The Ascension of the Lord - Cycle C 2018-2019
Acts 1:1-11 | Ephesians 1:17-23 | Luke 24:46-53
God, our Father, make us joyful in the ascension of your Son, Jesus Christ. May we follow him into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope, and we ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
These next three Sundays are very important feasts that we’re focusing on, and this one is the Feast of the Ascension. Then next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, and then we close this Easter time with the Feast of the Holy Trinity. What I can sense the church is doing is trying to put us into the right disposition, the right place to begin what we call ordinary time throughout the summer months and through the time of advent when we listen attentively to the teaching and the experiences that people had of this figure Jesus. So I want to start with a kind of broad-stroke picture of this mysterious thing we call redemption, which God came and became one of us and saved us from something horrific.
So let’s look at it. First of all, I just want to start with the image of God creating human beings and setting them on this earth and taking a risk, a chance and giving them the one thing he didn’t give to any other thing that he created, and that was free will. So he has now created these beings that can actually turn away from him and reject him and do anything they want to do if they set their mind to it, and he started with them in a beautiful, idyllic kind of place, much like we begin our own lives in this world in childhood. Everything is in harmony, and everything seems one, and it’s a beautiful time. And then as we develop and as the story developed, we see that all of a sudden, independence and autonomy begins to fill the human race, which is symbolized in Adam and Eve, and what we see in them is this choice that they make to basically be autonomous from God. That’s one of the fundamental things we see in that story in Genesis, that they thought they could be equal to God. They could know what God knows and have what God has but not necessarily because he’s steadily giving it to them but because they can possess it. That was the lie that was given to them, and the result of that is that they had to struggle on their own then. If they chose to be on their own, God said, “Okay, I’ll sew you some clothes, and I’ll send you out into the world. And it’s going to be tough.” So then he gave them the law, and the law was something to help them in their choices and to guide them. They struggled and struggled to follow the law and really basically couldn’t do it very well at all. There were those moments that are very powerful when God looks at the human race and just says, “This is just a mess. I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to get rid of them all.” And he saves a family and then continues the work.
It’s an interesting story, not unlike our own stories of struggle with understanding who God is and how we surrender to him, but anyway, it took the course eventually where God said, “The only thing I can do is come down and show them, more dramatically, more clearly, who they can be.” That’s what Jesus came into the world to do, is to show them who they can be, human beings filled with spirit, and they needed something. They needed something that would break open their hearts and their souls to the presence of God, because Jesus, it seems to me, came to teach, more than anything else, the teaching of presence. So he came into the world to do something to open men and women to this mysterious power of God dwelling within them, partnering with them and enabling them to do this work in a new context, in a new — it’s a new creation is the way it’s described in scripture. So the work of Jesus is to come in the form of a human being and then to say, “Look, this is what potentially human beings have within them, this capacity for divinity to dwell within them. It’s what you rejected back in the garden.” And it changes everything. So we have this thing called redemption.
Then when Jesus went through the process of redemption — and the interesting thing about redemption is it has something to do with surrendering and submitting to a destiny that God calls us to, and there’s a kind of dying to it that is so essential. And that’s what Jesus did. He gave in to a plan, and the plan seemed so ridiculous to the disciples that they thought it was not a good plan at all. So they really basically felt that this was a stupid idea. When Jesus gave in to his destiny and gave in to what it is that God was calling him to, even though it looked to the world as if he was truly destroyed, but he wasn’t, it was in the act of surrender that he gained all this ability to come back, in a sense, and be with his disciples. So what he wanted so clearly to show them is that, when we do the grieving and the suffering that is so part of our lives, when we go into that and accept it, we come out of it a new person. We come out of it, in a sense, in a risen form, and so Jesus makes sure that they understand that those things that are destiny for us can never destroy us. They can only bring us to fuller life. And so Jesus comes back and spends 40 days with his disciples, and they’re absolutely, totally convinced that he isn’t gone, that he wasn’t destroyed. Forty days with a person who was dead in a bodily form would convince anybody that this is a mysterious, marvelous, wonderful thing that they are experiencing.
And then when he gets ready to leave that time that he spent with them in a resurrected body, that’s where we pick up the story today, and in both the Acts of the Apostles and in the Gospel, it’s so clear what happened, that he was with them. He told them that there was going to be something given to them, and this is the part that I can’t explain it. I don't know exactly how it worked, but what Jesus was saying was, “I have to return to the Father so that, when I return to the Father, then it’s possible for my Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of my Father and myself, will come and dwell within you. So I have to do all these things. You watched me go through all the things that I had to do in terms of my death, suffering and passion. Then you see me rise, but then I must go back to the Father, and what I’m going to do, when I’m with the Father, is I’m going to be your advocate. I’m there for you. I’m there to continue to be a source of grace and teaching for you, and the way it comes to you is in the form of Spirit.” So the Spirit is going to come, and what’s important about the second reading, from Ephesians, is that it says what is promised is wisdom, wisdom that brings knowledge of who God is.
So what is the work of the Spirit in you and in me? And we’re going to celebrate that next week in Pentecost. What is this gift of God’s Spirit in us producing? Well, let’s look at those two images. It’s wisdom, and you know that wisdom is something that goes beyond logic and goes beyond cause and effect. It’s a kind of understanding of something where we’re wide open to allowing something to happen that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense, but we believe it. We know it’s true. So this wisdom is given to us, and the wisdom is regarding the full nature of who God is. And if you’re going to look at who God is, you’re looking at what he’s doing for you. So the ascension is the invitation on the part of Jesus to his disciples, to all of us, to be open, radically open, ready to receive this gift of wisdom that’s then going to show us who he is. Then I’m thinking to myself, “This is such an interesting image. Who is God?” Who is he to you? I have a sense of who he is to me, which is radically changed since I was 18, 19, 20 years old when I went in the seminary. I don't know if I had any sense of — I knew God existed. I knew that he was a personal God, and I believed in Jesus, but I think what I basically felt about God is that he came into my life to tell me all the things that I needed to do in order to please him so that I could get the reward of eternal life or the reward of a good life. So it seemed to me that primarily what I was looking at, when I thought about God, what I was grasping in my imaginations, was a kind of good teacher who would tell me what to do in order to get what I needed. What I realize now is there’s that dimension to Jesus. He’s a good teacher, but what’s so often not understood, and what I think we need the Spirit to help us understand, because the way it unfolds is totally mysterious, is that we have a God who has created for you and for me an entirely new world — a new world, something radically different and that, if we understand it fully and we surrender to it, enter into a new creation. And there are dimensions to this new creation, and one of them is a kind of unity, a oneness.
I love those images in the Old Testament, in Genesis, of Adam and Eve in the garden, and there’s always the sense of such harmony and oneness and walking with God, and everything is connected. And yet in this world that I live in, so often I can go through a day, and I feel nothing more than being scattered. My attention’s being pulled in 20 directions, and I try to cover all the things that I’m responsible for, and then I hear things that are going on in the world that worry me. There’s oil spilling in the Gulf, and then there’s this war, and there’s this economy, and there’s these problems on Wall Street. It doesn’t seem to have any kind of unity or connection. So what I’d like to see happen to us is that we would be open to this idea that there is a gift that is given — it’s called the Spirit — that comes into us, that when we are open to it and notice that, St. Paul says in this letter, that what we need to do is have the eyes of our heart see it. That’s so much the image of wisdom, the eyes of your heart, not the eyes of your mind but the eyes of your heart. That just says to me that it’s more in the area of feeling. It’s more in the area of intuition. It’s more in the area of something you kind of know without knowing how you know it, but if you could believe that this promise is real, that God is really creating for you and for me a way of seeing the world where everything is interconnected, then if you presume that it is — it’s not that you can figure out first that it is and, “Oh, now I believe it is,” no. Presume that it is, and then begin to wait, to begin to sense and to feel the connections. It’s a very, very important exercise in terms of our spiritual lives to have some way of sensing that every single thing that’s going on is somehow connected to the other things that are going on that are connected to the needs that your soul has, that your heart has, that the culture has, that everything has. It’s all working together for the good. That’s the promise, because if you don’t have the sense — if you don’t have a sense of God as an agent in the world that is working for you and doing radical things for you, then it seems to me he ends up simply being a tour guide through this whole thing and a teacher that tells you what you have to do and not to do in order to get to the goal. And that’s such an over-simplified, impersonal, shortsighted way of imagining this God.
When Jesus says, “I’ve come into the world to give to you something so radically new that it changes everything, and there’s a unity in the universe because of what I’ve done. There’s a oneness that we need to be aware of” — that kind of language is all through the New Testament, and I often wonder what was that so electrified the converts to Christianity. And I don’t think it was the fact that there was just this story of a man who died and came back. I don’t think that would have changed that much. It would be such an interesting thing, to believe that that happened, but it’s got to be that that event did something more than just present a human being who was dead and then came back and then somehow went up to heaven. There’s something that he did in that act that is so essential. If you think of it as divinity coming down and entering into this whole messy sort of thing we call life and somehow charging it with connection and grace and unity, then you begin to sense something that’s very exciting, very challenging to be a part of.
So my prayer with you this morning is that we somehow open our hearts, the eyes of our hearts — love that image — and somehow enter more fully into this place where we’re more conscious of what this God has done and is doing for us and what it means that he dwells within us and what this wisdom really is that helps us to see exactly what he’s doing within us. It’s like first we believe, and then we experience, not experience and then believe. So believe with me in this most amazing promise that has this figure, Jesus, ascended into heaven, and he made a promise. The promise is real and has everything to do with a new life that he’s inviting you and me to live, that we could not possibly live without his help and without his teaching and without his presence.
Father, on this Feast of the Ascension, we ask you to awaken in us a longing for what it is that you promise so that our hearts will be open to the mystery of your gifts, especially the way they mysteriously work in our lives and draw us into a place of oneness and wholeness. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.