If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ascension is not about Ascending: Acts 1:1-11

*This sermon was preached on Ascension Sunday, May 20, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon


     What can a modern preacher in an age of science say about the Ascension? Someone said that preachers frequently seem a little embarrassed and apologetic about preaching on the Ascension. At Easter they stood in the pulpit and declared that Christ is risen.  Now, they have scruples about just how high! That may very well be true. But, if preaching on the Ascension is proclaiming how high Christ ascends, then we're all going to end up with our head in the clouds! The Ascension is about something far more profound and down-to-earth than how high Christ rises.

     The Ascension is not about ascending. Yes, you heard me right. The Ascension is not about ascending. The Ascension is found in the Apostle's Creed. It says, "He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God..." The Gospel of Luke and Acts tell the story of the Ascension of our Lord. These stories tell of how Christ rose into heaven. So, what do I mean by saying that the Ascension is not about ascending? I mean that the Ascension is not about how high Christ rises. On Ascension Sunday we are not celebrating the fact that Jesus shot up through the clouds like an Apollo rocket into the starry space. We are not rejoicing because Jesus was the first astronaut, an ancient John Glenn, who defied gravity and went into outer space without modern technology or space suit. The Ascension is not remembering a Star-Trek-Jesus, who with a command of "Beam me up, God" was slowly transported through an Alka-Selzer-disintegration of his particles and reassembled at some space station with a cloaking devise in a far off galaxy called "heaven." Ascension is not about space aeronautics, Steven Spielberg special effects, nor Science Fiction.

     The truth of the Ascension does not require that we return to a naive, pre-Copernican, flat-earth view of the world. Celebrating Ascension does not necessitate accepting the Biblical cosmology of a heaven that is up, with windows and a god dwelling just beyond the starry dome, nor a sheol or hell that is down beneath an earth which is supported by pillars.  We do not need to believe that the soles of Jesus' feet could be seen passing through the clouds in order to proclaim the truth of the Ascension.

     Our modern understanding of space is different from that of Jesus' day. In our lifetime we have seen from space the blue marble of earth. We have been amazed by the first dusty footprints on the surface of the moon. With the Hubble telescope we have viewed swirling galaxies millions of light years away. From our modern understanding of the cosmos, if the Ascension were literally about Jesus rising up into the clouds above Palestine, then from the other side of our round world it would have been a "Descension." The spatial images of up and down have become relative terms in our space-comprehending age. But, it is not necessary to return to an ancient worldview in order to believe in the Ascension. 

      The Ascension is more like the words of Ephesians, which tell us that God seated Christ at his right hand in the heavenly places and has put all things under his feet. To celebrate the Ascension does not mean we must believe that there is a royal chair floating in zero gravity somewhere in outer space where Jesus sits beside the throne of God. We need not spend a lot of time speculating about exactly where in space Christ is sitting with feet dangling above the Milky Way. Nor do we have to believe that God sits in an enormous chair with a gigantic right hand. Believing that Jesus physically ascended above the misty clouds over Palestine some two thousand years ago, where God sits his posterior down on a big throne in the sky; if that helps your faith, then so be it.  But, that is not what the Ascension is all about. If our understanding of the Ascension is primarily a belief in Jesus' movement upward in space, this understanding will only distort the truth and rob these visual images of the powerful message they were meant to communicate. Ascension is not about ascending.
     The spiritual truth of the Ascension is written in visual, story language. The Ascension is theological truth written in the metaphorical language of a story. The everyday use of metaphorical and visual language is not uncommon to us. We all talk about the sun rising, when we know that the sun does not literally rise in the East and set in the West. The earth moves, not the sun. And yet, from our vantage point we experience the sun as rising and use spatial language to describe it. The Psalmist speaks of the sun's rising as from a tent and as a bridegroom coming out of his wedding canopy, or like a strong man running across the course of the sky.

We may even talk of a woman's  beauty being as "the sun rising in her eyes." Not only did ancient peoples use poetic and metaphorical language to communicate spiritual truths, they also used stories. Jesus spoke not only of living water and heavenly bread and unseen doors, but he also told parables; stories, though not literally true, communicate a depth of truth that thin, literal language could not penetrate.
Let me ask you: Do you firmly believe that Jesus lives and reigns in your heart? Then, let me also ask you this: Can that truth be confirmed or denied by open heart surgery? With the language of image and story the early disciples' wrote the fathomless truth of their experience of Jesus as ascended into the heavens. The story of Christ's Ascension proclaims deeper, or should I say "higher," truth than a mere physical levitation of Jesus' body. Ascension is not about ascending.

     The Ascension is about Jesus' physical absence and the continuation of his work by his disciples. When Jesus' ascended he left the work of the kingdom with his disciples. We see this clearly in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew there is no Ascension. Instead of Ascension there is Commission. Upon leaving this earth Jesus commissioned his followers to go and baptize and make disciples. In Acts, before the Ascension, Christ told the disciples that they would be witnesses in the expanding circle of Jerusalem, Judea, and the uttermost parts of the earth. During his ministry Jesus sent out his disciples to practice doing the things that he did; to proclaim the good news, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick, and deliver the captives. So, the Ascension means that now that Jesus is gone from among us we have been handed over the task of completing the work that Jesus began.
     Many famous works of opera were composed by Giacomo Puccini. He was stricken with cancer in 1922 while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many consider his best work. Puccini told his students, "If I don't finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me." Following his death, Puccini's students devotedly studied his opera and completed it. In 1926 the world premiere of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini's favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. The opera was performed magnificently, right up to the point in the piece where Death had stilled the pen of Puccini. At that moment in the performance tears began to flow down Toscanini's face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience, and cried out, "Thus far the Master wrote, but he died." A silence shrouded the opera house. Then, Toscanini picked up the baton again, smiled through his tears, and exclaimed, "But his disciples finished his work." When Turandot ended, the audience rose up in thunderous applause. No one at the premiere forgot that moment. When Jesus left those early disciples and commissioned them to complete his work, they did not forget that moment. The Ascension reminds us that our Master is no longer with us, and we, his disciples, must finish his work.

     The Ascension is about Christ 's presence with us in a different, and yet, powerful new way. We don’t perform Christ's work on our own. Christ is with us, but in a way continuous with, and yet different from the presence of Jesus of Nazareth long ago. Before the Ascension Christ promised the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They could not continue Jesus' work without empowerment from God. No longer would Jesus be with them, but they would have the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. God, like a Mother, gave birth to the newborn church through the power of the Spirit. Through the Spirit, the church was able to carry the good news of Christ to the ends of the earth. Through the Spirit God gave a diversity of gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The Spirit, working through these varied gifts and diverse instruments of the church, continued the symphony that Jesus could only play as a solo.

     No longer is our relationship to the Lord limited to the rabbi from Nazareth. As Paul said, no longer do we know Christ "according to the flesh." In the presence of the Spirit, Christ has transcended the boundaries of time and space, now and then, here and there, up and down. All peoples and nations of countless generations, and each of us individually, have access to the Ascended Christ. Christ is present to us in a new way. In the presence of the Spirit Christ can still wipe the tears from our eyes, heal our wounds, feed our deepest hungers, comfort our grief, teach us new truth, and raise us up to new life.  We may not have the human Jesus with us, but we do have the Holy Spirit, who came in power at Pentecost. The same God who was in Jesus Christ is with us in a new way in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
     Christ is with us in the presence of the Spirit. Though human Jesus is no longer with us, there is an unseen power and presence at work within the church. This Presence is here when we gather for worship, share in communion and baptism, teach the gospel story, and exercise our gifts in the church and in the world. The energizing force beneath all these outward practices is the Spirit of Christ. The Ascension reminds us that though Jesus is no longer with us, the Spirit of Christ is still with us in a powerful new way.

     The Ascension is essentially about the exaltation of Jesus. In the Ascension Jesus is crowned Lord of all. Jesus is exalted to God's right hand, the place of glory, honor, and majesty. This is royal language. The Ascension proclaims, in the language of kings and kingdoms, crowns and thrones, the ultimate significance of the life, teaching, ministry, and death of Jesus. In this sense, it speaks the same truth as the resurrection. Not only was Jesus raised by God above the power of death and the grave, but was raised above all the powers of heaven and earth. God "lifted up" Jesus' life, his love for the misfit, his compassion for the poor, his deliverance of the possessed, his words about peace and forgiveness. All that was the spiritual essence of Jesus' life has been received into God's presence and exalted. That human life, despised and rejected, God vindicated in the resurrection and ascension. The life, teachings, and death of Jesus, God raised above all things in heaven and on earth. The resurrection and ascension are God's "yes" to Jesus. It was as if God were saying, "I lift up this life to the heavens for all to see. This is life truly lived in all its fullness and depth. Life lived in its eternal dimensions. I exalt this human life to the highest heaven." Not only has God absorbed into God's Self the spiritual essence of Christ, but has exalted the essence of Jesus' life as eternal truth.
     The rubber of the Ascension hits the road whenever Jesus is lifted up as Lord over our lives. The Ascension paints in broad, brilliant strokes that earliest of Christian confessions---"Jesus is Lord!" Just like the words behind me proclaim to this congregation every time we gather in this place, we believe that Jesus is Lord. Within the early church that confession stood in sharp contrast to the world’s confession that “Caesar is Lord.” If Ascension means exaltation, and exaltation is about lifting up Jesus, then the ascension has everything to do with our primary allegiances in this world. Is our primary allegiance to our nation and its military, political, social and economic interests or to Christ and his church within all nations? Where do our primary allegiances lie? The early Christians and early Anabaptists were sure that their primary allegiance rested….in the Ascended and Exalted Christ.

   The truth of the ascension as exaltation is given visual expression in the Bible and in Greek and Russian Orthodox icons through royal imagery like many icons of Christ. Icons are ornate religious paintings, which often depict the Ascended, Cosmic Christ in royal attire, crowned, and placed against a background of gold. This royal imagery and the spatial language of "over" and "above" are visualizations of the truth of Jesus' Ascension. This kind royal imagery is not literal in that Jesus wears a royal robe and crown and sits on a throne. This imagery  seeks to communicate the ultimate significance of Jesus by elevating his life, teachings, and death as the ultimate human model by which we live and die and are reborn.

    For we believe Jesus is the name above all names. Christ has ascended over all things in heaven and on earth. The Ascended Christ is far above the politics of nations, far above the principalities and powers of this world, far above our personal agendas. To follow the Ascended Christ is to live by the truth that Jesus is Lord of over all. We have seen the truth of the Ascended Christ embodied in French Christians from the town of Le Chambon in France, who under the leadership of pacifist Andre Trocme, resisted the authority of the Third Reich during World War II. These simple Christians were saying, "Jesus is Lord," as they risked their very lives by hiding and transporting Jews who were fleeing the reign of evil.

   I have seen the truth of the Ascension in Mennonite churches in South Texas, who have housed and fed illegal aliens fleeing the poverty and violence in Central America. These Hispanic brothers and sisters are saying "Jesus is Lord" as they live by the truth of Christ ascended over every human authority, even over issues of whether following the compassionate way of Christ is legal or not. The Ascension shouts to the world around us, "Jesus is Lord!"

     We see the truth of the Ascension when we watch someone take their valued time and volunteers to work with Bridging Cultures and the Canby Center, visit an elderly person who stares at the walls all alone, or teaches fresh, young minds simple and yet deep truth that Jesus is Lord. We feel the truth of the Ascended Christ in our bones when, because of their faith in Christ, a teenager refuses to go along with peer pressure to do things which are harmful to others or self-destructive. We smell the truth of the Ascension in the fragrant act of someone taking the risk of going to another person and reconciling their broken relationship, because that is what Christ would have them do. We taste the truth of the Ascension when we become salt of the earth by casting aside our differences and exalting Christ together, and in so doing like a city set on a hill our lives are lifted up and shine for others to see God's light. We hear the truth of the Ascended Christ when together we, as church, perform in symphony the work Jesus played as a solo. In these human acts we catch a glimpse of Christ Ascended as Lord. The Ascension is not about feet in the clouds, crowns on heads, or scepters in hands. The Ascension is about the exaltation of Christ in our world and our lives.
     So then, because we have experienced for ourselves this higher truth of the Ascension, as surely as we have experienced the rising of the sun, we can preach without embarrassment or apology the Ascension of Christ. We can proclaim the One who ascended to the heavens and is far above all the earth. We can confess the eternal truth that there is One who sits as King of Kings and Lord of Lords at the right hand of God. We can lift up our voices and sing to the heavens: Crown him, crown him Lord of all! 


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