Humanity is ascending.
First Reading Acts 1:1-11
Psalm Psalm 47
Second Reading Ephesians 1:15-23
Gospel Luke 24:44-53
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN
For most Christians, Ascension Day is not of any great importance. We do not call our selective Sunday attenders ... Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Christians. Families do not typically gather for an Ascension Eve dinner, or exchange Ascension gifts. Even in the Episcopal tradition, there are few departures from the Eastertide liturgy to make the Ascension stand out. But our church calendar is vary careful to place the Ascension 40 days after Easter, this past Thursday, and Pentecost 50 days after Easter. These cornerstones of our salvation are inextricably linked to Easter, because they move together as parts of a whole. Our remembrance, thanksgiving, and celebration of these are part of a sweeping movement, including Annunciation, Incarnation, Jesus' human life, experiencing all we experience from joy to sorrow, anger and grief, compassion and disappointment, suffering and death, through the resurrection and several appearances of the risen Jesus, the Ascension, God's imparting of the Holy Spirit, and the continuing activity of God in the world.
Luke addresses both his gospel and Acts to Theophilus, which is literally "lover of God." Brothers and sisters, these literary labors of love are written to you and me.
Jesus makes three promises to His disciples before the Ascension: they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will spread their witness to the ends of the earth, and Jesus will return. Brothers and sisters, these promises are made to you and me.
The disciples don't quite get it. They still expect an earthly kingdom. Now, Jesus? Is it time yet? Will you finally restore the kingdom of Israel? Jesus does not chastise them. He opens their minds to all He has taught them. Everything ... the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms ... everything MUST be fulfilled; not thrown away, not erased, not ignored, but come to fruition in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, this is our revelation.
Jesus is clear about the mission. Be empowered by the Holy Spirit, start in Jerusalem, then to all of Judea, then Samaria, then to the ends of the earth. The mission is to share the gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations ... no borders, no barriers. Against every dividing line that exists, or that we will ever devise, this mission is inclusive, regardless of gender, sexuality, class, age, race, or nationality. Nothing will separate any of us from the love of God. And this a message not only for proclaiming out loud, but for living! Brothers and sisters, this is our mission.
Jesus leads them to Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. This is the place where prior to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus prophetically instructed His disciples to procure a colt, and all was as he said it would be. Bethany is also near the Mount of Olives, where according to Zechariah, on the day of the Lord, God was expected to appear ... "And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one" (Zechariah 14:4-9). Then Jesus blessed them, and he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven, while he was blessing them. And the blessing never stopped! Jesus blessed them as He ascended! The blessing continues! Brothers and sisters, this is our blessing.
The whole scene is a reminder of how Jesus was present to his disciples and continues to be present. Jesus was present in both signs and wonders, as well as in the ordinary ... acts of service and compassion, eating and drinking, fellowship and companionship ... not as a ghost, but as a real person. In the Ascension, Jesus' activity is not as much a withdrawal, but presence in a new, more powerful way that touches each of us through time; no longer a specific body, but a life giving Spirit. Jesus' presence continues palpably through the words and deeds of his witnesses. Brothers and sisters, Jesus continues to be present in us!
The disciples response to the risen Christ is great joy, in both exultation and peace. They worshipped Him continually in the Temple blessing God. They waited expectantly for the Holy Spirit. Then they acted in the world. Brothers and sisters, this is our response.
But how has the Ascension radically transformed the cosmos? What does the Ascension really mean to us? Jurgen Moltmann poses the question, "Where was Jesus raised to?" Is the answer up? Art depicts the faithful as prayerfully looking skyward when entreating the heavens. Does Jesus have the ultimate box seats in the football stadium of life? The location of Jesus’ ascension is less where, rather to what state. In the Ascension, Jesus is exalted!
Author and theologian George Body suggests the Ascension created a radical shift in the worship of God both in Heaven and on earth. He proposes in heaven that "Until that mysterious morning when Jesus in His assumed humanity passed within the veil and took His place within the true Holy of Holies, the great hymn of Christendom had never rung through the courts of heaven; but when the thronging Angels watched the ascent of the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, the 'Angus Dei', and saw its mysterious flight cease only when it was throned on the Right Hand of the Eternal, a new light flashed across their intellects, a new adoration filled their spirits, a new song burst from their lips, a new worship was begun ... the worship of Jesus Christ. 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing!' (Rev 5:12)
And so it was on earth, 'They worshipped Him.' George Body continues, "His very withdrawal from them, His very elevation to the Throne of God, was the development of new relations between the disciples and their Lord. As long as he was on earth the worship of him was not the principal feature of their life; but as soon as He was withdrawn from them and seated at God's Right Hand in the heavenly places ... the adoration of the Lamb, the worship of Jesus Incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned ... the distinctive worship of the Christian Church began to be."
For the first Christians and for us today, a new aspect of the Eucharist that Christ ordained is revealed, as the glorious center of earthly worship where heaven and earth are joined and Jesus Christ is ever adored. Just as we proclaim, joining our voices with all the company of heaven, for ever singing and proclaiming "Heaven AND earth are full of God's glory." The Triune God is active, reaching out to creation in love and bringing humanity and the whole creation into fellowship. Humanity ascending to heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit to humanity on earth. The Ascension reveals to us the larger story of God's loving action, and reminds us that God is up to such radical grace and love. Our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine. Jesus prepares a place for us ... "that where he is, there we might also be." Christ ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.
Jesus Christ claimed authority on behalf of humanity to change the world. Then, upon ascending to the heavenly throne, Jesus shares that authority, that responsibility, that possibility that we might also change the world. The disciples understood their mission involved action. "Go and make disciples of all the nations." Our commitment to God means that we are also committed to what God is committed to. This commitment often pits us against the values and motivations and temptations of the world. Perhaps that is why former ABC Rowan Williams suggests "Christians are going to be a nuisance in any imaginable society."
We believe radically transforming things, like ...
God loves and values all Creation and all of creation is filled with Christ's presence,
God longs to draw all Creation to God's self,
God's love is meant for righteous and sinners alike,
God's forgiveness is available to all,
God is particularly interested in including the outcast and marginalized,
God's abundance is intended and available to all who hunger and thirst,
God's mercy extends to the captive and oppressed,
God participates in our lives and intends us to participate in each other's lives.
The Ascension impels us to act on these beliefs. We are the hands and feet of Christ. While we still dwell on earth, we are challenged to receive the Holy Spirit and act. Jesus will be waiting at the throne of God with open arms when our work is done. AMEN