Sermon - Ascension Day 2020
In the Name...
There is a church in England, dedicated to the Ascension, which is remarkable for a particular piece of artwork. Above the altar, the ceiling is decorated with a scene of sky and clouds and out of the clouds are hanging down the carving of two legs and feet. To me it conjures up images of the Wizard of Oz. But, as silly as it looks, it is the Ascension. The resurrected Jesus goes up into a cloud.
And that is the witness of Holy Scripture, of the very apostles themselves. As improbable as it sounds, the Ascension was actually a witnessed event, a recorded fact. No metaphor or parable here. And in spite of all the places where the Bible seems obscure, or contradicts itself, or isn’t entirely clear about details, here we find something stated in terms which are disturbingly plain, clear, and obvious. Jesus flies into the clouds in front of a big crowd. So, we can be confident that the Ascension actually happened.
But, why is it important to us if it happened or not? Well, a few years ago, Time and Newsweek ran articles about a so-called “scientific” criticism of the Easter story. The basic argument was that Jesus had not actually died. He had only been drugged. According to this theory, the three days in the tomb were just a “bad trip,” from which Jesus presumably awoke with a nasty hangover. After all, the articles rightly pointed out, there were no witnesses to the resurrection. No one was there when Jesus started breathing again. So it was, the critics claimed, possibly all a great deception.
I suppose a sceptic could be satisfied with that. On the other hand, even if there was something fishy about the resurrection claim, could the disciples have really made Jesus appear to fly away in public? You and I don't have to imagine human flight or special effects. We have lots of technical know-how. But, can we believe that some rural 1st Century peasants, uneducated even by the standards of their day, could pull off a stunt like that? As the kids say, “Not!”
No, it really happened, just like the resurrection really happened, and what we have to figure out is, Why? It has been said that, like Jesus' robe, the Christian Gospel is of one piece, a seamless garment if you will, and the Ascension is important to us because this was the moment that Jesus finally chose to reveal the glory of who and what he was before a live audience.
The Nativity took place in total obscurity. Most of the miracles happened without any fanfare and Jesus often asked people not to talk about them. The Resurrection was so quiet that the guards slept through it. But, now, Jesus chose to blow his cover and show himself as he always could have but didn't, because now, more than ever, the disciples were going to need an extra sign of reassurance. They needed something that would give them the strength to carry on and proclaim the Gospel in the face of perils that only Jesus knew were coming. They needed the certainty that not only will he not forget them, but, that he indeed has the power to protect them.
There was once a man, who, as a very young boy, was taken to nursery school by his mother. Sensing his anxiety about being left alone, the boy’s mother leaned down, kissed him, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.” Too young to recognize the paradox, the boy somehow accepted the words as an encouragement. Day after day, and week after week, his mother bid the same farewell and he soon adjusted to what might have been new and frightening surroundings.
The boy grew into adulthood, and as a mature man was one day confronted with the struggle of having to place his mother in a nursing home. She was now elderly and frail, with advanced Alzheimer’s. She barely recognized him, often forgot to eat, and could no longer take care of herself. On the day when the move to her new and potentially frightening surroundings was made, as he was leaving her room a thought struck him, he leaned down, kissed her, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.” She smiled at him, nodded her head, and repeated, “No one is leaving.”
St. Leo the Great wrote, “Even the blessed apostles, though they have been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before.”
This is Jesus’ Ascension message. Yes, he is departing out of our sight. Yes, we find ourselves in new and frightening surroundings where we often feel ill-equipped to carry on. But, despite that, we covenant to seek and serve him in all persons, we feel his living presence in bread and wine, and we find joy in what terrified us before.
We find joy, if we realize that this unimaginable event was recorded by the least likely, and thus the most reliable, witnesses ever. We find joy if we put ourselves in their sandals and realize that we too are apostles with a Gospel to proclaim. And, we might especially find joy if we stretch our imaginations to hear Jesus, as his feet disappear into the clouds, saying to us, “Good bye, my beloved. No one is leaving.”
In the Name…