Sermon - Ascension Day
In the Name...
The magnificent cathedral of Milan has three great doorways facing the piazza. Over the one on the left is an inscription which says: “The things that please us are temporary.” Over the one on the right is the inscription: “The things that disturb us are temporary.” And over the central door is an inscription which says: “The things that are important to us are eternal.”
The Ascension is probably not the best observed of the feast days on the calendar, but it is, I would venture to say, about one of those eternal things which should be important to us.
The first thing, I suppose, to get clear about the Ascension is that it is about God. It is not about gravity, or the physical location of Heaven, or any of that. It is about God. In fact, even though it comes at the end of Eastertide, the Ascension is most closely related in meaning to Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation, God becoming man and living among us. The divine made human. And what we say today is that what was begun at Christmas is now brought full circle.
At Christmas, what it means to be God became fully a part of what it means to be a human being. I know that sounds difficult, but Incarnation is difficult, which is why we revere it as such a great mystery. In Jesus, all that is important about the human and the divine become united in the person and life of one man. That's Christmas and it's an amazing concept. Now, at the Ascension, this one man became for all eternity a part of who God is. That is, the human experience became for all eternity a part of the life of the One who created it in a way it had never been before.
That's why it is important to remember that it was not the spirit of Jesus, or the essence of Jesus, or the divine nature of Jesus, or the idea of Jesus, or anything like that, that ascended to the Father. It was the resurrected body of Jesus, a body that the disciples had touched, a body that ate and drank with them, a real, physical, but gloriously restored body bearing the marks of nails and spear. This is what ascended and this is what, now and forever, is a living, participating part of God. To put it in even more dramatic terms, the Ascension changed the being of God.
And that alone should make it worthy of special observance.
What does the Ascension say about being human? For one thing, it says that we are not mistakes. Many Christians have gotten a reputation for being uncomfortable with or even embarrassed about much that characterizes being human. Things like our emotions and the power that our less worthy desires seem to have over us. Some go so far to say that being human is a bad thing.
But the Ascension is here to tell us that it is a good thing to be human. Indeed, it is a wonderful and, yes, even holy thing to be human. In fact, it is such an important thing that God did it Himself so that the fullness of God now includes what it means to be human. The experience and the reality of being a human is so valuable that God has made it a part of God's own life.
Now, this is not to say that everything humans do is wonderful and holy. But it is very clear that in the eyes of God it is a wonderful and a holy thing to be a human which is a very good reason why we should always treat ourselves, and one another, with great care and respect.
And another thing the Ascension means is that God knows what it is like to be a human in a very different way than God knows what it means, for example, to be a fish or anything else. God knows what it is like to be a human being because, and there doesn't seem to be a better way of expressing it, God remembers what it is like.
When we consider God, when we approach God, and when we try to talk with God, it is important to remember that we are dealing with one who remembers his own experience and who does not just speculate abstractly on what our lives might be like. It’s not like the way we wonder what our cats are thinking. No, God remembers what it is like to laugh and to love, to be hurt and afraid, to celebrate and to mourn. God remembers what it is like to live and what it is like to die. God knows this, and God knows because God has done it.
So, we are able to reach out to God with an incredible degree of confidence. For, as we approach God, we are not only approaching the creator of the universe and the ruler of all time and eternity; we are also approaching someone who lived our life and who has shared our fate. He is the one who knows us best and who cares about us most because he has been us and his desire is for all of us to join him where he is now.
And that is what the Ascension means. It is an important thing for us and it is eternal.
In the Name...
EASTER 7, May 21st, 2023
The story is told about the Ascension Day celebrations at a particular seminary. A somewhat creative student found a hollow, plastic Jesus statue at a garden store and stuffed it with a couple of rockets. As the chapel service ended and the students and faculty came out into the courtyard, the enterprising fellow lit the fuse. But the statue didn’t go up very well and veered over, scattering everyone and hitting the chapel wall in an explosion of smoke and sparks.
At least one thing that can be said about that particular Ascension Day is that it was never forgotten. But as a rule Ascension Day is hardly remembered. It’s not on most calendars. We don’t get a day off and probably not many Christians thought about it last week as they went about their busy lives. We don’t even talk about it in church very much because the whole concept defies our modern understanding of the universe. Jesus goes up. Up where? Mars? Exactly.
But believe it or not, Christ’s Ascension actually adds quite a bit to our understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, St Augustine called it "the crown of all Christian feasts" and went on to say, "Unless the Saviour had ascended, his Nativity would have come to nothing, his Passion would have borne no fruit, and his Resurrection would have been useless." In other words, Christ’s Ascension is in an essential part of the Gospel message.
So, today, on this Sunday after the Ascension, when the reading from Acts reminds us of it, I want to look at it from two points of view – the majesty and the ministry of Jesus.
The details of what happened that day outside of Bethany are sketchy. Luke simply tells us he was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Now, this cloud was nothing to do with the atmospheric conditions of the day, because, in the Bible, clouds signify the presence of God. A cloud led the people of Israel in the wilderness, a cloud covered Mt Sinai, a cloud settled on the Mount of Transfiguration.
So, Jesus vanishing into this cloud represents his moving from the material world to the spirit world; his exaltation to the highest place again. He who "humbled himself and became obedient unto death" is now seated at the right hand of the Father as Lord over all nations, spiritual principalities and powers, and time itself - the past, present and the future. The Book of Revelation gives us a picture of this majesty, high and lifted up, sitting on the throne with angels and archangels bowing before him in constant praise.
Which leads me to my second point – the ministry of Jesus. There is little point in having a God who is exalted and majestic if he doesn’t touch our lives in some way.
As Jesus was ascending, we are told by Luke in his Gospel that he raised his hands and blessed the disciples. Now, we don’t hear of Jesus raising his hands in blessing at any other time so this is a very significant action.
He had just told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses of the things they had seen and heard. He had just told them to go, teach, baptize and make disciples and I’m sure he knew just how difficult this task was going to be. Matthew, who was there, records the last words of Jesus and perhaps this was the blessing that Luke mentions – "I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
In other words, we may not be able to see him with our eyes, but his presence is still with us.
What else could have kept the Early Christians going? We heard, today, from St. Peter, writing to a community undergoing what he called a fiery ordeal. Yes, he says, the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, but Christ will himself restore, support, and strengthen you.
On those days when it seems that we will never overcome the temptations that beset us; when the fear of world or personal disasters overwhelm us; when it seems that all there is in the future is doom and gloom, Jesus is never far away to lift us up and get us through with his words, “I am with you always.”
If that’s not a blessing, I can’t imagine what is.
As the disciples were looking around after the cloud vanished with Jesus, two angels interrupted their reverie and told them that Jesus would return. We are in the time between the Ascension and that return. The Kingdom has come but it is not yet here in all its completeness. As Jesus said to the disciples, so he says to us. We have been given the task of carrying on the Christ’s Kingdom ministry. His ministry has now become our own.
We heard that the disciples went back to Jerusalem where they worshipped God and devoted themselves to prayer. That was a good start. Let us join with them and with those gathered around the heavenly throne and give glory to our ascended Lord and King. And then, strengthened by prayer, let us get on with the practical work he has given us to do – go, teach, baptize, make disciples, and all that follows from that.
As he says in the Gospel, “the glory you have given me, I have given to them…I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…protect them in your name… so that they may be one, as we are one.”
In the Name…