May 24, 2004
Luke 24: 46-53
A young couple gave birth to twin boys and they named one Peter and the other Paul. The parents could tell from the very start that these two boys were very different. Peter was a happy baby whereas Paul seemed dour and very seldom would smile. As the boys began to grow they polarized even more. Peter was the eternal optimist, always seeing good in every situation. Paul was negative and complaining. Nothing was able to make him happy. By the time the boys reached their 8th birthday their parents knew they had to do something to make Paul more positive and Peter less so. So they decided to use the boys’ birthday presents to accomplish this end. They told the boys that they would each receive a very special birthday present, and they set aside two rooms in their house. One room they filled with all the gifts, toys and clothing that they could afford. All of this was to be Paul’s birthday present. They were hopeful that at least something would make him happy. The other room was for Peter. In that room they brought in a huge pile of animal manure from the nursery. They were confident that even Peter could not find anything good in such a birthday gift.
When the time came for the boys’ celebration, they directed each boy into the appropriate room and closed the door. After about an hour they went into Paul’s room. “Honey how do you like your birthday presents?” “Not very much,” he said. “My bike is the wrong color. All these clothes are dorky, and my friends already have these video games.” The parents were discouraged. At least half of their experiment had failed. Paul was as negative as he always was. But there was still hope that Peter had become more balanced. As they approached the second room they could hear the squeals of Peter laughing in delight. They opened the door, and there he stood in the middle of the room covered with manure and gleefully digging into the pile. He looked up and said, “Mom and Dad thank you for this gift. I am sure with this much manure, there is a pony in here somewhere!”
It is our common experience that some people are optimists and others are pessimists. But the feast of the Ascension reminds us that if we are Christians, if we are followers of Christ, we are called to be optimists. What stands at the center of our faith is not warning and fear, not rules and commandments. What stands at the center of our faith is good news—the good news that Jesus who was crucified has been raised up and has entered into glory. Entering into that glory is what we celebrate today. It is what we mean when we talk about Jesus’ ascension. But the good news does not stop with Jesus. We believe that the same pattern that shaped Jesus’ life is now our own. We who follow Christ, who have been baptized into him, believe that our lives are now patterned on his. We believe that there is a movement in our life that is not downward toward death but upward towards life and glory. Our conviction that such a movement is our own is what supports Christian optimism.
Now not all optimism is Christian. Not all optimism is even healthy. There is a kind of optimism that is blind, that refuses to admit that there is evil in the world. Such an optimism is out of touch with reality, and it is not Christian. Christian optimism recognizes that there are many things wrong with our world, but it refuses to let that which is wrong negate that which is good. Christian optimism holds onto the hope that our lives and our world are in fact modeled after Christ’s, that we are indeed moving towards glory.
Is it easy to live this kind of optimism? Not at all. It is difficult when there are problems in our family; when we worry about our children or our parents; when there is misunderstanding and hurt. It is difficult for a Christian to believe that when we love and forgive, things will work out for the best. It is difficult when we experience sickness and loss to continue to trust that we can find the courage to continue and once again be happy. It is difficult when we live in a world where so many lives are controlled by violence and war and hatred and injustice to believe that women and men of goodwill can make a difference, that working together we can find a road to peace.
It is difficult to remain optimistic in the real world in which we live, but that optimism is at the center of the gospel. We who follow Christ are challenged to believe it. Yes there is much that is wrong about our world. But we who follow Christ believe that the world and our lives have been patterned on Jesus’ own life, which changes everything. We who celebrate this feast today believe that we know the pattern and the movement of our lives. We believe that that pattern is not downward but ascending.