This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on May 13, 2018: it was the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which we kept as the Ascension (in addition to a smaller celebration on the day itself the previous Thursday).
Collect: O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Deep in the County of Norfolk in the UK, there is a Church of England shrine in a village called Walsingham. If you want to know more about it just ask me at coffee hour and I’ll happily divulge! It’s a good and holy place, if also a little mad — as most good and holy things inevitably are.
But for the purpose of this morning, I only want to share that the Shrine church is ringed on the inside by a series of chapels, dedicated to various saints and events in Jesus’ life. One of them is dedicated to the Ascension, the feast we keep today. It’s a tiny chapel, and above the altar there is a lovely painting of Our Lady with the infant Christ. On the ceiling, however, directly over the altar, there is a gilded plaster sculpture of clouds, out of which poke two feet. Nothing is visible except two nail scars.
The suggestion is obvious: here at the altar we’ve caught a glimpse of Jesus himself in mid-whoosh on his way into heaven. It’s complete madness, but then it’s the chapel of the Ascension after all, and it does make a point! On one of my own visits there, the Shrine Administrator remarked to me that the really crazy thing is how many visitors see the chapel, and then rush upstairs to the gallery to see if the rest of Jesus is there waiting for them to say hello. They get disappointed and want to know, “Where’s the rest of him?” The Administrator has to tell them, “No, Jesus ascended into heaven, not into the balcony!”
I suppose it’s the obvious answer, Jesus has ascended into heaven and it’s useless to look for the rest of him. But is it so heartbreaking as that? Did Jesus just go away? Did he just leave his disciples to fend for themselves, while he got a one way ticket out of the mayhem and confusion? The calendar points us to Pentecost next Sunday as one answer: no, Jesus doesn’t just go away, he sends the Holy Spirit, which reveals the Church, and empowers the apostles to begin their ministry in the world, while leading them further into the knowledge and love of God.
But the Ascension does more than simply point downstream towards Pentecost. And while it is the occasion for Jesus to leave his disciples, it isn’t an escape route. When Jesus goes up to heaven, it’s Jesus who goes, body and all — resurrected and glorified, sure, but human nevertheless. The Jesus who sits at the right of God in heaven is the human Jesus, equally as much as he is the eternally begotten Son of God. And more, not just Jesus the human; but like the Ascension chapel at Walsingham points out, Jesus with scars in his feet, Jesus the wounded, Jesus the crucified and betrayed, as well as Jesus the resurrected.
In short, Jesus’ humanity goes with him into heaven, and in this way, Jesus does not escape this world in his Ascension but carries it with him. Jesus is not taken out of the world on his way to heaven; rather this world is taken with Jesus into heaven, where it is met with all the compassion, all the tenderness, all the beauty and majesty of God.
Which of course changes the way we view this world. If you and I ever find ourselves looking to heaven as the answer to our problems, then Jesus’ Ascension presents us with some very real difficulties. It is not an escape, but the occasion for a more profound encounter between God and humanity than ever before. It means, among other things, that people who feel far away from heaven whether by reason of injury, struggle, or sin, are actually the ones who are closest to God, because they are dearest to Jesus and share most profoundly in his own suffering. And it means also, that whatever transcendence the Christian religion offers, that transcendence begins here and now in the everyday muck and clutter of being human. And there is a lot of muck and clutter.
This is why the church continues to insist on its worship consisting of ordinary things: wine, bread, water, oil, words, voices. This is why the church continues to insist on sharing the peace, confessing and forgiving sins, reading the Scriptures, celebrating the same milestones and moments day after day in every successive life. Because in all of these mundane things and tasks the seeds of heaven are planted in us and among us. And not just in church either, but the small, humdrum moments of every day life, especially those moments that didn’t have to happen but did; moments where the gratuity of human interaction reveals something beautiful, something fitting about the world and our place in it. The seeds of heaven are planted there too, and begin to bear fruit.
The paradox is that the Ascension introduces us to an absolutely transcendent God, and a Savior who ascends far above all heavens but who carries the created order with him, and makes all the ordinary bits of life reflect the glory of heaven. The church’s job is to articulate and reveal just this paradox: that though Jesus has ascended far above all heavens, because of that ascension, heaven now fills all the earth. The chief marker of our mission is not primarily a concern for the faraway; not primarily a concern for abstractions of thought or doctrine or the esoterica of arcane subjects. No, the chief marker by which we know we’re on the same path as Jesus is a turning towards the ordinary, towards the things and people that are so much a part of the furniture of our lives that we’re usually tempted to ignore them or else take them for granted.
We’ll need help noticing they exist; it seems a human trait to be more conscious of our hopes and goals and even daydreams than we are of the very real people around us on whom we depend and in whom our life consists. But by recognizing them and caring for them, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven invites us to a happiness, a confidence, a fullness of life here and now, as both distinctly possible and distinctly Christian pursuits.
The ordinary and the necessary around us, even the pain and suffering, are revealed as seeds and mirrors of heaven and the scarred Savior who ascended there. This is a vision which transfigures life as we know it, while it also makes room for what cannot be seen or touched or possessed: an expanding universe, in which there is always more to uncover in the ordinary stuff of our lives, more to love in the people around us, more to forgive and more forgiveness to ask, more thanks to offer for beauties and joys no matter how small.
So on this Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate together Jesus ascending into heaven where he takes his seat at the right hand of God. We also celebrate that what he carries with him is the whole range and matrix of our lives in this world, making them even now reflect the glory of heaven. And we pray for the grace to turn away from staring up into heaven looking for where Jesus has gone, to regarding our neighbors, the humdrum, and even the madness of our lives, with the same wonder and amazement: witnessing in them the splendor of heaven welcoming earth home.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.