The Feast of the Ascension: A Sermon

Readings (Psalm 93; Daniel 7:1-14 in place of Ephesians 1:15-23)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Today’s Feast does add an additional layer to that, doesn’t it! But what does it mean? If all we had were these two texts from Luke, it would be like having our experience with weddings reduced to watching the bride or groom head off for the ceremony. Fortunately, we have Daniel’s vision.

Daniel’s vision. In one of Charles Schulz’ cartoons Snoopy is chasing leaves, only to be stopped when a large rack slams down right in front of him. He concludes “The one with the biggest teeth wins.” So in Daniel’s vision: something lionish, something bearish, something leopardish, then something that defied description. And if the vision had stopped there, we would have the despair powerfully captured in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera: “A man just keeps alive by completely / Being able to forget that he’s a human being, too.” “Grub first, then ethics.” So Great Britain’s mascot is the lion, Russia’s the bear, ours the eagle. And so the statement attributed to Roosevelt about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastastio Somoza García: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” (If we want to understand what’s happening at our southern border, that might not be a bad place to start.)

And then in the vision, the unexpected. The Ancient One appears, and “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Human history is finally human, not bestial.

Psalm 8 asked the question:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8:3-4)

What are human beings? Oh, the ways that question gets answered! “The one who dies with the most toys wins!” That’s one of the more popular answers, and our economy would probably collapse without it. Macbeth, facing his own death: human life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing” (V.5.25-27). The prophet Isaiah cries out in near despair “All people are grass, / their constancy is like the flower of the field” (40:6). The good news of today’s feast: Jesus’ ascension is the definitive answer to that question: human beings are those destined for “dominion and glory and kingship.” For that the Father created us; for that Jesus took on our flesh; for that the Spirit empowers us.

Today’s texts give us two additional ways of approaching this what are human beings question. In Luke’s texts what isn’t said is as important as what is said. There’s no hint of Jesus shedding our humanity (“Finally!”) to return to being, well, simply divine. Jesus in all his humanity—including those wounds he’d invited Thomas to probe—ascends. The Greeks got it wrong: progress isn’t about distancing ourselves from the body, from matter; these are part of God’s good creation. Nor is progress about erasing the hard, painful, or even dumb moments in our pasts. Jesus ascends with those scars, and they’re part of his glory. So, whether it’s that strange assortment of voices that is my self, or the equally strange combination of events and circumstances that constitutes daily life, there’s nothing that God isn’t out to touch and transform.

What are human beings? Our answer to that is inevitably shaped by our experiences with those more powerful than ourselves. “Children should be seen, not heard.” “Yes, you can come in, but don’t touch anything!” Is that what our humanity comes to before divine grandeur? We focus too much, I think, on divine grandeur and too little on divine generosity. Recall last week’s Gospel: “we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23). The God revealed in both the Old and New Testaments desires to share as much of God’s self as we can take in, to share as much of God’s love, God’s joy, God’s peace as we can take in.

What are human beings? Invitees to a celebration that has no end. And all this underwritten in Jesus’ ascension.

Deep breath, and on to a much shorter part two.

“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” That’s a real break: Jesus is there; we’re here. It’s an unnerving enough break that our two collects do their best to dance around it. The first collect: “give us faith to perceive that…he abides with his Church on earth.” The second collect: “so we may also in heart and mind there ascend and with him continually dwell.” Absence, what absence?

Now in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says “I am with you always” (28:20). So how is this absent Jesus present? The short answer is through the Holy Spirit—in an astonishing variety of ways. For one of the more important ways, let’s recall that story in Luke just before today’s Gospel. On Easter Sunday two disciples are walking to Emmaus and a stranger joins them. They talk about the week’s events and…

“Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [the stranger] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (24:27-31).

Jesus opens the Scripture; Jesus breaks the Bread. It’s a one-off event; it’s the pattern of every Eucharist. Through the Holy Spirit in every Eucharist Jesus is present. “The Word of the Lord.” “This is my Body…This is my Blood.” All very material: ears, mouths, bread, wine. God likes matter; God created it.

Jesus with us in the Eucharist: it’s a hinge in time. We hold up our recent past: praise, offerings, confession. The Scripture, the Bread, the Wine: these propel us into the new week. The Scripture: how do we incarnate this Word on Monday morning, Wednesday midafternoon with the clock moving at glacial speed, Friday night? The Bread and Wine: Jesus’ Body and Blood, and the model for everything our hands touch during the week. How do I lift this moment, this situation up to God so that God can do something extraordinary with it? The good news: we’re not alone in any of this. Jesus—through the Spirit—let’s do this together. “I am with you always.”

Ascension Day: the glad proclamation that also when Jesus’ way is hard, it is the human way, and it leads to unending joy—for all peoples, nations, and languages.

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