Worship, Doubt and Ascension

[This is the sermon that I did not preach last night at Church on Tap at Christ Church, Deer Park. With a small crowd it seemed more appropriate to engage in a more interactive reflection on Acts 1.1-11 and Matt 28.16-20. So I’m posting this ascension day sermon here instead.]

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Worship and doubt.
Standing before the risen Christ,
they worshipped him, but some doubted.

I get that.

Here we are, six weeks into the season of Easter,
six weeks of alleluias,
six weeks of worshipping the risen Christ,
but doubt is never quite dispelled.

Worship and doubt are not mutually exclusive,
not on that mountain top in Galilee,
not on a Friday evening at Church on Tap,
and not in the life of any serious Christian faith.

Worship and doubt go together.

Indeed, worship without doubt
is the posture of idolatry,

the faith of an ideology.

True worship not only welcomes doubt,
it requires doubt.

Doubt keeps worship honest.
Doubt keeps worship alive.

But lets be clear about what occasions the deepest doubt.

Consider these disciples on that mountainside.
What did they doubt?

Surely this is not the doubt of Thomas
about whether Jesus had really risen from the dead.

No, these disciples are in the presence of the risen Christ,
and that presence occasions for them both worship and doubt.

They know that this is indeed their Lord,
they know that bowing and kneeling before this Lord
is the only appropriate response,
and yet, in this meeting they also know a deep doubt in their hearts.

They are perplexed and confused.
They can’t quite figure out what is really going on here.
The story took a strange turn first with the crucifixion,
– I mean, that wasn’t in the plan for any of them –
only to be dramatically reopened on Easter morning.
But now, here they are with the risen Lord, and … well … and what now?

What’s next?
Where is the story going now?
And why haven’t things begun to finally resolve themselves
the way they were supposed to?

To get a clue as to what was at the heart of their doubt on that mountainside,
let’s take a look at their final conversation with Jesus.

Let’s move from the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel
to the first chapter of Luke’s story of the Acts of the Apostles.

They are on another mountain – this time the Mount of Olives,
across the valley from Jerusalem, a lot closer to the centre of power.

Jesus has been appearing to them for forty days now,
teaching them more about the Kingdom of God.

And I suspect that all of this kingdom talk served to deepen their longing,
to reawaken (as if from the dead) their deepest hopes,
and perhaps also to intensify the confusion, the frustration,
and maybe even the doubt that we met a couple of weeks earlier in Galilee.

So they ask him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

This, I think, is at the heart of their doubt,
and maybe continues to be at the heart of our doubt as well.

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
is a question that gives voice to the confusion,
maybe even the disappointment,
that continues to plague these disciples,
even in the face of the risen Christ.

“Yes, Lord, you have risen from the dead!
But where is the kingdom?
It was all about the kingdom, you know.
That’s what attracted us to you from the beginning,
you proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand,
and in your teaching and ministry,

it really looked as if that was true.
The sick were healed, the hungry fed, the poor heard good news,
and you proclaimed a radical word of liberation in the face of oppression.
Indeed, you embodied that word in all that you did
– you were the word made flesh –
but where is the kingdom?
Where is the reign of God made flesh?

It’s been forty days, hasn’t it?
Isn’t it now time for us to come out of this wilderness and enter your kingdom?
Isn’t it now time for the promised land to be liberated from idolaters?
Isn’t it now time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?

Didn’t you teach us to pray,
“Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven”?
But, the kingdom has still not come,
and God’s will is certainly not being done
on earth as it is in heaven.”

So some doubted – even as they worshipped.

I suspect that most of us in this room can relate to that kind of doubt.

You see, the most pressing spiritual questions I meet as a campus minister,
seldom have to do with something like “did the resurrection really happen?”
No, I’m more likely to hear the question, “so what?”
“If the gospel is true, if Jesus has really risen from the dead,
then where is the evidence – the real evidence –
in the transformation of this world?
Where can I actually see God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven?
Because if I could see that, then you know that I’d be the first to join up.”

At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says,
“all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,”
but it sure doesn’t look that way,
at least not on the earth where we live.

Rather, it would seem that all authority in this world
is vested somewhere else,
not in Jesus.

The global markets seem to have incredible authority
over the lives of independent states and their citizens.

Consumer greed seems to hold our culture in its grip.
Status, prestige, wealth and security seem to have a constricting power
and authority over our lives.

Self-serving political ideologies seem to rule our political institutions.

And I can imagine those disciples on that hill in Galilee thinking,
“All authority resides in Jesus?
Sure doesn’t look like it sitting on this hill
so far from the real centres of power!”

So they worship and they doubt.
Just like us.

And to make things more difficult,
precisely at the point where the disciples are beginning to doubt

whether he really does have this earthly authority,
whether he really is going to establish his kingdom on earth,
Jesus splits the scene and goes back to heaven.

Well, that’s helpful!
No wonder they doubted.

But notice that Jesus does not leave his disciples
in their mixed worship and doubt,
nor does he leave them hanging with an unanswered question
about the establishment of his kingdom.

In response to their doubt he said,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

And in response to their question about the restoration
of the kingdom to Israel he said,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Do you see, dear friends,
how this is an answer to their doubts, to their confusion?

Jesus is saying to them, and to us,
Are you confused about how my authority is manifest?
Are you still trying to figure out how the kingdom that I proclaimed
and embodied is to be manifest on earth as it is in heaven?

Well, listen up.
You are to go and make disciples of all nations.
You are to baptize them, invite them to die to the powers of this world
and embrace the power of the world to come.
You are teach them the way of the kingdom
so that they will obey everything that I have commanded.
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea,
and to the very ends of the earth.

Jesus doesn’t back away for a second
from the all-embracive vision of the kingdom.
This is a discipleship of obedience in all things and in all of life.
Indeed, this is a gospel that goes to the very ends of the earth.

Are you now going to restore the kingdom?, they asked.
And Jesus responds with a resounding, “Yes.”

Yes, I am restoring the kingdom
and that is why the Spirit of God will come in power upon the church.
Yes, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,
and you, my disciples, are now commissioned into the world
as agents of that kingdom,
endowed with the healing authority of that kingdom.

Do you doubt because injustice seems to rule our world?
Then embrace a life of justice.

Do you doubt because there is so much violence and hate?
Then be a peacemaker, an icon of love.

Do you doubt because there is so much pain and hurt?
Then take on a ministry of compassion and healing.

Do you doubt because the greed of our economy destroys our world?
Then embrace a life of generosity and creation care.

Do  you see what is going on here?
Jesus responds to our doubts about his authority and his kingdom
not by chastising us for having doubts,
but by commissioning us as envoys of that kingdom.

You see, dear siblings in Christ …
Ascension isn’t the abrogation of God’s sovereignty over all of creation.
Ascension isn’t the abandonment of this good earth.
Ascension isn’t giving up on the loving and restorative rule of God.
Ascension isn’t the cop out of a powerless king and a failed kingdom.

No, ascension is the establishment of that kingdom in heaven
by the risen one taking up his rule at the right hand of the Father,
and the ongoing realization of the kingdom on earth
by the church empowered by the Holy Spirit
being that kingdom community in all of life

So let’s say that we believe all of this.
Let’s say that “doubts and all” we have heard this invitation to ministry,
this call to be agents of God’s healing rule.

This does not, in and of itself, allay our struggles and confusion.
This does not, in and of itself, relieve our disappointment.
This does not, in and of itself, dispel our doubt.

And so Jesus says to his doubtful disciples,
and he says to us,
“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

And at the end of the age?
“He will come again,” say the angels.

And so we live, even with our doubt and confusion,
in the abiding presence of the risen one,
and in the radical hope that in his return,
his kingdom will finally come,
and God’s will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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