Backdated: Ascension (again)

As promised, here is the next installment in a three-week/three-year sweep of Ascension sermons. This one was preached on May 12th, 2010, the Eve of the Ascension, at the Choral Evensong of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, OH, using the Year C Ascension lectionary, especially Ephesians 1:15-23 and Luke 24: 44-53:

There is a phrase in this evening’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians which is pure poetry. “I pray, ” says the writer, ‘that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you.” That phrase, “the eyes of our heart,” really caught my eye when I read through the passage earlier this week.

What are “the eyes of the heart.” What does it mean to look through them, with them? What happens when their vision is impaired, or when they are enlightened, brightened, illuminated by the hope to which God has called us?

The disciples in the Gospel reading had had their eyes opened by Jesus. It’s an oddity of the resurrection stories that the people who knew Jesus the best often didn’t seem to recognize him when they first saw him after his death and resurrection. Mary Magdalene famously thought he was the gardener, although she was crying at the time and maybe not looking too hard or too clearly. But the two men on the road to Emmaus walked miles with Jesus without realizing who he was. Another time they thought he was a stranger calling out to them from the shore of the sea on which they were fishing. Each time, it was not until Jesus spoke their names, or gave a blessing, or broke bread that their eyes were opened, the eyes of their hearts were opened, and they recognized the one whom they had followed, whom they had loved, and who loved them. It was only when the eyes of their hearts were allowed to enlighten their vision that they were able to see Christ before them, that they were allowed to hope and believe that he was no longer dead but risen, that his story was unfinished after all.

Whether the eyes in our heads see or don’t see, the eyes of our hearts recognize Christ.

Donald MacKinnon, a twentieth-century British theologian, said that what it meant for Jesus to be human was “to be subject to the sort of fragmentation of effort, curtailment of design, interruption of purpose, distraction of resolve that belongs to temporal experience. To leave one place for another is to leave work undone; to give attention to one supplicant is to ignore another; to expend energy today is to leave less for tomorrow.”*

We know all about that fragmentation. There are never enough hours in the day, enough days in the week, enough weeks in the year to achieve everything that we think we should do. What can one person change in this world? What difference can one hour of work make?

If it comes to that, we might as well ask. what difference did Jesus make?

What difference did his hour of the cross make, or the hour of his resurrection, or the hour of his ascension? For us, gathered here, clearly, all the difference in the world. When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, we find in the story of Jesus’ life, even of his death, in his resurrection and his ascension great hope in the power of God.

The image of the ascension is one of the transcendence of those very limitations that MacKinnon talked about, the fragmentation of effort, the distract of resolve, the curtailment of design. In the ascension, Jesus demonstrates the way in which the power of God has transcended and transformed that fragmentary, limited existence by the defeat of death and the promise of the Holy Spirit. No wonder the disciples were so excited! These Galilean fishermen and women from the villages of the north had just been told that they would be clothed with power that would help them to change the whole world, beginning but not ending with Jerusalem. Seeing with the eyes of their hearts, they understood the hope that lies in the power of God. Seeing with the eyes of their heart, they could see further than they had ever seen before; the possibilities for reaching beyond their limitations and fragmentary lives.

By entering their limitations, their fragmentations, Jesus had shown them God’s love for them, God’s tenderness for their situation, God’s compassion. God’s love for us, God’s tenderness for our situation.

By his resurrection and ascension, by transcending those limitations, Jesus showed them God’s love for them, God’s hope for them, God’s power in their lives. God’s love for us, God’s hope for us, God’s power in our lives.

“I pray,” says the writer to the Ephesians, “that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.”

We are called to hope beyond what we normally see. We are called to live into our glorious inheritance among the saints, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us. We are called to live with compassion for those around us, seeing them with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, revealing their dignity, their belovedness, the light of Christ within them. We are called to use the power that God has given us to reach out in hope to those who need hope.

We are called to transcend our limited lives, to share our hearts with people a world away.

We are called to transcend the limits of our fragmented attention span and see with the eyes of our hearts our own city, our own communities, our own children, to bring them hope, to enact change where it is needed by the power of God.

When we allow the love of God to enter and to enlighten our hearts, we can trust that by the power of God, nothing, not even death, nor the limitations of our own lives, will defeat God’s love for the world, which transcends all limitations, which is limitless in its scope and in its power.

With the eyes of our heart enlightened, may we know what is the hope to which God has called us, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us, who believe, by the working of that great power. Amen.

*MacKinnon, Donald, Themes in Theology: The Three-Fold Cord (London: T & T Clark, 1987), 162

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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