Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, John 17:1-11
We’re going to have a baptism today, but I’m not going to do it, because it’s for my granddaughter and I want to stay out of the way. I didn’t baptize her mother either, or my son. I wanted to just be the father, and now I want to be just one of the grandparents, the four of us. The minister who’s doing it is Rev. Howard Major, who for 28 years was the pastor of our sister congregation in New Paltz, so he’s had lots of practice.
As for this sermon, well, it’s never wise to preach to your daughter, and neither to your son-in-law. So momentarily I will regard them not as family but as the member and adherent of this congregation that they are, who have rightly brought their child to the water. So it’s true that this is a nice day for our tribe, but only coincidentally.
This baptism is not about biology, it’s about mission. The place that Dave and Anni have within the liturgy is as officers of the church, officers with a mission in the life of this little girl. They represent the church within her life. For the next few years they are her surrogate Sunday School teachers, her surrogate elders and deacons, and her pastor by proxy. For her they are the Community of Jesus. The three of them are a small Community of Jesus, in an apartment, with a dog.
And all of you are surrogates as well. You today, who are this congregation, you represent an entity greater than yourselves. You represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. That’s the church into which this little girl is being baptized. Yes, her name is written in the register book as a baptized member of Old First church, because it’s in the form and matter of local congregations that the universal church exists, but this particular Community of Jesus is the surrogate for the great Community of Jesus extending around the globe and reaching far into the future and stretching back through time to that first small gathering in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.
So the register of names is a very long one, from the Book of Old First stretching back to the Book of Acts. At this end, Naomi Beatrice Eppley, and at the other end, going backwards: Jesus’ brothers, and his mother Mary, and then Judas Jameson, and Simon, James ben-Alphaeus, Matthew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip, Andrew, James at number 3, John at number 2, and Peter number 1. I wonder what your number is, Naomi, in that great list? I wonder how many other names today are being added to that register in other congregations, from the ends of the earth back to Jerusalem? God knows their number. God calls them each by name.
Let’s talk about that Ascension Day. How high up into heaven did Jesus go before the cloud removed him from their sight? Was it a low cloud, like the cloud upon Mount Sinai in the Exodus and the cloud upon Mount Hermon at Our Lord’s transfiguration, or like the cloud in South Africa at Cape Town which covers the long flat top of Table Mountain like a Tablecloth? Was the cloud that low? I believe we are to take it so. The point is not that the Lord Jesus went so far away as that he passed into the unseen reality all around above us.
How far up is heaven? I have spoken to you of this before. We assume it is way up. But in the Bible, heaven was felt as close. It started just above the ground, and then it was heaven all the way up. Mountains were thought of as poking into heaven, and thus the mountain-top experience—in the realm of light and air, where birds and spirits lived beyond the grip of gravity, the realm of freedom. The point of heaven isn’t altitude but attitude. It’s not far away, it’s all around, but invisible to us, unless it opens up to us somehow.
Right now this room is full of radio waves at different frequencies. Only few of them are visible. There are in here microwaves and short-waves and AM waves and FM waves, and they are carrying a million messages of information and conversation. You can’t sense them unless you have a receiver of some kind. Some of these waves can travel great distances and bounce around the atmosphere. Once I was driving in Canada at sundown and I picked up the broadcast of a Mets game. On short-wave radio you can communicate with anyone around the world. But if you lack the device or the power to run the device you are senseless of this conversation, no matter how real it is.
This is what heaven is like, the heaven which Jesus entered on Ascension Day. It’s the great and living conversation all around above us, the reality beyond the grip of gravity, unbound by time and space, but powerful, and present to the world, and the earthly world is very much within its interest. The radiation in it is the power of Our Ascended Lord, and the information in it is his living Word. And when you also enter that conversation, that is what we call prayer. When we raise up a child in the Christian faith, we teach the child how to tune in to the wavelength of that great conversation already going on. That’s why prayer is just as much about listening as it is speaking.
There’s a story about a man who was exhausted and discouraged. His friend was a person of prayer, and he asked her what her secret was. She said, "I have no secret, I just pray." He said, "I pray too, but I don’t think my prayers even reach the ceiling." She said, "They don’t have to go that far." When we read in our Gospel Lesson of Jesus praying in the Upper Room for his disciples on the night before he died, that he lifted up his eyes to heaven, what he saw with his eyes was the ceiling. And the prayer that he was praying then for his disciples is what he’s praying in heaven for you now.
The Heidelberg Catechism says that you can find comfort in the doctrine of the Ascension because it means that Jesus intercedes for you in the presence of his Father. He knows exactly what it’s like to have a body, to be hungry, to be hated, to be beaten and abused, to be a refugee, to be a little child bundled about. And because Jesus knows, God knows. When Jesus prays in heaven for this little girl it’s not at a distance but here among us, under this ceiling, in our midst.
Now what about that cloud in the story? In the Bible the cloud is the sign of the presence of God which also hides God from your sight. Is God really there or not? What is God up to in there? This past week I just started to do some cloud-based computing. It’s a little scary, not having my files securely on my hard drive. Not even my programs. They’re out of my possession. I really don’t know where those files are, but I can always get at them.
Dearly beloved, you are called to practice cloud-based believing. Your knowledge is not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. The programs you operate are not with you but with Jesus in the cloud. That’s a hard lesson, but it’s for the best.
The disciples had to face this now. The disciples had not foreseen that Jesus would be leaving them. They liked having him back, back from the dead in flesh and blood, standing right there with them, ready to do some politics, but then he left them. Now they have to deal with a cloudy new reality which is not clear to them but into which they must project their belief.
So much is not defined. Like how it works, that he still has a real live Jewish human body with hair and nails and such, and exist somehow the way he does. What space and time can hold him? And who are these two men? Where did they come from? They are not angels, they are men, with bodies too. Did they come here from the future? Is that where Jesus is? My best answer is Yes, and my message to you today is that from the future he is bending our history towards his kingdom of righteousness and peace as we slowly come to him.
You can’t see the future of this little girl. You can’t define what lies ahead for her or what kind of choices she will make. But you can project your belief into the future of her life, her future which the Lord Jesus is bending towards his final righteousness and peace, because he is already there, and at the same time he is also here with her, under this ceiling.
You know, Our Lord is the real guy doing the baptism, and as certainly as Rev. Major pours the water on her head so certainly does the Lord Jesus pour his Spirit into her heart. When Rev. Major repeats her name so certainly does Our Lord repeat it too, and announce it to his Father, and the Father delights to say her name and love her. And when you all witness it, be reminded that God knows your name as well, and delights to say your name, because of how much God loves you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.