The Rev. Joseph L. Pace
Feast of the Ascension
5 May, 2016
Grace Episcopal Church
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I cannot hear this evening’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles without thinking of one of those marvelous Renaissance paintings of the disciples seated around the dinner table, and in a delightfully, impossibly cross-eyed sort of way, they each have one eye on the other in a rather perplexed way, and the other eye looking straight up above where a pair of feet are dangling at the very top of the canvass — the last bit of Jesus to ascend into the heavens. You are given the impression that Jesus must be holding on to helium balloons, rather like a scene from the movie “UP”, slowly, gently and surely ascending into heaven. In these paintings the disciples are obviously perplexed — no clue at all what to do next — and maybe even hoping that what they have seen has not really happened, because if Jesus has ascended — or is ascending right before their eyes — what in the world does that mean for them? What now, what next? They haven’t yet really processed the Resurrection — which remains the unfathomable mystery — and now Jesus is ascending, away from them, going away yet again, another mystery.
It is not hard to imagine how confused, perplexed and even desolate the disciples must have felt — parted yet once again from their Lord.
What saves the day and what makes this scene in Acts one of the funnier passages in the New Testament — and one of my favorites — is the two angels standing by the disciples, saying to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It’s almost as if the angels are saying to the disciples, “don’t just stand there… get moving…you’ve got work to do” — it’s rather like a parent trying to get a teenager out of bed Saturday morning to mow the grass.
There is always a good bit of us in any character we encounter in Scripture and that is certainly true of the disciples that first Ascension Day. Even the most devout among us know what it is to stare off into the heavens wondering what next, what in the world am I to do now? And, we don’t always have the luxury of a pair of angels urging us on — telling us to stop daydreaming, telling us to get to work and be the people God has created us to be.
The disciples felt bereft — at sea — at the prospect of Jesus leaving them once again: how would they know what to do? For what could they do without their Lord?…
But, of course, that is not at all that is happening here — Jesus is not going away. Instead, two important truths are at work in the glorious mystery of the Ascension.
The Resurrection has shown that absolutely nothing has the power to separate us from God — not death, not our own sin; God refuses to be separated from us and God goes to the extraordinary length of dying on the cross to make this known.
Jesus has taken on human flesh and nature for good — for all time — not as some sort of winter coat to be set aside once the weather changes. God becoming one of us — the Incarnation — is not a divine passing fantasy, but God’s absolute commitment never, ever, no matter what, to be separated from us.
The Resurrection did not separate us from God but rather it draws us closer; and the Ascension puts a sort of seal on God’s promise not to leave us — for, the Ascension says that wherever Christ is, so will we also be.
Just as Christ has become one with us — living and dying with us and now rising from the dead with the promise that we too will rise; so also will we ascend with Christ to be forever with Christ, even in the heavens. And, the flip side of this is not just that we will go where Christ goes, but that Christ is always present with us wherever we may be, in whatever we may do here on earth, Christ is with us even in the most ordinary routines of daily life.
We need not ascend into the heavens to be with Christ, because Christ in the power of the Spirit is with us always in the here and now.
That is the assurance the angels gave the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend from them. The angels say he remains with you and you will know his presence best as you continue God’s work, as you do what Jesus has prepared you and taught you to do.
The angels’ message remains true for us today: we know Christ’s presence most clearly in our faithfulness — in our striving to make Christ known in our lives — in our words, thoughts, and acts — as well as to see Christ in all those around us.
It’s a fundamental part of human nature either to long for the past when everything was surely much better than it is now in these difficult days; or eagerly to look ahead to the next thing — to anticipate even greater blessings than what we know in the here and now. It’s often quite hard simply to rest in and be as completely present as possible in the here and now — we long either for what has been or for what will one day be.
The angels’ words to the disciples assure them that God does have greater blessings in store for them — nothing less than being forever with Christ in God’s presence, even in the heavens.
That is Christ’s promise.
But the angels also clearly say that blessings are not just a thing of the past or a future promise, but that blessings are a present reality; for, this Christ whom they love — the Christ upon whom all our faith and hope rest — this Christ who was taken away from them on the cross and laid in the tomb, and who now seems to be leaving them once again — this Christ is always with them — always with us — always present.
Ascension Day may well tell us where we eventually, as faithful people, are going — what our hope is — to be with Christ forever, even in the heavens; but, Ascension Day also clearly proclaims that where we are now is precisely where God wishes us to be and where Christ also is, right now.
The Christian life — our work — is grounded in the past and looks to the future, but the real work, the business of living in Christ, is to be done in the here and now.
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