In the Name...
The old chapel at Virginia Seminary had a stained glass window behind its altar with three panels depicting the Ascension of Jesus. In the centre panel was Jesus with two disciples on either side of him. The flanking panels each had three disciples. That comes to ten disciples. Now, we can eliminate Judas, of course, but the question was often asked, where was the eleventh? Well, somebody had to take the picture.
St. Luke begins the Book of Acts with the words, "In my former book, O Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up to Heaven." The former book, of course, is his Gospel account and of the many things of which Luke writes, two stand out in our church calendar - Christmas and Easter. But, tonight we celebrate another event, not as well-known, but, just as important - the Ascension.
Now, it isn't hard to explain what happened on Christmas - a child was born. And on Easter Day it's easy to picture that a tomb was found empty. But, when it comes to the Ascension, Luke and the other Gospel-writers, some of whom were eye-witnesses, are not so clear. Something about a cloud and a disappearance. Very strange.
Some years ago, when I visited the Holy Land, a guide on the Mt. of Olives showed me a stone which was said to have been marked with Jesus' footprint when he jumped up into Heaven. In England, there's a mediaeval church ceiling decorated with a scene of sky and clouds and out of the clouds are hanging down the carving of two legs and feet. Of course, we know that Heaven is not literally "up there", so, what is this Ascension all about?
Well, it seems that two things happened there that day. One was that there was some physical movement. The disciples were physically staring into space. But, the other, and perhaps more significant, thing was that they experienced what a 3rdC theologian called "spiritual exaltation." Spiritual exaltation. In other words, they were given a brief glimpse of heavenly glory more intense than the Transfiguration and were, as a result, left utterly speechless.
They didn't merely see Jesus floating off like a balloon. That would have been weird, but relatively easy to describe. No, they witnessed something literally out of this world - Jesus going to the right hand of God.
They had to have seen this because, as St. Matthew's account records, there were still some present before this event who doubted that the risen Jesus was real. Afterwards, they were all praising God. So, they had to have seen Jesus confirmed in heavenly glory in a way they could not deny.
Even so, wonderful as this is, why bother to make a special point to remember it? After all, surely all we need to focus on is Easter, the empty tomb. That's all we need. Isn't it?
Well, a lot of people do think that and don't celebrate the Ascension, but they miss so much because Easter really isn't enough. I'll say that again. Easter isn't enough. All you have at the end of Easter is one immortal man walking around on earth. But, it is not until Jesus goes home, not until he has taken his human body into heavenly glory, that we can say his work on earth for us is complete.
In the Incarnation, God entered into our existence. In the Ascension, we entered into His. That's why St. Augustine called this "the crown of all Christian Feasts” because the point that Augustine goes on to make is that it was only when Jesus took our human flesh to Heaven did it became possible for his Holy Spirit to descend upon us to carry on his redeeming work.
In a few days we will celebrate Pentecost when the Father gave us the spiritual gifts which enable us to live toward the goal He planned and intended for us. No other faith on earth has so much to look forward to as ours. No other religion has been a more powerful force for renewal and restoration in the world because we believe in making the world better, not for our sake, but for Christ's because we believe he's coming back.
Granted, that every Advent we clergy manage to produce at least one sermon on the imminent return of Christ and after over 2,000 Advents some may have difficulty in feeling any great sense of urgency, but, it is the very sense of expectation which has inspired, does inspire, and will continue to inspire us to make the world ready for him. That's why we call the church "the Body of Christ" because we are his presence in the world today, and it is only as we live out being that Body, doing his works and speaking his words, that the work of the Gospel can continue to be spread.
In a world where so many live for today, clinging to material values, and fearing death as the end of everything, we Christians know that that is not the end of life, but, rather the beginning, and today is the reminder of this consoling fact. We will all leave this world someday, but this thought should be a cause for joy rather than sadness. Christ has given us not merely a chance to live forever on earth. He has given us eternal life with him in Heaven. He has promised to prepare a place for us so that where he is, there we may be also. And every day he is helping us on our way there.
So, on this Feast of the Ascension, cast your eye heavenward and say to yourself: “There is my true home. There is where I shall be forever at peace - with God, with family, friends, neighbours and with myself.” Indeed, we will be there and billions have already gotten there. In heavenly glory, spiritually exalted.
In the Name...