May 13, 2018, Ascension, the Connection Restored – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000080
This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension in our liturgical calendar, which is one of those mid-week Holy Days that we know are important, but don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to in the general course of our lives. What we commemorate on that day is that moment when Jesus, having appeared to lots of the disciples after he had risen from the dead, having spent 40 days with them – eaten with them, talked with them, taught them – finally said good-bye to them and returned to the Father: and not as a spirit, leaving his body behind, but in the flesh. But we don’t very often stop to think about what that means to us.
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 are proclaiming 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. Christ’s death 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 up to the death of the cross so that every bit of our curse was nailed with him to that hard wood and its power was destroyed forever.
And then in his resurrection the utterly impossible happened, when that last enemy, death, was vanquished forever, because Jesus’ 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.
It seems like it was just yesterday that we celebrated Holy Week and Easter, when we reminded ourselves once again that 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 very often continue on in our thinking to that third part of the work of Christ, his ascension, which we celebrated this week. 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. Jesus made it very clear when he spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper that his commitment and connection to his disciples would not end with his death; that, in fact, with the coming of the Holy Spirit he and the Father were coming to make their home with us forever. The prayer that we read today from John’s gospel was all about his continuing commitment to the Church. So what is the real significance of the ascension? What really happened on that day?
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 could see were the miles and miles of tangled electric cord and lifeless glass bulbs, until finally that magic moment, when all the preparations were done, and somebody stuck the plug into the outlet. And all at once everything came alive in a blaze of glorious light and color. Can you remember, or can you imagine, how it almost took your breath away, you were so filled with joy and delight and wonder.
In a very small and inadequate way, THAT is a picture of what happened at the moment of Christ’s 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. We almost miss it sometimes, as we focus on the crucifixion and resurrection. But ultimately, that connection was the climax, the grand finale of what Jesus had come to do, not just to “fix” us, not just to pay our fines and leave us with some good advice, but so much more – to unite all of creation with our Creator, in himself, forever; to bring together everything in heaven and on earth; to destroy every barrier that sin had set up to separate us from our true home. Once and for all.
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 mind-blowing thing to comprehend that we pray in the collect for the Feast of the Ascension 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 the reality of that connection that is ours. 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.”
When Jesus Christ ascended to the Father, 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 us now, in all grace and love and compassion. We have continual access to his power, to work his good will in our lives, as we continue to live as sojourners in this broken and hurting creation. We are present with him in the loving company of the Father.
Those are the realities that make sense of our faith and of all our prayer, whether it is our Sunday worship or those spontaneous prayers we cry out in the course of our day – maybe just “Help!” or “Forgive me!” or “Thank you!” As John wrote: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”
The connection between heaven and earth, between the Father and us, his children, has been restored in Christ, and it will never again be broken. He promised us “I will never leave you, or forsake you.” And because Jesus has returned to the Father – because they have sent the Spirit and come to make their home in us – because of the reality of the Ascension – God himself is as near to us as our own hearts, today, and every day, and forever.