Sermon, 5/29/22. Ascension: A Contract Renewed!

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7 Easter (Sunday after the Ascension)

Psalm 97; Acts 16:16 – 34; Rev. 22:12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; John 17:20 – 26

After he, Jesus, had said this, he was lifted up before their very eyes, and a cloud took him from their sight. They were gazing intently into the sky as he went, and all at once there stood beside them two men robed in white, who said, ‘Men of Galilee, why stand there looking up into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken from you up to heaven will come in the same way as you have seen him go.’ (Acts. 1.9-11)

Ascension Day was observed on Thursday of last week. And I sat in a pew, while colleagues performed the Holy Mysteries of Eucharist. The peal of the organ, the angelic voices of the choir, the solemn procession, the wafting incense, colorful vestments, appropriate lessons—the pageantry of it all was a clear indication that we were commemorating a special day in the Christian liturgical year. And as is my wont, I could not resist the temptation to ask why this great joy? This was surely not the case on that unique Ascension Day. Sheer conjecture on my part, still a close reading of our Book of Records, leads me to believe that those who had assembled, probably anticipated another routine discussion of Scripture from the Leader. From their recorded reaction, those present on that occasion were left astounded, speechless, bewildered, and anxious, for they were now without a familiar and trusted leader. But they could not remain in that place. They were told by the messengers from God to get on with the ministry, the task of spreading the Good News.

By thinking of Jesus sitting in some distant place, in the heavens, somewhere “up there,” where he reigns in glory—and admittedly we have wonderful poetry set to music which reinforces that image/concept—we overlook the central message of the Resurrection and the Ascension. To locate Christ as in some distant heaven, relaxing as it were, after a difficult, arduous sojourn on earth, denies the possibility that, like the message etched in the right side rearview mirrors of our automobiles, Christ is closer than we think, which demands that we engage in serious theological conversation.

We are taught and refreshed in our tenets of faith–children via Godly Play on Sundays, we in our hymns, in our lessons, in our sermons, as well as in the ruminations of the Church Fathers in adult forums—that Christ, God’s Messiah, descended from heaven to earth and became wholly human. Our Creeds, both the Apostles as well as the Nicene, which we recite weekly, remind us of this essential tenet. The wholeness of what it means to be human has been assumed, has been taken on by Jesus of Nazareth. If that be true, Jesus Christ is the bearer of humanity perfected. Stated otherwise, each of us has within us the seed of the Holy which begs to be developed. We people of faith, indeed all humankind, have an example of what it means to be wholly human, as well as wholly divine. And if that be so, that Jesus Christ is both divine and has taken unto himself our human nature, then in the ascended enthroned Christ is also our humanity—our humanity in its perfected form.

Our liturgical pageantry on Ascension Day was to assist us in visualizing and honoring God’s Messiah, at once removed from our earth and in regal splendor. However, that is the same Christ, enthroned now in glory, who endured the humiliation, the slights, the physical slaps on the face, the scars of the nails and the pierced side—all attested to and reaffirmed by the disciple Thomas—that enthroned Christ is as close to us as the scars, the humiliation, and the deaths of those as close to us as Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, Sandy Hook, Ct, and as distant Bucha and Mariupol, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria or Palestine.

And so I propose to you the following: Think, if you would, of the Ascension as a crucial paragraph of a contract which in religious circles is called “covenant.” In its most fundamental form, the Ascension is an integral part in that series of paragraphs in the contract/covenant which God, in Christ, has laid out, in order to reaffirm the covenant first made at Creation, and then restated with Noah, then Abraham and Sara, Isaac, Jacob, with Moses, and proclaimed again via the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah. At Ascension God, unwavering in the divine love for the created order, offers us humans again an opportunity to participate as valued partners in the creation, as originally planned. The difference this time is, that the covenant/contract has been restored, not by the sacrifice of a ram, or a goat, or a pair of turtle doves, but by God through our Redeemer Jesus of Nazareth.

At the Ascension, as well as in the Resurrection, is God not saying in the most visual and strongest terms ever even for those who witnessed it firsthand: “I do not regret my creation. I do not disown my creation. What I created is still good. And I have faith still in the human order that, being redeemed by my Messiah and following his example, we can still work this thing out. And you have a central role to play.”

I cannot think about the message which Ascension brings, without thinking of the unending carnage in our own land. At Ascension, I am reminded of the anger which comes forth in the words of God’s Messiah, who became wholly human and who declared: “Whoever causes one of these little ones …to suffer, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) And the question before us, as people of faith, is whether we have allowed our beliefs to be co-opted by others in their quest for power and dominance, when God has spoken clearly and demonstrated by example that that is not the path to perfecting the Creation. Are we not complicit, are we not ourselves part of that group that would put self-aggrandizement front and center, even as we point the finger at others? And not waiting until Christmastide, have we not made our peace with the routine-like slaughter of our own Holy Innocents and the now all too familiar TV coverage, the rehearsed stylized press conferences, and with hollow words of condolence and sympathy?

As we make our peace, Ascension calls out to us “where is your will to live into, to ratify the contract which we signed at our baptism and reaffirmed at our confirmation?” We of faith are not allowed to gaze only, but must respond to that act of grace shown in the Ascension paragraph of the contract. Enthronement in royal splendor, yes! Ascension is also about living in the here and now. Ascension, with God in the center, is really about us, about you and me, about how we go about sharing that Good News.

As I sat on Thursday evening last in that pew, I recalled a TV commercial now of some years past (February and March 2012), which for me epitomized the essence of the Ascension portion of the divine contract. Aired by General Electric purported to enlighten us how jet engines are built. GE was attempting to illustrate that it was a good neighbor, that it was adding to the nation’s economy by providing employment for women and men whose function it was to produce, a jet engine, that was safer, quieter, more fuel-efficient, one that contributed to a cleaner and greener environment. Although I was then, and remain even today, absolutely certain that theology, the divine covenant, and the Ascension were no on the agenda of the creators of the commercial, Ge did a perfect job in illustrating the essence of Ascension. GE, a multinational corporation, was not interested in theology, but rather in its bottom line. Yet, the theology was there, perhaps unwittingly, but there!

The GE TV ad emphasizes that each jet engine is meticulously hand-built. The commercial shows one individual inserting small metal parts by hand, another attaching color-coded wires, and another guiding other parts, by the hand, onto their proper location. One voice says, when she thinks about the finished engine and her contribution, she thinks about Seth, Mark, Tom, the individuals with whom she works. Then a voice says, “I would like to see this thing fly.”

The commercial concludes, showing a diverse group of machinists, women, men, Americans of various ethnic heritages, lined up along the front of a building and looking up, as a newer version of the 747 lifts off, after which they embrace, a man wipes a tear from his eye, and another machinist says,” let’s do this again.” How much more theological can one get? To be called out, to be recognized by name, individuals who alone could produce nothing, but who, in community, have the strength to “bring good things to life!”

GE did not pray for change. GE executive and engineers did not put on their long faces, nor did they stage press conferences to declare that it would be a good thing to be concerned about the environment. GE exhibited a willingness and courage to affect change. The 747, or the newer 777 at wheels up, is something in which we can believe, for it is something that we can see, it is something which we have built. Surely, if we can build a better engine, i.e. if a primary role of government is to secure the safety of the people, we can lay aside political partisanship. Surely, the lives of people deserve the same attention as do jet engines.

Ascension reminds us: We dare not forget that no one of us alone could accomplish the building of a machine as complicated as a Boeing 777. Ascension reminds us that a contract or covenant is not something for one individual alone. Without a second party, there can be no contract. There is no need for a covenant. That first Ascension was at once an individual and a communal experience. Was what the disciples and the other hangers-on, both the devout and the curiosity-seekers, witnessed the result of overactive and overwhelming collective emotions? Each individual came with different expectations of that assembly, some not knowing what to expect. Most assuredly, none of them expected to be handed a contract. But each and every one was charged with a task, to make known the New Covenant of Reconciliation.

Ascension makes two things are crystal clear. One: In receiving Christ again into the God-head, and thereby our humanity, God has kept the godly portion of the contract. Two: The Ascension is about our role, individually and collectively, on earth in the carrying out the contract, a divine contract which encourages us to proceed far beyond where our imagination can take us, a contract underwritten with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.