May 9, 2013 – Ascension Day
There is no recording available for this sermon.
Every Sunday, as we prepare to take Communion, we offer up the bread and the wine with these words: “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father…recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” Every time we pray that prayer, we remind ourselves that our redemption, the healing that Jesus came to work in us and in his creation, was accomplished in these three acts, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension.
In his death, Jesus Christ took on himself the whole of our mortality: our rebelliousness and selfishness, our pain and sorrow and disease and fear, and above all our separation from the Father. It was the work of his whole earthly life, as he gathered our brokenness to himself, like a soldier that throws himself on a live grenade, and then at the end he gave himself to the death of the cross so that every bit of the curse was nailed with him to that hard wood and its power was destroyed forever.
And then in his resurrection the utterly impossible happened, and that last enemy, death, was vanquished forever, because the heart that had ceased to beat and the lungs that had stilled and the body that had grown cold suddenly burst forth from the tomb with a new kind of unquenchable, indestructible life. And that risen body of Christ was the first-fruits of the harvest of redemption, the promise to us that we too will have a share in that kind of life.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are at the center of all that we believe and hope in; as we say in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths”. But I don’t think we often continue on in our thinking to the third part of the work of Christ, his ascension, which we celebrate today. On the 40th day after Christ rose victorious from the grave those 2000-plus years ago, his disciples watched as he returned to the Father. You’ve probably seen paintings of the Ascension, where the disciples are standing looking up into the clouds, and you can just see Jesus’s feet as he vanishes from their sight. It’s a hard scene to portray, and I think it is possibly even harder to really comprehend. But the first thing we really need to realize about the Ascension is what it doesn’t mean. The Ascension was NOT Jesus riding off into the sunset on his white charger, going home to his kingdom after a job well done.
Do you ever remember as a child, watching your parents get out all the Christmas lights and stringing them around, maybe along the porch railings and around the windows, maybe in the trees and bushes in the front yard, and all you can see are the miles and miles of tangled electric cord and lifeless glass bulbs, until finally that magic moment, when all the preparations are done, and the final connection is made. And in a blaze of glorious light and color, all at once, you were filled with joy and delight and wonder. In a very small and inadequate way, THAT is a picture of what happened on this day of the Ascension. Sin and death and sorrow had been crushed on the cross, the way to abundant life had been thrown open when the stone rolled away from the tomb, and THEN – that final connection was made and all of creation was suddenly infused with divine glory. Heaven and earth were brought together in the love of Jesus Christ. Because ultimately, that was the job he had come to do, not just to “fix” us, but to unite all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth.
Jesus told his disciples, at the Last Supper (I am loosely paraphrasing here), “If you really understood what was going on, you would be jumping up and down with delight when I tell you I am going back to the Father. Because when the Son returns to the love of the Father, the Father will send the Spirit to be with you, and then we will make our home with you, and you will be bound together in us forever, and nothing will ever, ever be able to separate you from our love.” That is such a wonderful thing to comprehend that we prayed in the collect today that God would make us able to take it all in, and to truly believe it in our heart of hearts: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”
St. Augustine wrote a homily for Ascension Day about 1600 years ago, in which he talked about what the Ascension means to us. He wrote: “Just as Christ remained with us by his Spirit even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love.”
On this day, the connection between God and man, that had been severed at the Fall, was finally restored, once and for all. Our Lord Jesus Christ is present with his people now, in all grace and love and compassion, and with power to work his good will in our lives as we continue to live as sojourners in this broken and hurting creation. But we are also present with him in the loving company of the Father. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” – and by that he means those things that belong to the hopeless human struggle to survive apart from God. “For you have died – your old life of futility and separation is gone and done with – and now your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is yourlife appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”