Year B, Ascension (transferred) May 13, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…with the eyes of your heart enlightened…”
Now that’s what I’m looking for; getting the “eyes of my heart enlightened.” So much of existence is shrouded in deep mystery, in the unknown. Our spiritual and religious life is the place we account for mystery, for the wonder and wildness of the creation. We can observe, let alone comprehend only a miniscule slice of it all, the world, and we can process in our consciousness only an infinitesimal mote of that, the rest of it fades into grey. But with the “eyes of your heart enlightened,” it could all become so much clearer; God could be so much more apparent in the wild corners, in the mysterious depths, in the places behind the seemingly absurd and foolish, the unlikely and unbelievable.
I say this, because today we are observing the Feast of the Ascension, the commemoration of a wild and mysterious aspect of the life of Jesus Christ. We have transferred Ascension from Thursday when it happened, to today, because it is a principal feast (in line with Christmas and Easter) and very few of us go to the extra Masses with our fellow Episcopalians. Ascension isn’t one we should skip and it is one of the parts of our story that is best observed, remembered, contemplated with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise, not to rational moderns like ourselves, anyway.
The Ascension is kind of a kooky story. As St. Luke tells it in the Acts of the Apostles, “…he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” I almost wish we had a projector and we could see some paintings of the Ascension. (Almost). (I can’t even figure out microphones. I still need help with that)! Many of the classical depictions show the cloud borne on the wings of cute little cherubs. Pretty fantastic. It can be hard for rational minds to wrap themselves around supernatural stories like this one. Hard, but that does not excuse us from trying.
Because, this story is important. It is important for two reasons. Any guesses what those reasons might be? ____ First, you’ve got to deal with the body of Jesus, right? His bodily resurrection meant that there was a body, and the story needs to account for where that body went. Narrative integrity is important, but that is a relatively minor point, there is much more.
Do you ever wonder how it is that your priest, any priest, can stand here each Sunday and offer the absolution of your sins in the name of Jesus Christ? That’s kind of bold. Or how blessings in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit can be given and received? Or how we, gathered around this altar can take bread and wine and consecrate them, filling them with the real spiritual presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and bringing us into an eternal and actual encounter with the Holy One of Blessing in the sacrament? Do you ever think about that? I think about that all the time, because really, who am I to claim such power? Well, it is because Jesus gave this power to His church and that happens in our story in the act of Ascension. That’s the second and very, very important reason for the remembering the Ascension story. (I guess a third would be that it actually happened so that we ought to remember it, but that is for another Ascension Day sermon).
I’m just going to quote one of the commentaries because I tried but couldn’t write better sentences. “(The) story is that this fearful, waiting community, which is anxious and bewildered, has no power on its own. It posses none and can generate none for itself. It has no claim and no cause for self-congratulation. And yet, oddly, power is given that causes this fragile little community to have energy, courage, imagination, and resources completely disproportionate to its size.”
The church is The Church with a capital T & C because Jesus Christ, God Incarnate in this world, fully human and fully divine made it so. Made it His body left on Earth so that we, His spiritual descendants, would have Him in our lives. We would not, could not know God as we do if it were not for the Church. That is a laden sentence. We could not know God as we do if it were not for the Church.
I have struggled mightily with that fact in my own piety, my own religious practice, my religious vocation. How can such a flawed and seemingly ineffectual institution made up of all these flawed and seemingly ineffectual people claim to speak in the name of God? I mean, really? And seeing the church from under the chasuble… goodness gracious, sometimes it’s the same as law and sausages. Kind of hard to watch it made.
The Church is complicated. The list of our sins is long; ours right here as a parish in the Episcopal Church where God is “He” in most every official writing, all the way across to Rome, Westboro Baptist, Joel Olsteen, churches where women aren’t supposed to handle the Bibles let alone be ordained, serve at the table or exercise other leadership; it is a mixed and sometimes dangerous bag in the church if you are in any way different. The church has justified wars, collaborated with dictators, propped up slavery, fomented anti-Semitism, supported the Doctrine of Discovery, opposed women’s rights, concealed abuse, shamed LGBTQ folks, aligned itself with free-market capitalist fundamentalists and benefited from colonial expansion. That’s pretty bad. And, as problematic an institution as the Church has been, is and certainly will continue to be despite our best efforts, it is the Church that bears the Body of Christ because the Church is the Body of Christ. I guess that’s it, we are the Body of Christ, and we are, as a Church, fully human and fully divine. Flawed and sinful on one hand, divine perfection on the other. But here it is, here we are, the Body of Christ made manifest in this very moment, in this very place, in us, this, this very gathering of people. And fantastically this very thing is happening in exactly as unique a way for a billion other people on this and every seventh (sometimes sixth) turn we make on the Earth’s axis. That is fantastic.
The Ascension is our story about how that happens, how that power comes to us, His followers, formed into one body, His body. But what kind of power? God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is all powerful, but not like the Force. It is not magic or any kind of supernatural control of material things. No, the power of Jesus Christ is most clearly visible when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened.
Think of the power released in all of those sins being forgiven around the world for these two thousand years. In the symphonies of blessings. In the mountains of bread and wine memorialized or transformed in all the ways Christians understand it to be changed: spiritually as Anglicans posit, which is similar to the Orthodox understanding of change, or in the underlying substance of the elements as our Roman friends understand. Just in our sacraments and rituals in the church, there is a lot of power, think of the power of all that human intention. All that focused energy. We’re even all facing in the same direction, east. We don’t do that very well, facing in the same direction, at least not towards good things.
Our sacramental life together is just the beginning. It starts here, it is the foundation of all the power we Christian people have and that is our business as The Church. And the product of our collective efforts? You. You the formed and baptized Christian. Your business as disciples of Jesus Christ, or aspiring disciples, or potentially aspiring disciples… that is where the power and the glory of God manifests in its most important way. You being, knowing that you are a child of God, beloved of, integral to, important for the foundation of the universe. That is where it starts, and then in that knowledge, through that knowledge, loving and serving God and Neighbor not just here, but in your neighborhoods, in your life which is lived mostly away from this place. Making real the Kingdom of God everywhere, for everyone.
The importance of this fact is extremely important in this moment. Our lives are very complicated. Life and death. Making a living. Relationships. Uncertain futures. Our world is just as complicated, all the same concerns but on a macro scale and with more guns. The drama! But there is something to remember, our power collectively is not just the power of the church, the institution. Sure we can concentrate wealth and voice and put it to good use as a group. But the real power of The Church is you, your life lived as a Christian in, but not of, the world. In your baptism, you have been given the power (and the responsibility) to change the world, to shine the light of Jesus Christ into the darkness. You, yes, you have been charged with that.
Consider that the biggest source of groundwater pollution in urban and suburban areas is “non-point specific sources.” That is backyard Roundup, and over fertilized lawns. Each little yard contributes a little bit and suddenly all the frogs are dying and algae clogs the creeks. You, being Christian in your home, listening to Jesus as you choose what to purchase, discerning with God what is right or wrong to teach your children, or how to conduct yourself at work, or how to deal the next-door neighbor with the dog that barks all night, or vote. (Vote by Tuesday)! That is the power of God happening in you. And all together, Christians living their lives as Christians in the world adds up, can add up to a tidal scale movement of love. That is Christ’s body in the world.
That all happened in the Ascension. Jesus Christ left Himself, through His teaching, preaching, healing, feeding, blessing, inspiring, forgiving, trusting of His friends. All those things are just applied love. And where love is, God is there. Love was there in the early church. And by the grace of God that love persisted in generation after generation, clouded by evil, by ignorance and hubris sometimes, but that underlying love has persisted, persisted in binding us together while at the same time opening the eyes of our hearts to the suffering of those we share this life with.
This is the wisdom and revelation the author of our epistle this morning prays for the young and thriving church in Ephesus. That, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the work of his great power.” The hope, the inheritance of the saints, the greatness of His power, those don’t lodge in the institution, not the lineage or traditions, the philosophy or theology, the culture that has developed. No, these things take root here, in each of our hearts, and then those hearts bind together in love and make this, the ecclesia, the Beloved Community, this gathering of people, and every other gathering yearning to face in the same direction, towards the brilliance of God in Christ, “Shining on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.”
The loving fruits of the Ascension. As Jesus left this realm for another, it is as if He went into the very heart of the creation, where, in the words of Fr. Thomas Keating, the great Trappist meditation teacher, “… he has penetrated the very depths of our being, (and) our separate-self sense has melted into the divine Person and now we can act under the direct influence of his Spirit.” We do that, together, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened.
Next week we celebrate Whitsunday or Pentecost, the birthday of the church as a collective. It is the commemoration of the power of the Holy Spirit coming down to us, The Church, strengthening, enlivening, empowering and sustaining us in the life we live together. And we’ll be celebrating the life we live together here at Resurrection, remembering our history, honoring our elders, and eating cake! (It is a potluck, too; bring something good)! AMEN