He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Happy Mother’s Day. Today happens to be the Sunday that we mark Jesus’ ascension into heaven, where he sits enthroned in power and honor at the right hand of God. Christ is exalted, vindicated, confirmed, and accepted beyond all doubt. That’s what the scriptures tell us.

Jesus’ ascension is a transitional event in the early life of the church, as indicated by Luke’s decision to end his Gospel with a telling of the story. Then, in his next book, the Acts of the Apostles, he begins the account of the early church with a retelling of the ascension of Christ. In Acts, the disciples from the Gospel of Luke are no longer followers of an itinerant rabbi: They are now witnesses to the world of God’s unyielding love and grace, and they have been given a Spirit to proclaim truth to power, reconciliation to those in conflict, and hospitality to those wary of newcomers. They preach the good news that Jesus taught, and it spreads beyond Galilee and Jerusalem, even to the very corners of the known world.

The Apostles preach a new name for God, Jesus Christ, the deliverer of salvation to the world. Our names for God often reflect who we believe God is leading us to become. To some, God calls them to be holy, to be a shining example to the world, that all might forsake evil and turn to righteousness. To others, God calls them to welcome everyone into the church, so that we would be authentically hospitable and reconciling. Some are drawn to study the teachings of the early apostles, in order to have the same deep faith they had.

All three of these tendencies are good; they’re marks and signs of the Church. The Church is holy, catholic, and apostolic. But the fourth mark, that the Church is one, is something that no individual can accomplish by him- or herself. It’s something that requires all of us to make an effort to preserve.

Before his ascension, before his resurrection, before his crucifixion, Jesus prays in the Gospel of John that we all may be one. As if in anticipation of our question, “What does that look like?” Jesus clarifies that we should be able to reflect each other in our own actions, just as Jesus reflected the very quality and nature of God to the early church.

Would that we all could reflect that very Spirit of God, that life force, that freedom and light, in our everyday lives. Would your days look any different from how they appear now? What outlook or attitude might you be able to change in order to live that kind of life?

The hard part about staying together as one Church is that we disagree on a lot of things. Within the United Methodist Church, our Annual Conferences, the meetings of clergy and laity which take place all over the world, voted in the past year to ratify certain amendments to the Church’s governing document, the Discipline. And three out of the five were easily passed. But two failed, and it was a shock to a lot of us who were following along.

“Fear about the gender of God — and what ‘gender’ means for humans — caused two constitutional amendments to fail to be ratified.”[1]

The amendments provided support for United Methodists to “confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls” within the Church, of which there is much, at home and abroad. The amendments were proposed to protect the God-given desire of each one of us to participate in the life, worship, and governance of the Church, regardless of one’s marital status, gender, ability or disability, and age (along with race, color, national origin, and economic condition). One amendment, in particular, failed by only 100 votes out of 50,000.

Imagine being told you shouldn’t consider serving as a pastor because you have poor eyesight, or you shouldn’t waste your time in seminary because you’re too old to have a long and fruitful ministry, or you shouldn’t be allowed to take up a leadership role at the church because you have trouble paying the rent, or you shouldn’t be allowed to walk through the door to worship on Sunday morning because you slept on the parsonage porch the night before.

We can find ways to marginalize and sideline each other based on any category we can imagine. But this Mother’s Day, I am particularly offended that the leaders of the Church – the clergy and lay members to our Annual Conferences around the world – failed to affirm the value of women in the Body of Christ. Think about the women in your life who have faced hardship for no good reason; think about the stories you’ve heard told about the challenges they’ve endured. I can think of plenty.

One reason the amendment failed was because Christians around the world were offended by the notion that God is neither male nor female, that God is beyond gender, beyond description, beyond categories, beyond allegiances, beyond everything that God made by God’s own Word.

Those who object offer that we pray to Jesus Christ, who became incarnate, unmistakably, as a man. But they don’t remember that he was born as a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired Jewish Palistinian. We don’t remember that when we commission stained glass windows, or proudly hang devotional oil paintings, or envision in our minds the One to whom we are praying.

And that takes us back to the ascension of Christ, the end of Jesus’ time on earth.

When God became incarnate in a baby, God took on flesh and tabernacled among us, dwelt among us, encamped in our midst. In an uncertain and inhospitable world, God’s love and grace took the form of a tiny baby, who taught us to focus on the gift that today brings and the potential that tomorrow holds. God came into the world, unexpected and inconvenient.

At the birth of Christ, God’s only means to affect creation was to cry for help, and God’s only defense was to disarm those nearby with a gaze or a giggle. The very Son of God came into the world, truly meek and mild. Whatever you want to say about God, remember that God does not come demanding us to live in a certain way or forcing us to give up a certain thing. God comes into our lives to be loved, without coercion or manipulation. And God accepts us so much that God becomes like us. God affirms our humanity in the incarnation.

Thirty-something years later, when Christ ascended into heaven, God accepted Christ, brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired, and covered in dirt, with scars unhealed from wounds inflicted out of hatred and oppression. God affirmed our humanity and embraced the stuff we are made of, the clay, the earth, and the world, in all our imperfection, all our particularity – that whether we be male or female, young or old, brown-eyed or blue-eyed, able in one way or another – we are accepted by the One who was rejected by the world, and we are embraced with a love that will overcome every difference, reconcile every hostility, and welcome every single redeemed child of God, no matter what.

That’s what the ascension means. And no amount of church politics will limit God’s love for you. No amount of discrimination and strife in this world will stop God from welcoming you to join with Christ in anticipating and witnessing the salvation of the world. No amount of trouble will get in the way of God making something new in your life, something to amaze you, something to give you hope, something to fill your heart with joy and love all over again. Because God’s promise will never be broken, and it’s a promise of inclusion, acceptance, guidance, and empowerment toward a church that welcomes all, heals and perfects all, and nurtures faith in all – until at last with Christ we all get to heaven. And what a day of rejoicing that will be.

Amen.

[1][1] Rev. Diane Kenaston, “Nevertheless, She…” in And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog, May 12, 2018, https://umcfamily.wordpress.com/2018/05/12/nevertheless-she/