May25MonA sermon for Ascension Sunday May 25, 2020
There’s been a meme circulating (relevant to these pandemic times)
where it says:
“Ascension: the day Jesus started working from home”.
The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord is the second high point
of the Easter Season.
You might call it: Jesus Raised, the Sequel. Or
Easter, Part 2.
Normally, the Feast of the Ascension is on a Thursday,
40 days after Easter, but it is customary to celebrate it also
on the Sunday following.
It’s interesting to note that it’s not usually celebrated here at St. Matthews,
And I believe it’s been at least a dozen years since it’s been the case.
Ascension could be called the
Mostimportant, least emphasized festival of the church year.
Its description of Jesus’ ascending into heaven is something we assume, and we confess every Sunday in the Creeds when we say:
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
However, we somehow don’t think it’s very significant
And like I mentioned, haven’t had a Sunday dedicated to it
in over a decade.
However, in our Sanctuary, the Ascension is very prominent!
There is a 1960s painting of a risen and ascending Jesus
with his feet in the clouds, high above the altar,
which may be the most prominent depiction of Jesus in our entire building.
So the Feast of the Ascension should be important to us as worshipping Christians, but it isn’t.
I think part of it, is that it’s an awkward story for us
modern enlightened people.
It’s not something we would want to tell our neighbours and friends:
“oh yes, I believe in this man who can fly like Superman into the clouds.”
Imagining a man just jump up into the clouds and never be seen again
is a weird story,
and makes us feel a little strange for struggling to believe it.
Also, the image is problematic in liberal Christianity,
we have a certain aversion to emphasizing that
we’ll be going vertically up to heaven after we die in a spaceship kind of way, that heaven is a place in the stratosphere.
It’s just awkward.
In addition, there is this shadow side of this Ascension story:
that smacks a little of triumphalism, colonialism,
and superiority to other religions,
that grates a bit against our liberal sensibilities.
But nonetheless, I think it’s important to celebrate Ascension today.
For one, the story of the Ascension serves as closure
for the post-Easter stories about Jesus.
It’s closes the chapter, so to speak.
It completes the arc from Jesus’ past:
Which begins with his birth and incarnation, leading to the crucifixion,
and victory in the resurrection,
To Jesus’ present; for in his ascension,
he makes a way back to the Father for us,
and He is with us eternally, into the future.
Jesus’ Ascension to the Father means there are no more appearances.
His resurrection is now fully complete.
His work is over, and the job is passed on to the disciples,
and to you and me.
The era of Jesus has passed over to the era of the church.
And to give the church a little boost in its mission to witness to Jesus
and the reign of God,
There is a supernatural miracle,
A little fuel for our Jesus rocket.
Something to give hope, enthusiasm,
and a hint of glory that this is going to be a great and amazing ride.
Our sermon text from the first Chapter of Acts,
Engages the same final question as all the Gospels do:
“How does one tell the story of the continuing presence of Jesus?”
If we believe that Jesus is here, although he is not fully present,
how do we explain that?
The different Gospels approach it in different ways.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is no mention of the Ascension;
it ends with just the empty tomb and the scared disciples.
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is also no ascension,
but a final speech and blessing, where Jesus says:
“I am with you always.”
In John, the concept of where Jesus is now, is a lot more open-ended,
it is implied, but not fully explained, with Jesus saying lines like
“I abide in my Father and my Father abides in me”.
Only in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles
(who share the same author) is it explicitly spelled out:
Jesus, on a certain day was raised up to heaven,
and no longer seen by the disciples.
For Luke and Acts, the Ascension of Jesus is a crucial event, a hinge,
that links the work of Jesus on the one hand,
to the work of the church, on the other.
The Ascension also explains how it is that at Easter,
You have these disciples who still don’t understand, who are afraid,
and still pretty clueless,
And then there’s this huge paradigm shift,
To a vibrant, witnessing, ecstatic band of apostles
who are willing to put their lives at risk to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.
Somehow there is a huge shift in their being,
They finally understand it’s up to them,
the baton has been passed to them,
when Jesus leaves their sight and returns to heaven,
and he is no longer there.
Now the description of the actual ascent of Jesus is quite brief,
it’s only one sentence in the entire 11 verses read this morning:
(v. 9) “when he said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of sight”.
It’s almost a little anti-climactic…we hoped for more razzle-dazzle,
bright shining spotlights, or perhaps some sound effects.
It’s not even as exciting as the exit of Elijah,
who was taken up in a fiery wagon into the clouds.
One moment Christ is there, talking to them,
then he is up in the clouds somewhere, obscured.
And the disciples,
“they are dumbfounded, left standing on that hillside,
their necks craning to see beyond the cloud.”
They finally get a glimpse of glory!
An impressive but fleeting sign!
A true divine blessing!
Seeing Jesus’ Ascension changes them in a way
that the Resurrection didn’t.
And the Disciples are never the same again.
Now let us take a step backward for a moment,
to acknowledge how awkward this is.
To conceive of this event as actually physically occurring
just goes against what we know about astronomy, and the universe.
To put it in perspective, we need to imagine ourselves in the time of Jesus, where Aristotle’s view of the cosmos
was the main way of understanding the universe.
Aristotle envisioned the earth as a sphere, with the sun circling around it.
But the idea was that heaven was just outside the limits of the clouds.
So if you go up, straight up, eventually you reach God.
Well, we just know that’s not how things work in our physical space.
God does not live in the oxygen-poor, low gravity region of the lower or even the upper earth orbit.
So can we still rescue this image of the Ascension of Jesus?
Do we just dump it in the trash?
I think the safest way to treat it
Is as an image and an inspiring portrait of Jesus Christ,
Something to aspire to and give us hope.
By thinking of it in theological and symbolic terms only,
We concentrate on the deeper meaning,
and are less liable to get caught in the weeds of astronomy
and rocket science.
You can believe that Christ ascended into heaven without believing that he lifted off like a human rocket, and blasted into outer space.
You can believe in the Ascension by holding to the eternal truth
of how this impacts our faith life.
So how does this affect us?
What relevance does the Ascension have for us in these pandemic times?
Perhaps one place to start is to think of those disciples.
They were scared, and vulnerable, they had lost their sense of normality,
Their world was turned topsy-turvy.
Jesus appeared to them and tried to explain things,
but it still didn’t make sense.
I think many of us are scared, vulnerable,
and are so confused that it seems the world is turned upside down.
A few weeks ago we weren’t supposed to wear masks,
Now we are supposed to.
A few weeks ago we were supposed to disinfect all surfaces,
But now it appears surface transmission is not as important
as we once believed.
But most of all, we are getting fed up and tired of this situation.
We are ready for it to be “over” but we also realize now,
more than before, that we are in it for the long haul,
and there won’t be a quick return to the normal we knew back in February.
Personally, I have been feeling quite tired the past few weeks,
Nagged by a vague sense that I should be doing more, working harder, being more productive.
I see what my colleagues are doing online,
and I tell myself quietly, I should be doing that too.
Now I don’t always take it that seriously, but it is there in the background.
And probably many of you in the workforce feel those whips too.
“You should be fortunate to still have a job,”
The voices say,
“Now you have to take over the work of all your fired colleagues.”
Furthermore, the virus becomes more real when a member of one’s family needs to get tested for COViD.
And as we recognize the names of the deceased,
this virus becomes more personal.
So we can perhaps identify with these confused, bedraggled disciples who are getting whiplash from following Jesus and the shifts in assumptions they’ve undergone, amidst the threat of death,
and fear of “what’s next”?
As members of St. Matthews, used to having our building accessible to us, perhaps we are like the disciples longing for what was.
And the angels in white robes standing there beside us, ask us:
“Why do you stand looking for Jesus, in the church building?”
Why don’t you try to see Christ in a new light?
Why don’t you try to see the Church in a new light?
The building is closed, but the church is still open.
Don’t you see it?
The church building is locked as if it disappeared,
But the church became virtual, just like Jesus became virtual
when he ascended.
You have become a “spiritual congregation”, gathering over the radio,
over the phone, over Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
On Thursday we had a wonderful experience with a virtual service of
Holy Communion on Zoom.
Christ was present, “in, under, and with” the elements,
in ways we couldn’t have imagined a few months ago,
getting up the courage to try something as new, exciting and controversial, and some would say, heretical.
The church is undergoing a paradigm shift in these pandemic days similar to what those disciples were going through as they contemplated the loss of their risen Saviour.
We are trying to piece together what it means to be church when we can’t gather in the building, and realizing that gathering physically,
while important, is not all that the church is about.
Churches are doing lots of amazing things even with closed buildings.
Drive-in Golden Hour.
Pastoral Care on Zoom.
At the end of the day,
the Ascension of Jesus is a personal message for us,
Reminding us that Jesus, not only knows what it’s like to be human,
He is also the powerful Redeemer, who cannot be stopped.
Jesus loves us, and will not leave us as orphans,
But will send us the Holy Sprit to comfort and sustain us in trying times.
He promises to be with us evermore, to be our friend and guide,
Having gone through all
that we will ever go through.
Knowing Jesus has returned in glory to the Father
can comfort us in difficult times.
Jesus comes from God and returns to God!
A highway to heaven is now unlocked,
The lines of communication are open,
There is no more boundary between us and God,
And we have the Son, who lived and died like one of us,
go ahead to prepare a place.
And proclaim, loud and clear, from the eternal throne of God:
I am with you evermore!