Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – Ascension Sunday – May 12, 2013
In the Name of God: Creator, Liberator, Comforter.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” What a weird question! As if what they had just observed was an everyday occurrence. Who would not be frozen in place, mouth agape, as people did the very first time a space launch sent human beings into orbit destined to land on the moon?
They had just about gotten accustomed to the fact the Jesus had risen from the dead. They ate with him. Walked with him. Touched him. Laughed and reminisced again with him. Now he was gone—in a New York minute. Vanished. Poof! Ascended into the clouds. Happy Ascension Sunday! We are celebrating Ascension Day, a feast that occurred this past Thursday, because it is a major event in the life of Christ and the church. Someone once asked his pastor why he thought people no longer consider this holyday very important. The pastor just laughed and said that Ascension Day is no longer enthusiastically celebrated because it doesn’t fall on a Sunday and no one gets any presents. Well, we’ve remedied at least half of that equation and Episcopalians do this feast up really well as we do most festival occasions.
You have to wonder what Ascension looked like. Just how did Jesus “ascend” into heaven? Thousands of artists across the centuries have given their thoughts a try. You may have seen those pious portraits of the Ascension hanging in a church or depicted in a stained glass window, a group of bewildered disciples huddled on a hillside. A short distance away Jesus hovers in the air ready to take off. Some of these paintings just depict his two feet protruding from a cloud which has swallowed Jesus up. In the end though, the how really doesn’t matter.
The first reading this morning describes the event. The author of the Book of Acts tells us that Jesus appeared again to his disciples forty days after his Resurrection and was taken up right before their eyes into heaven. Historically, the church has celebrated the Ascension on the sixth Thursday after Easter.
The first readers of this account really believed that Jesus ascended to a literal heaven, a specific location from whence he would return at the end of time. While we cannot deny the possibility of such an ascension, we totally miss the point of it if we focus on Christ’s outer space travel or speculate about the geographic location of heaven rather than on what the implication of this event is for our own spiritual journey.
Luke is the only evangelist who talks about the Ascension as a separate dimension of the life of Jesus. He dates it on the fortieth day after resurrection. Jewish students typically studied with a rabbi for forty days, a metaphor for the how long it took to learn the master’s teachings well enough to be able to teach them.
To Luke, the time between the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension may have less to do with Jesus than it does with us, with the positioning of our minds and hearts on the world and the work at hand. The last line of the Gospel tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and were continually praying in the temple praising God.
Jesus is gone but not really. Jesus has left them but not left them at all. They remember the Jesus of history and now they live immersed in the Christ of faith. Their minds have been raised to a new awareness, to new insight, to new perception of the power of God among them.
Like everything Jesus did, the Ascension pointed beyond that immediate moment. They had to grasp the reality that their teacher was leaving them to continue the work of God as they had been taught. All they needed to do now was to wait and pray and the Holy Spirit would come and give them the jump start and the power to go out and do it.
The Ascension of Jesus has little to do with our gazing up into the sky and deliberating about the exact whereabouts of heaven and how Jesus got there and everything to do with paying attention to what is going on around us here on earth where we, like those who witnessed this event two thousand years ago, are sent out to help build the kingdom of God. Like the disciples, we are inheritors of the power of the Holy Spirit with which God has promised to clothe us. And that is the marvelous phenomenon that begins right here.
Retreat leader and author, Paula Darcy, writes, “God comes among us disguised as our life.” Said another way, God’s story is always related to human need. If you have come here with concerns about your health, the gospel is about God’s healing power; if you have come with feelings of guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance that you are forgiven; if you have come in bereavement for someone you have lost, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. For those who are hungry, the gospel may be bread; for those who have been marginalized in any way, the gospel may be liberation and affirmation.
People don’t want to stand around looking up at the sky to see where God lives, they want a God who comes down to them, to feel God’s presence in the places of their lives where they have felt a huge void— a God who comes among us disguised as our life.
A column in The New York Times last December entitled “Why God?” quoted the following story: “I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say. See? You can be absolutely confident.” But there is no absolute bag of truth. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.
How do you look to God to act and to enter your lives? For whatever reason, certainly unknown to us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We may have a story or two about miraculous interventions and lightning bolt moments, but far more often God comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.
I’ll bet if I asked any one of you to recall five sermons you have heard in your life you would be hard pressed to answer. But if I ask you to name five persons through whom God has put a hand on your life, you would not hesitate for a moment.