Jesus the hardest time. But I also understand…we can get easily skeptical about following Jesus when it’s really difficult to just obey his commandment of love. Certainly, some people around us are too bad and evil to love; some situations are too insulting and hurtful to us to show any kind of love. Yes, how can we obey Jesus every time? How can we stop saying “no” and asking “why” every time? What would Jesus say?
Let us find some advice from our Lord Jesus. Today, after the upper room gathering, we see Jesus go into the garden of Gethsemane to pray.
As a true human, Jesus deeply grieves in face of his time of trial and death. The Gospels tell us, in his anguish, Jesus throws himself on the ground and prays earnestly until his sweat becomes like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38). True, Jesus himself also finds it very difficult to obey God’s will, so he struggles and says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). But that was not the end. Jesus keeps praying hard instead of saying, “No, I do not want to take up the cross for those sinful humans who never change their ways and turn back to you.” Jesus keeps praying hard, instead of asking, “Why do I have to die for those ungrateful humans who never deserve your grace?” Then, in his prayer, Jesus takes his obedient heart again, “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Sisters and brothers in Christ, following Jesus is hard. And obeying his commandment of love is even harder. But whenever we find it difficult to love and embrace someone, whenever we find a situation that is almost impossible for us to overcome with love, instead of saying no, why don’t we pray first even just briefly? Then, I am sure that in our prayer, we will see Jesus who gives us an obedient and loving heart again. And whenever our hearts filled with doubts and confusions, instead of just asking why, let us pray first. Then, I am sure that in our prayer, we will find Jesus who encourages us to set aside our reasonable and logical mind for a while and to be faithful in obeying his words single-mindedly. And in our moments of obedience, I am so sure that we will experience this mystery of faith: the more obedient we are to Jesus, the freer we become in his truth; the more obedient we are to his commandment of love, the better we understand the mind of Christ.
On the night in which he gives himself up for us, Jesus calls us to be love-abiding Christians. Jesus simply commands his disciples to obey him, to love him by living as he teaches them. So in remembrance of him who was obedient to the point of death for our new life, let us obey his commandment of love even when we think we cannot. Simply obey…that is the way, perhaps the only way, to grow our faith. May the Holy Spirit be with us as we follow Jesus every moment to be love-abiding Christians. Amen.