May 24, 2009
The Rev. Tasha Brubaker Garrison+
7th Sunday of Easter, Year B
Ascension has always been an odd theological dictum for me to grasp. The feast of the Ascension of Jesus is always the Thursday of the week before Pentecost, and, like most places, we didn’t pay it much mind. It’s often glossed over, partly, I think, because the story strains credibility to our contemporary ears. But, we must spend a little time on the Ascension if today’s readings are to help us move from there to the feast of Pentecost which we celebrate next Sunday.
The Ascension story is found only in Luke. It’s a few scant lines: Luke 24: 50-51. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Mark, in the later addition to the Gospel that includes the resurrection appearances, we hear that Jesus was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, though for reasons unclear to me this is not considered the Ascension in the same way as Luke’s version. In Matthew the Gospel ends with risen Jesus commissioning the eleven disciples. In John, Jesus’ Ascension is the cross. This is his lifting up to the Father.
So, what are we to make of all this? Quite a lot, in fact. First, though, we need to talk a bit about the actual story of Jesus ascending. The story as written in Luke easily leads to simplistic caricatures such as a human body just like mine suddenly being lifted up and drawn high up into the stratosphere like a released balloon. Images of Harry Potter on his Nimbus 2000 broom start coming into my head, and it’s all magic and fantasy. I can’t take it seriously, can you? And thus, the story gets pushed aside because we don’t quite know what to do with it.
Such an image also leads us to put in that spatial separation. God is up there and we are down here and a huge gap remains between us. But maybe a different illustration will help. When my mother died I was responsible for settling her affairs. Two days after her death I went to her home, the home I had grown up in. I went into her bedroom and within a few minutes had this powerful sense of her presence. Not a ghost, nothing I could see, but a presence that took up space. There was a dense-ness to the air; I felt as if I was walking under water. It was unnerving and I simply had to leave the room. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was there. I went back the next day. When I entered the bedroom her presence was still there, but I was prepared. I looked around and noticed that the bed was unmade. Now, my mother was compulsively neat. There was no way she would ever leave her home for anything with something untidy—it was a point of honor. So, I went and made the bed, walking right into the heavy place of the room. And once that was done, she left. It was like smoke leaving a room through an open window. Things were as they should be and she could rest in peace. It is that kind of sensation that I imagine as the ascension of Jesus. Perhaps that helps you find ways to get at the metaphor and the experience this passage is expressing.
But that’s only the first part. How it happened isn’t nearly as important as what it is trying to tell us.
There is a motif at play here. We are in an in-between time right now, the space between Jesus’ withdrawing and the coming of the Holy Spirit. On Holy Saturday we were in between the death of Jesus and the Resurrection joy of Easter. It is a gradual transition into being the Body of Christ here on earth without the presence of the earthly Jesus and with a new shape to our experiences of the Risen One.
It is like that process of say, learning to ride a bike. First we are pulled along by our parents to get the feel of riding. Then we have a tricycle, which gives the support of balance. Then we get a two-wheeler with training wheels and lots of time with mom or dad holding onto us lightly while we weave unsteadily all over the sidewalk. And then we are let go. For a while we are quite ungainly and take a few spills, but then one day it all clicks and we are off and riding, never to forget how to do it.
This whole time between the death of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit is preparation for us to be the Church, the Body of Christ on earth in whom Jesus is present and alive. He has shown; he has led; he has reconciled; he has taught us who we are to be and now it is our task, our work, as this new creation of God. We are now the Body of Christ. For us to be who God wants us to be Jesus must make room for us. His drawing away is not an abandonment, but a gift of liberty, of possibility, of ability for us to live out our call as followers of his. It is a new creation that recapitulates the first Creation in which God could have been all, but chose instead to make room for other beings that have freedom and space to be their selves in relation to God. And we are waiting for that Spirit, that divine breath, to blow upon us and enliven us just as the wind moved over creation in the very beginning. The Holy Spirit that comes at Pentecost is to breathe the life of Christ into us so that this new creation is ready to boldly live out its life as a resurrected people shaped and defined by the Crucified and Risen One. Are we prepared for it? Are we ready to have the lot fall to us? And how are we to be this Body?
What Jesus gives us is a profound gift and joy and responsibility. It is risky, daring work, that can put us at odds with conventional wisdom, the values of our community or nation—as Jesus says, “being hated by the world”– and even put us in conflict with stances that are understood to be “Christian”. What we hear today in the Gospel of John is a prayer of Jesus for the newly formed Church; it is a prayer asking for blessing and guidance for us. Jesus is interceding for us in this in-between time. He is offering his prayer for us as we come into being constantly and continually as the Body of Christ in the world. And in John’s gospel the foundational sign of that is love.
That is the charge. We are the ones now empowered by Jesus and sustained by God to do this work. It is to be a visible symbol of God’s love for all in this world by loving the bodies and souls of every other human being and seeing in them the face of Jesus. It is to have our lives understood in terms of the one whose glory came by living a life that led to being lifted up on a tool of execution to reveal God’s ultimate love—the same type of life we are to lead as individuals and as the Church.
Here’s how I am hearing that charge this year. I have been invited to join a revitalized interfaith group to look at addressing hunger in our area. We are a people formed out of bread and wine, out of feeding and being fed, so the feeding of others is part and parcel of who we are. I do not know yet what my role will be in this work of advocacy, education and raising money and gifts of food, but I know this is what I must do as part of Christ’s body. I hope to share this work with Resurrection and that there will be support here to take part in the larger, interfaith activities that comes out of the work of this group. We are always called to feed the Body of Christ and all people, but when the need is as acute as it is now that call becomes relentless. We are to trust in God’s care for us that we can in these hard times do more not less, and that this is the response of faith. The need will grow as the jobs continue to be lost and as people begin to lose their unemployment benefits, which are not much to begin with being roughly ¼ of a person’s former monthly pay. More and more people will experience hunger and a foundational way we can embody Jesus’ charge of love in this space he has left for us is to joyfully and generously work to make sure all are fed. It’s just one way among many. And its life is made possible not only through that space made for us to be the Body of Christ, but also by the sustaining presence and gift of the Holy Spirit that we await to renew next Sunday. Are we ready to be set on fire by God? Are we ready to live as the bush that burned but yet was not consumed? Audacious questions. To which I say: Yes, we are. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.