This week, I received a card that said “There are few problems in life that can’t be solved with a new pair of shoes.” For me, this could be a life motto. I love a new pair of shoes, and imagining how the new beauties could be used in my life. Will these be a fun new pair to go out one evening with friends? Will it be the practical dress pair that I can use for work? Will these shoes be the comfy cozy ones, that I wear because they feel like pillows hugging my feet? Will they be the fancy ones that I use for special occasion, but I have to remember to not wear them for lots of walking? Will they be ones that I can use on adventures, across different terrains, used in multiple climates? Different shoes have different purposes and help to dictate where we are able to go.
This morning’s passage is the end of an earthly journey for Jesus. His ministry and life have taken him across many miles through Israel and Palestine. He has walk to the seashore, and ask disciples to follow him, he climbed to the top of the mount and taught the people listening, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus was welcomed into homes, dining with people no one ever expected him to break bread with. He entered into the temple and taught new ways of living and understanding the law. Jesus traveled in boats, on foot, and as he descended into Jerusalem that final week on a donkey. The well-worn shoes that Jesus donned, were used for many purposes throughout his ministry, and they carried him out of Jerusalem, on one final journey, out to a hillside near Bethany, alongside his disciples.
The story of Jesus’ ascension is a short passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus gives his final instructions, commission and promise to the disciples. Jesus reminds the disciples that though people didn’t expect it to be the way he lived, Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms must be fulfilled.” All that took place for God’s greater purposes. Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” to understand that the “Messiah is to suffer, to rise from the dead on the third day, and that the repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Jesus reminds the disciples they are the witness to all of this. Being a witness is not just becoming merely a spectator, but rather testifying, to all what they have experienced and that has been taught by their Lord, and then continuing to live out that life Jesus had lived.
The Ascension teaches us that Jesus belongs to God. And what our expectations of Jesus were, what we wanted him to do, how we wanted him to rule, when we want him to come back, was not our call, not our decision. Jesus belongs to God. Just as we belong to God. But we are to be witness to all these things. I read this week that, "We grow and change. We move from one place to another. We endure disease and violence. We live in the sometimes-painful rhythm of suffering and death. We make mistakes and we commit sins, knowingly and unknowingly. But through it all, we carry with us this vision of our humanity being taken up by Christ into God, caught up within an ultimate, redemptive purpose for our lives. At the Ascension, Jesus took all of human life, which he cared for so deeply, and brought it "into the heavenly places," into the very heart of God. This includes the suffering refugee, the abused child or spouse, the victim of war or terror, the lonely one in the nursing home, the one who struggles with depression or a lost sense of worth and value, those who are sick, all who are in difficult transitions in life." In the Ascension, Jesus moves emphatically to God's side. And Christ's Ascension we have a vision of God’s creation being pulled toward the heart of God.[i] Through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection and today in his ascension, we see the fulfillment of God’s ultimate story and purposes. Calvin said that “from [the ascension] our faith receives many benefits. It understands that the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom…And since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows…that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him,’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but [Christ] already possesses it.”[ii] Everything and everyone is headed towards God in the fulfillment of God’s purposes. And we are to be witness to all these things: the incredible unfolding of God’s plan.
I love the image on the front cover of the bulletin today. It’s an interesting rendition of the Ascension by Brian Whelan, it is colorful and shows the whole scene, the angels bringing Jesus up, the disciples watching his body being carried. You have the dove, the reminder of the Spirit who was there for Jesus’s baptism, who will come soon enough to the disciples, even the leaves at the bottom, perhaps a nod to the Palm fronds of Jesus’ parade? But what I love the most is two little details: one that his sandals are left on the ground and two, the man whose beard is closest to the sandals is not looking up, but instead at the sandals. It is almost as if that person doesn’t really care about what is happening to Jesus, rather what is left behind.
What Jesus left behind was for disciples of every age to fill his shoes. To keep doing what he had done all along the way, to be a witness and to teach a message they had heard Jesus proclaim throughout his time on earth. As modern-day disciples, we too are to wear the shoes that Jesus left behind and to proclaim a message of forgiveness, a message of peace and a message compassion. A message that God is a God who exceeds our expectations, who does not discredit us when we falter but rather, God loves us unconditionally.
In the contemporary confession we will read this morning, it says, “We rejoice in the goodness of God, renounce the works of darkness, and dedicate ourselves to holy living. As covenant partners, called to faithful obedience, and set free for joyful praise, we offer our hearts and lives to do God's work in his world.”
We are like the disciples, called to fill the shoes of Christ, to do God’s work in the world, through whatever means we see fit. It may seem like a daunting task, putting on his shoes, but we do so, no on our own, but together as believers, blessed by God, to proclaim and witness to all whom we encounter. As people of faith, we are to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, through our words and in our actions; because our faith demands nothing less. So may we put on the shoes that Christ left behind and go out and be witnesses to the world. And may it be so. Amen.
[i] John McClure and John DeBevoise, https://www.facebook.com/john.debevoise/posts/10209009495619875?fref=nf&pnref=story
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.16.16.