Sermon delivered on Ascension Sunday, Easter 7A, June 1, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 1.6-14; Psalm 68.1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Ascension Sunday in which we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven. So what’s the big deal? Many of us do not have a clue as to why we should focus on the ascension. Others are really kind of embarrassed to talk about it. What, for example, are we to make of Luke’s account of it? Yet Jesus’ ascension into heaven is vitally important to our understanding of the Christian faith and how God operates in his world created good but corrupted badly by evil, sin, and death. We therefore need to look briefly at why Jesus’ ascension matters for God’s world and us.
So what is Luke trying to tell us in our NT lesson this morning? That Jesus was some kind of cosmic spaceman who blasted off from earth and shot into outer space on his way to heaven? If that is the case, it is no wonder we as Christians living in the west might be hesitant or embarrassed to talk about the ascension. After all, how many of us have watched folks ascend into heaven or blast off into outer space without the help of a rocket and space suits, etc.? But this kind of literalistic, reductionist reading of the ascension will make us miss what Luke and the other NT writers want us to see when they talk about it.
But before we get to that, we need to look briefly at what Luke meant by ascension and what the biblical writers meant when they talked about heaven and earth. When Luke tells us that Jesus was “lifted up,” the Greek word that he uses, eperthe, can mean to be raised from a lower to higher position as when someone is promoted to a new job. It doesn’t necessarily describe an upward physical movement (although it can mean that too). And of course Luke’s reference to a cloud hiding Jesus from the apostles’ sight is consistent with biblical language referring to God’s presence. Think, for example, of the pillar of cloud that symbolized God’s presence as he led his stubborn and rebellious people through the wilderness on their way to the promised land (e.g., Exodus 13.20-22).
In other words, what Luke is trying to tell us (as best he can considering the unique and awesome event he is describing) is not that Jesus was blasting off into outer space but rather this was the moment when Jesus was being exalted as true Lord of the universe and taken into God’s space or dimension (heaven) by God himself. This is quite consistent with what other NT writers have to say about the risen and ascended Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 28.16-20; Romans 8.24; Ephesians 1.20; Colossians 3.1; Hebrews 1.3, 1.13, 8.1, 10.12, 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22; Revelation 5.8, 12-13), even if they do not attempt to describe the ascension itself as Luke does.
Luke’s description of Jesus’ ascension is also consistent with the biblical writers’ conception of heaven and earth. They didn’t see the two as different locations on the same continuum that were immeasurably far apart so that one would have to traverse the whole of outer space to get to heaven. Instead, they saw heaven and earth as two different dimensions that overlapped and intersected physically and relationally. In other words, heaven is not far from earth, but rather very near it. It is God’s space and is the control room for earth. It is not usually discernible to our senses or measurable as earth or human space is. For the biblical writers, heaven and earth were simply different components or dimensions of God’s created order and when Jesus ascended into heaven, it didn’t mean that he had blasted off into outer space but rather had gone back into God’s space or dimension to assume his rightful place as Lord of the created cosmos.
And it is important for us to get our minds wrapped around the fact that Jesus ascended into heaven not as some disembodied spirit, but in bodily form, as Luke makes quite clear. This comes as a shock to many of us (I know it did for me) because we have been taught to believe that after the ascension, Jesus abandoned his body and went back to being God again in his pre-incarnate state. But this is emphatically not what the NT writers taught. Jesus right now is in heaven in his bodily form and Luke implies that this is how he will be when he reappears to us. So the ascension is yet another reaffirmation that creation matters to God and that God one day intends to restore and heal it when Christ returns in great power and glory. And since we are promised that we will share in a resurrection like Jesus’, this means that God’s space will be fully able to accommodate our new bodily existence when it is fused with our space. So it is quite natural that we celebrate the ascension during this Easter season with its focus on resurrection, healing and redemption, and the new heavens and earth.
But if we focus too much on what the biblical writers meant when they talked about heaven and earth, we will likely miss the greater point that Luke wants us to see, and that is the ascension signaled the time when the risen Jesus assumed his role as God’s appointed Lord and ruler of the cosmos. As we saw in last week’s epistle lesson, when Jesus ascended into heaven, it confirmed his victory over the dark powers that Jesus won on the cross, a victory that will be fully consummated at his second coming. This, of course, remains one of the biggest challenges for us as Christians. We look at our world and wonder how Jesus really can be Lord with all that is so wrong in it. We will address this shortly. But right now I want us to stop for a moment and reflect on the fact that Jesus is Lord despite all its mystery and enigma! If at the end of the day we really don’t believe this, we will be left with a feeble faith that will at some point collapse under the weight and evil of this world that still exists despite Jesus’ victory over it. One of the things I do when it seems that the bad guys are winning the war or I suffer personal setbacks is to remind myself that Jesus is Lord and the bad guys are not. Try it the next time you are discouraged or defeated. But if you do, don’t just say the phrase. Mean what you say.
But why couldn’t the risen Jesus assume his Lordship and keep hanging around his followers like he did during the first 40 days following his resurrection? While the gospel writers and Paul report that Jesus appeared to several of his followers, he never appeared to them simultaneously in different places, at least that we know of. But as Matthew makes clear in reporting the Great Commission (Matthew 28.16-20) and as Luke makes clear in the rest of Acts, Jesus commanded his followers to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. To do this difficult work, to call people to a new and foreign way of living and to proclaim that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not, meant that Jesus’ followers would need help and power, God’s help and power. And they would need this help and power simultaneously in different places. So while Jesus’ risen body apparently could not be in two different places at once in human space, he could be present to his followers in the person of the Spirit from God’s space (heaven) anytime, anyplace, anywhere. If the new Christian movement was to have any chance of succeeding in its mission of proclaiming the gospel and working for the kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, and if we as Christ’s body are to have a similar chance, they needed and we need the power of our Lord to be with us all the time and everywhere. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus prayed for in his high priestly prayer that we read in our gospel lesson this morning.
So what are we to do with the ascension? From what we have just said, two things are obvious. The first is that the ascension testifies to the truth that Jesus really is present to each of us as individuals and collectively as his body, the Church, in the power and person of the Holy Spirit as well as in and through the sacraments. Without the Spirit’s help and presence, we remain broken and ineffectual followers of Jesus. But with the Spirit’s help and presence, we are healed and equipped to do the work our Lord calls us to do. This is also why regular communion at the Lord’s Table is so important because we literally feed on his body and blood every week and are strengthened, nourished, comforted, and sustained by it in faith.
This faith that our risen Lord is with us in the power of the Spirit and in the eucharist also reminds us that Jesus’ promise to never leave us alone or abandon us is true. He knows how fragile and weak we are. He knows that if we are to be his faithful kingdom workers we need his power, presence, and guidance. This kind of faith is especially critical when we walk through the darkest valley. I know some of you are in that valley right now. Take comfort, therefore, and draw strength from knowing that Jesus fulfills the promise of Psalm 23 in the person of the Spirit, in the eucharist, and in the presence of other faithful Christians. Jesus’ presence may not take the darkness of the valley away, but it reminds us that we do not have to walk through it alone.
Second, and taking our cue from the angels’ question to the apostles as to why they were looking up to heaven with it’s implication that there is work to be done here on earth, Jesus’ ascension calls us to build on the kingdom work he started in his earthly ministry and this is where our belief that Jesus really is Lord of all is absolutely essential. We cannot do the work or be the people Jesus calls us to do and be otherwise. The criticism that Jesus’ Lordship is questionable given all the evil and brokenness that exist in this world misses the point entirely. The first Christians knew they lived in a broken and hostile world. Paul wrote about Jesus defeating the dark powers from prison (Colossians 2.15)! Despite that, they believed that Jesus really was Lord and that somehow through their faithful and obedient work, he would use his body, the Church, to help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. They weren’t like many of us, myself included, who from time to time question the wisdom of God’s methodology in bringing in the kingdom. They didn’t question because they had experienced the reality of the risen Lord and had witnessed his ascension into heaven, and we need to pay attention to this because it forces us to look at the basis of our own faith. And because they knew the risen Jesus and believed him to be Lord, they set out to do their work despite great odds, resistance, and appearance to the contrary. We see this poignantly illustrated in Peter’s epistle. He reminds us that we should not be surprised if we must suffer for being Jesus’ followers. After all, we are building on the defeat of the dark powers that Jesus accomplished by his death, resurrection, and ascension and it shouldn’t surprise us that Satan and his minions are going to fight back!
What work is he calling us to do? This of course requires the careful thinking and reflection that Peter urges and the diligent prayer that Luke reports, both individually and corporately. Whatever the work we are called to do, it will require that we cast off our old selfish and sin-sick self and put on the character of Christ. To do this requires the power and presence of our risen Lord Jesus in the person of the Holy Spirit and in the sacraments. This is what the ascension is about: The Lordship of Jesus Christ and his promise to empower his people to be the holy people he calls us to be and to do the kingdom work he calls us to do so that we can start to enjoy eternal life right here and now, i.e., start to enjoy a real and living relationship with the living Lord, despite all the evil that can be heaped upon us. Let us acknowledge this is a challenging and mysterious task. But we are not afraid to answer his call because we believe the promises of our Lord to never to abandon us or leave us as orphans and the testimony of his first followers that he is indeed Lord of all. That means, of course, that we really have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.