Sermon, 5/16/21: A Conundrum “That Passeth all Understanding” or, “The Ascension”

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7 Easter

Psalm 1; Acts 1:15 – 17, 21 – 26; I John 5:9 – 13; John 17:6 – 19

And to this the Spirit bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. I John 5:6

Unless a parish is what we Episcopalians used to call “high church” (or Anglo-Catholic), Ascension Day, the Feast of the Ascension, which celebrates the departure of the resurrected Christ from his disciples, belongs squarely in the theological category of ‘don’t ask; don’t tell.’  For us Christians, it is embarrassing enough to try to explain to non-believers why we celebrate Christmas and Easter.  But we can and we do, even if sometimes [we] never [do so] with the clarity and satisfaction that we would desire.  Ascension?  That is an issue that we would rather avoid.

We can dance around the embarrassment of Christmas because we have the distraction of scented trees, poinsettias, figurines of angels and shepherds.  Moreover, who can rant against an infant child?  Because of these distractions, we never have to explain that, fundamentally, we are celebrating a belief that stretches and challenges our sensibilities and our intellect.  If we take, even halfway seriously, the creation stories in the Book of Genesis—and there are two—we believe that humankind was created in the image of God.  Theologically, the Christmas Story proclaims that God modifies or adjusts or amends the Creation Story.  God takes on human form.  God turns nature on its head.

And then, of course, through our reenactment of that new image-taking, we dodge the issue by raising the question of ‘why.’  Oh, we do answer the question and, we say, in order that we may have someone who can bring us again into covenantal harmony with God.  We settle that issue, theologically speaking, only then to find ourselves confronted with the question of the mechanics of God’s acquiring a human image.  However, God, by definition, being all-knowing and all powerful, is capable of perform unimaginable feats.

Our Book of Records, the Bible, speaks of the virgin birth as the means, an act that defies all human reason, and so we are quite glad to have the activities of the shepherds and the wise men asking where this God-made-man, where this image, is to be found.  And before we know, Christmas has passed and we are on our way, via Lent, to Easter.

Easter, with its lilies, butterflies, eggs, and Hallelujah Chorus, is no less vexing to explain than is Christmas.  Every thinker, from Nicodemus to Paul of biblical notoriety or saintly fame, to Rudolf Bultmann, to Søren Kierkegaard, to Benedict XVI, asks the question, the answer to which defies, once again, everything that ‘passes human knowing,’ to borrow a phrase from that glorious Easter hymn, “Come ye faithful raise the strain of triumphant gladness.”

We are more than a little tongue-tied, as we cannot ever prove the resurrection through any means available to us.  Our scientific capabilities through carbon dating will never provide us with the definitive answer to that burning question: “Did the physical, historical Jesus rise from the dead?”  What we have, those of us common folks who occupy the pews of a Sunday, and the only thing that we have, is the word of those who witnessed, who doubted, who believed that the God who had assumed human image was also capable of performing a humanly desired, but still impossible feat. 

We allow ourselves to become distracted by the election of Matthias to the mighty twelve.  Judas had to be replaced if this thing called “establishing the truth of Christ” was to flourish.  After all, disciples/apostles were sent forth two by two.  (Luke 9; Acts 1:20) Further, with the increase in daylight hours and friendlier weather, we become more active and lose interest in pursuing the conundrum of the resurrection.  And particularly this year (‘waiting to exhale’, as it were) because of Covid-19, we’re busy physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  Thus, it is that the mystery of the resurrection is allowed to slide for another year into the liturgical background.

But then, along comes another human-reasoning and science-defying occurrence, namely Ascension Day.  Yet, even here, at the Feast of the Ascension, we are fortunately taken off the hook, to use the vernacular, because the observance of that troublesome event falls not on a Sunday, as does Easter, but during the week, almost as a somewhat side attraction.  Moreover, what kind of commercial advantage can the marketplace extract from a religious holiday where the main event is a disappearance act?  Ascension is not a Christmas!

And so it is, then, that Ascension Day, over millennia, has faded into the background except in the liturgical and theological realm, in Anglo-Catholic parishes.  It has become the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ religious holiday of Christendom, and preachers do not have to address it.  Nevertheless, from a position of faith, the Ascension of Christ, the removal of the historical Jesus from the day-to-day lives of his immediate disciples and other followers, is duly noted in the Bible and, therefore, cannot be ignored.  Indeed, from a position of faith, I argue that the Ascension is as important as the Birth (Christmas) and the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter).  The Ascension completes the circle: arrival, growth, death, resurrection, departure.

Just as we pay great attention to Jesus’ arrival (stars, angels, shepherds, wise men, and gifts!), so ought we to pay attention to his departure.  That, too, should be cause for great celebration, even if our merchants have not yet caught on to its importance in our faith.  Although I may have a personal interest in the Feast of the Ascension (as it was on Ascension Day that I was confirmed, ordained deacon, and ordained priest—not all in the same year or decade even, of course), Ascension Day is crucial to those of us Christians who did not have the first-hand experience of those chosen disciples.

Only the disciples witnessed Jesus’ ascension; yet there are three accounts of the event recorded in the pages of scripture: Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24: 50-53, and Acts 1:9-11.  And as one might expect, each account has its own intention.  In Mark, Jesus journeyed from earth to heaven and shares the sovereign authority of God, fully participating in God’s glory.   Mark’s account establishes what Jesus said about himself, namely that he and the Father are one.

In Luke, we learn that Jesus led the disciples out as far as Bethany and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”  Then they worshiped him.  Luke’s gospel ends as it began, with the community engaged in worship and praise of Jesus.  Luke emphasizes that Jesus is the Messiah.

By far, though, the most detailed account of Jesus’ departure is found in Acts of the Apostles, 1:1-11, written by Luke, the same individual who wrote the gospel. There, in the Acts account, we learn that 40 days had elapsed since the Day of the Resurrection, days during which Jesus appeared to his disciples and spoke to them about the reign of God.  He implored them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, promising that this attribute of God would give them power to become his “witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  And as Jesus explains this to them, he is “lifted up,” i.e., removed from their presence.

In all the accounts of the ascension, Jesus is visibly separated from the disciples.  This event in the life of the historical Jesus is one that by virtue of our untimely birth, to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, we will never be able to verify.  For that reason, it is the promise of the Spirit of God, coupled with the image of God, that is most important in our lives.  But that spirit could only become effective when the God who had taken on our image, which is none other than God’s own image, has returned to us our destinies offered at Creation. 

Had that God-become-Human-Image remained with us, we would have remained dependent on his miracles.  We would not have been released from that dependency and returned to the purpose of our original creation, to explore the world, into which we have been placed, and to exercise and share the gifts with which we have been endowed.  Merchants can’t sell their wares on this aspect of our belief, as they can with gift-giving and rebirth.  Yet, Ascension is fundamental, crucial to why and how we proclaim our faith.

The ascension was the prerequisite for the outpouring of the Spirit, the will of God, to direct us, you and me, when the physical presence, the image of an image, was no longer present to direct us.  Now God’s people receive the power to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and to carry out their mission as the church, as a community that cares for each others, and as a community that reaches out to others who are on the fringe, in order that they might be drawn into the middle.

Theologically, but also rationally, Christ left us, by whatever form and means, in order that his presence might be more useful to us.  As odd as it may appear, his presence is no longer restricted by the limitations of the human body.  He can be with us wherever we might find ourselves.  Now we always have Christ in all ways.  So, why celebrate the Feast of the Ascension?  Because in the ascension, we are guaranteed that Christ’s love is available to us today, right now.  It is not localized to Bethany, Judea, and Samaria.  Salvation is ours, community is ours, and we have been granted power to do ministry through God’s spirit released into the world as a result of Christ’s being lifted up out of sight.  Amen