Feast of the Ascension
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
When you walk in here, what’s the first thing you see? Where does your eye go? For me, my eyes are lifted up to the mural over the altar. Jesus is ascending up to heaven, the wings of angels, seraphim, escorting him upwards in glory and majesty, but his arms opened wide as on the cross, reminding us of his crucifixion, his suffering and death. To me, with saints at Jesus’ feet, his arms reaching out to embrace all of us, it’s a painting of a verse from John’s gospel: Jesus’ saying, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
When Jesus made that reference to “lifting up,” it was shortly before the crucifixion. Jesus was anticipating being lifted up on the cross. Lifting up refers to crucifixion as well as to resurrection and to ascension. In a church dedicated to Jesus’ Ascension, we naturally first think of his return to his Father in heaven, but the mural shows more. It binds together moments of great pain and great delight, humiliation and elevation. Jesus’ exaltation contains within it, holds, this contradiction of negative and positive.
And so does today’s feast. Typically, we associate joy and celebration with the Ascension, with going up, heaven and love and victory. It’s our hope and expectation that ultimately we’re all lifted up to be together with God. But let’s imagine what the experience was like for the disciples, and the Ascension becomes more complex, and more real.
Jesus was leaving his disciples. If you sometimes struggle feeling that Jesus is too remote, too absent, too hidden, too cut off from you, then you might know a bit of how the disciples felt as Jesus disappeared into the clouds. Jesus had shocked them rising from the dead, and now he shocked them again going away from them. It must have felt like he was abandoning them. There’s sorrow, loss, separation.
The Ascension pulls us in two directions, up and down, exhilarating and distressing. Fully appreciating this feast demands us to be able to accept both pleasant and the unpleasant feelings, to acknowledge that both are part of life, and part of relationship with God. It’s not all peaches and cream.
As he was about to depart, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you are going to restore Israel?” They were still seeing the promise of God as restoring political power and glory to Israel, restoring a Davidic king that would bring prosperity and independence and prestige, a king that would help them feel superior to other nations and religions. We, too, have preconceived ideas of God’s promise, what he’ll do for us.
God, indeed, was restoring Israel, the people of God, but in a way the disciples didn’t understand. He was doing something new with the disciples to restore his people. It would be a spiritual renewal, a renewal leading to inner growth and strength.
The disciples asked about the timing of the restoration, and Jesus told them that was God’s business. Then as Jesus departed, the disciples gazed up into the empty sky, and two angels appeared. Remember on Easter morning, at the empty tomb, the two angels appeared and asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Here, again with a bit of satire, they asked, “Why do stand there staring at the empty sky?” In each case, the disciples were looking in the wrong direction and were being re-directed. The message: don’t worry about the future; focus on the present, the here and now.
The Ascension was a moment of transition. Jesus was leaving and passing authority to the disciples, and he promised to send the Holy Spirit to them: authority and the Spirit to help them be witnesses to him. He gave them new responsibilities. Don’t stare into the sky. Get to work.
The most basic fact about God, about Jesus, is his love for us. Jesus loved his disciples, yet as he’s going away he’s massively disappointing them. They felt abandoned, and he’s giving them new responsibilities. They expected Jesus to do the work: “Lord, when are YOU going to restore Israel?” The answer is that the disciples, along with the Holy Spirit, were going to restore Israel.
For Jesus, leadership is not about doing it all; it’s not about being everything to everyone; it’s not about making everyone happy; it’s not about making the pain go away; it’s not about providing crystal clear instructions about everything. Rather, he’s making his disciples step up, to accept new responsibilities, to develop a new sense of self, to move beyond being simply a recipient and to become a giver, a participant in God’s work.
It’s part of the process to transform the disciples. Next week, Pentecost, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit to help them continue along this path. Jesus’ love for his disciples is to help them learn and grow and develop. In this life, we’re never complete. The Good News: God is always doing something new with us.
The letter to the Ephesians, chapter four – not the bit we heard today, has a marvelous section about the Ascension. It says that Jesus ascended far above the heavens so that he might fill all things, so that God could come to us through the Spirit. Christ is no longer limited to a local, specific presence, but now accessible to all, in all places and in all times. It says that Christ rose up so that he could hand out spiritual gifts to develop his followers; so that we would work together in unity and harmony and become spiritually mature, growing into the full stature of Christ; so that we may no longer be like children, tossed to and fro, easily deceived. Rather, he wants us to grow up to tell the whole truth and tell it in love.
Think about children. Lovable and charming and insightful and virtuous as they often are, they are easily manipulated and often confused; they don’t have a firm grasp about right and wrong; they have few responsibilities; they look to authority for care, protection, direction. As I read the gospels, I notice that’s the way the disciples often were. Jesus went away to help them grow – for them to learn to make decisions and work together, to give and receive care, to assume new responsibilities, to disagree and have conflict, but stay in it together. They would become his presence in the world and so be witnesses to him.
Church, this parish, exists to promote that kind of growth, that developing and maturing relationship with God. Our growth, spurred as we handle transition and adapt to the ever changing circumstances of life, witnesses to Jesus.
Here’s another way to think about being a witness. Imagine that you are a courtroom witness, that you are on the stand.[i] The issue: what do you make of life? What is true, real? Is the universe created by a loving, merciful, and just God or is it a random, cold, heartless accident? Are we created in the image of God and given purpose and meaning, or is life a coincidence, our conscience an illusion, our love merely chemical reactions? Are we here to give and receive, or to accumulate as much as possible? Are we here to learn to be close to other people, or to live for ourselves, aloof and unconnected? Can sacrifice and suffering be noble, or is it the fate of the weak and foolish? When a loved one dies, does she move closer to God, enter more fully his light and life, or is this limp sentimentality and cowardice? How we live, what we say, what we value, our attitudes and habits, how we treat each other – this is our testimony.
“You will be my witnesses.” It’s a task that gives meaning to our lives, a task that transforms us, a task that lifts us up.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, Jossey-Bass (2004), p. 28.