Year B, Feast of the Ascension (Transferred) May 17, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…He abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…”
On the 40th day of Easter, always a Thursday, we commemorate the Ascension of our Lord. It is a big one, right up there with the Feasts of the Incarnation (Christmas), the Epiphany, the Resurrection and Whitsunday or Pentecost. You don’t see many Ascension cards, though. No one takes off work for it, and even parochial schools are in regular session, but, in the words of my late New Testament professor, Ascension is “…the decisive moment for salvation history… It sets in motion the proclamation of the church, releases the irruption of the Spirit, permits people to believe and hope, and, I might add, even incites Luke to write.” It is an incredibly important moment.
So what happens? What is the story? ______ These are the last verses in St. Luke’s Gospel. The tomb was empty, He had appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, then appeared again, speaking with them, eating a piece of broiled fish, then He taught them one final lesson, making meaning of the trauma of cross and the glory of the Resurrection and for what was to come. Then, while blessing them, “He withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (That last bit, the “was carried up into heaven” is disputed, some ancient versions of this gospel do not contain that part. Just something to think about, but that Copley painting I sent out is pretty dramatic, we don’t want to pass by that kind of theater too lightly). In any case, He withdrew from the disciples and was gone, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” as we say every Sunday in the Nicene Creed.
An important note here… some folks, the more educated and liberal among us in particular, some of us have trouble with the super-natural elements of this story. Was it like the Copely painting, with Jesus physically rising into heaven with the almighty rays of sun light breaking in like a PBS learn-to-paint show? Or the Rembrandt with the chubby little angels lifting the cloud under Our Lord’s feet? Was there an actual cloud? Risking a Borgian-style heresy, I don’t think it matters what actually, factually happened in the story. If the physicality of it is important to you, have at it, it is right there in Scripture, hard to argue with that. If the super-naturalness of the story gets in the way and it needs to be a literary-narrative device, a bit of early magical realism, well, that is OK, too. Like the creation story, what is important is not the literal six days or whether or not forbidden fruit was truly tasted, but that this all arose in a process over time and that something happened and we became alienated, distant from God, that is what is important.
So what is important, so important in the Ascension? Well, as my professor Franscios Bovon, one of the great Lukan scholars wrote, this is “…the decisive moment for salvation history… It sets in motion the proclamation of the church, releases the irruption of the Spirit, permits people to believe and hope, and, I might add, even incites Luke to write.”
Remember, St. Luke, the name we have given to the author of this gospel, was the author of not only the Gospel of Luke, but also of the book we call The Acts of the Apostles. The gospel and its sequel were written in around 85 CE, fifty-ish years after Jesus’ death, and it is this story, the Ascension, that is the hinge, the pivot between these two masterworks. The last verses of the gospel and the first verses of Acts are the story of the Ascension. We heard them both in our reading today. And this is a perfect example of form following function, of the narrative trajectory of our Holy Scripture carrying deep meaning, reflecting to us truth about the nature of existence and our experience of it.
The Gospel of St. Luke is about what? The life of Jesus Christ. From the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his birth in a manager on through his growing up, His baptism by his cousin St. John, all of the teaching, healing, and action, His continual confrontations with authority, His arrest, torture and execution, then His rising again, appearing to the disciples and His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. The gospel, the Good News is a proclamation, a promise even, of hope. It is an announcement of the Commonwealth of God that is at one at hand and about to come. It is a story of Jesus Christ’s teaching, healing, transforming or converting those he shared this earthly life with, and with purpose. The purpose? Discipleship. The call to follow Jesus Christ in what is always a costly discipleship. And that, that call to discipleship, that is the hinge of the Ascension.
The Acts of the Apostles is a story about what? The early or primitive church. It is the story of the first disciples and how they muddled through (or tried to muddle through) with the mantle of discipleship upon them. And time and time again, they learn of the nature of discipleship, simultaneously a precious gift, one that carried them through trials and tribulations of epic proportions AND a grievous burden, one that leads them very directly to those same trials and tribulations. This was all new to them, Jesus, their friend and rabbi and become a Lord and Savior, and together, the first disciples were alone for the first time. Well not exactly alone. Jesus joined His Father in heaven and on His heels, Sophia, the Holy Spirit of God descended again, this time not like a dove, but like tongues of flame resting upon each blessed head. On one hand we have the image of the ascending Jesus, on the other, the image of a descending Spirit, the Holy Spirit whose definitive arrival we celebrate in red next week on Whitsunday, the day of Pentecost. A promise of a future of hope and glory in God here; the day in, day out experience of the struggle of life, the joys and concerns, the heartbreaking and heartwarming nature of our existence there. Ain’t that the nature of things? Charles Gore, the late 19th century Anglican theologian, a keystone of Anglo-Catholicism, writes in relation to the notion of Sacrament, “Christianity claims to be a way of life for men (sic.): whose nature and life involve two elements; which are usually distinguished as bodily and spiritual. The distinction of these two elements is real; their union essential.”
There is the deep, eschatological hope of Jesus Christ: you are loved by the foundation of existence to the ends of the earth and to the end of the ages. You are of indelible import to God, your existence matters, desperately. And we are motes. Dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our spirits yearn for God, hope springs eternal and the moral curve of the universe is long and bends to towards justice and we still have to do the laundry, and write our pledge check, and clean up after potlucks, and go to work, and make real the commonwealth of God in the teeny-tiny acts of kindness and setting wrongs right, the baby-steps to the kingdom we all must take every single day of our lives.
Luke to Acts through the Ascension to the right hand of God… that is the story of our lives, or should be. It is the story of the Christian life. Ora et labora. Work and Pray. We are laborers for the kingdom… a mystical vocation surely, but where do we work? In a vineyard, with mud and bugs and rain (God willing) and most complicating, with fellow workers. Work and pray. Contemplation and action. Savoring and saving. This is our task. This is the teaching framed by the Ascension of our Lord.
You may have heard the story of the pastor who said, “I try to pray for half and hour a day, unless things become extremely busy or stressful; then I pray for an hour.” We do a lot here at the Church of the Resurrection. It takes a lot to organize the 2nd Sunday breakfast. As it does to show up on Mother’s day morning to feed 300 of our poorest neighbors. It takes a lot to fill 39 Home Starter Kits… last month. It takes a lot to keep the silver polished, the bills paid, our children engaged and safe, the music flowing. And that is just here where most of us spend what, 2% of our money and maybe 2 hours per week (Linda and Helen don’t count in those numbers)? There are the countless trials small and monumental that we face daily. How do we bring the catholic, universal proclamation of joy and salvation that we hear each Sunday to bear on the call to make real the kingdom of God here, in this fallen realm, distant as we are from God? How does the hope of the Resurrection make meaning of your divorce, of your child’s situation, of why things work out for you but not for your sister or that man on 30th flying a sign, or the people of Haiti? How do we do it, live as we are supposed, follow Jesus Christ as the disciples we are supposed to be?
We need to encounter the always and everywhere here and now. The Son ascends, the Spirit descends. The mystical and the material, the immanent and transcendent, that is our lot, those are the frontiers we live on. This is what discipleship looks likeBut how do we do it? How are we to be disciples of Jesus Christ? Work and pray. That’s pretty much it. Work. Do the works of mercy: Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, bury the dead… you know them. And the spiritual works of mercy: instruct the ignorant, comfort the afflicted, pray for the living and the dead. And my own addition, the structural works of mercy: fight the dirty rotten system, dismantel the corrupting hegemony of empire and death. Work. And, pray. Pray like you life depends on it. Pray by seeking silence and beauty and wholeness and equanimity with God. Pray by creating for the sake of creation. Pray by laughing for the joy of it. Pray by holding those you love and those you should in your heart and in your arms. Pray by coming to church. This is the essential union we seek and find at this table, in the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. This is the essential union we find in silent prayer, be it strict and tight on a prayer cushion (my preference), or with that cup of coffee watching a sunset in Yachats, your love by your side or in blessed solitude. How? It matters not, just pray.
The feast of the Ascension is our story of how Jesus got from there and then to the here and now by way of the always and everywhere. And God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is made manifest, the Kingdom of God is made real in the conjunction of our heads our hearts and our hands. That is the meaning and nature of the discipleship to which we are each called. Are you ready? AMEN