A sermon for the Seventh Sunday in Easter (the Sunday after the Ascension), June 5th, 2011, preached at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio – my first as a Deacon!
A podcast of the sermon is available via http://trinitycleveland.org/podcasts/sermons.html
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking up towards heaven?”
The scene described by Luke in Acts can seem, to the modern vision, almost comical. As Jesus is lifted up into the distant skies, the disciples are left open-mouthed, pointing and staring, until two men in white come and chuck their chins to close their mouths, clear their throats to get the men’s attention, and send them on their way back toJerusalem. The Ascension is a difficult image for us to assimilate to our present-day day knowledge of the reach of our atmosphere, of what lies beyond the clouds, or even beyond the stars, it is a challenge.
When it comes to the Resurrection, the evangelists are mercifully coy. They describe an empty tomb, empty grave clothes, but none of them attempts to describe or explain that moment of mystery when the dead becomes the living, when life overcomes death, when Jesus first gets to his knees, and opens the seal, and steps out of the tomb. No, they leave it to our imaginations, and mine, I must admit, finds its limit with the miracle of emptiness. I do not try to envision the body rising.
But with the Ascension, we are not given that option. We are not allowed to let our imaginations rest on the opaque mystery. The evangelist insists on attempting to describe the moment at which the disciples became aware that something new was happening, something beyond the strange and wonderful resurrection experiences of Jesus they had already come to accept, something transcendent.
So we wrestle with images which make no sense to science. We are confronted with the limits of our capacity to marry faith with reasonableness. We are left open-mouthed, pointing and staring at the strangeness of it all.
But as with the resurrection, the evangelist is trying to convey something indescribable. And as tricky and sticky as it is for us, there are two aspects of this image which I would be loath to lose. One is has to do with looking up; the other is the completeness of Jesus’ leaving. Those details, I have come to believe, are important messages of the gospel. They are indicators to those of us left standing open-mouthed and staring.
There is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called For Ascension Day, 1967, in which she unlikens the Ascension of Jesus to a child’s mishap. She wrote,
I know it’s not like that sunny Sunday afternoon
When we went to the zoo; evening came too soon
And we were back on the crowded city street
Still full of pleasure from the afternoon’s treat,
And our little girl clutched in her fingers a blue balloon.
It bobbed above our heads. Suddenly, there came a cry,
A howl of absolute loss. We looked on high
And there we saw the balloon, ascending,
Turning and twirling higher and higher, blending
Into the smoky blue of the city sky.
We wiped the eyes, blew the little nose, consoled the tears,
Did not, of course, offer a new balloon, instead were silly, waggled our ears,
Turned sobs to laughter, accepted loss, and hurried
Home for dinner. This day is not like that. And yet they must have tarried,
Looking up into the sky the day he left them, full of loss and fears.*
The poem continues, but the image of the balloon rising caught me, not because of the loss that it represented, but because of the possibility, the unpredictability of where that balloon might go.
The year before my family left Englandwas the year of Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee; she had reigned for 50 years. There were celebrations and holidays and my children’s school had a red, white and blue day where all the children wore, well, red, white or blue, and they had a picnic on the school field, and after lunch, there was a balloon release of red, white and blue balloons.
Each of the children in the school had a balloon with an index card attached with the school address, postage, and a space for the address of its finder, and on the count of zero, they let them go, and three or four hundred balloons sailed into the sky and drifted slowly and silently, on a soft summer breeze, as three or four hundred children stared up, open-mouthed, watching them float over the field and out of sight. Over the next few weeks, the index cards trickled back to school from improbably far away places, first from across the country, then from across the English Channel, and eventually from across the continent of Europe. The children pinned their locations on a map, and wondered at the journeys their balloons had taken.
The disciples were told that they would be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Looking up can be a way of looking beyond our usual horizons. It is our planet’s way of looking outside of itself. It can be a way of escaping the apparent confines of everyday details. It can free our imaginations to soar like those balloons. It can put us in touch with those whose suffering needs our compassion, whose hope needs our support, whose hope supports us, a world away.
While Jesus walked among his disciples, his own reach was limited by distance, by the confines of the everyday obstacles of limited time, energy, focus and attention. But when he ascended, he demonstrated the kind of expansion which inspired his disciples to undertake dangerous and imaginative journeys, to reach out to people across oceans, to reach beyond themselves.
The completeness of the Ascension.
The image of Jesus’ leaving the earth bodily behind is difficult, but it gives us an indication of what he wants for us, what he gives to us. I was reminded this week by an Ascension Day homily at St Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan, that at his Ascension, Jesus, takes his entire being with him up to heaven. He takes his body, with its limitations and even with the scars of its torture and death on the cross. He takes his body’s regrets and pains, he takes his voice, his gaze, his soul and spirit, all together on his journey to the divine dwelling place.
If Jesus had left any part of himself behind, we might wonder, what in us is unacceptable to God, what of our lives and our selves needs to be left behind before we can enter God’s presence.
There may be many things that we would like to leave behind. There may be regrets, shameful memories, scars and painful moments that we would like to shrug off like old snake skin and rise into heaven without them. But this image of the Ascension lets us know that whatever our lives have made us into, whatever marks, visible or invisible they have left upon us, our whole selves are known and are welcome to God.
We know that there are things in each of our lives which we regret, but which we can no longer undo; We may hope that our sins, our scars, our shame will be purged away by the gaze of God when finally we are received into God’s direct presence; but we can be assured by Jesus’ Ascension that we will not need to hide anything from God. We cannot hide anything from God, and God knows and loves us along with our scars, our regrets, and our secret pain.
The completeness of Jesus’ Ascension lets us know that through his Incarnation, his life, death and resurrection, he has already united us with God. He has already opened our lives to the love of God.
Austin Farrer wrote of the Ascension that,
“We are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same way Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of his own sacrifice. Flames tend always upwards. All his life long Christ’s love burnt toward the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts, and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.”**
As we stare up into the sky open-mouthed, our imaginations are kindled by the possibilities which come from transcending our own limitations, from working together, with and through others, to extend our own ministries and our own witness to the love of Christ for all of God’s people. As our imaginations and our hearts are lifted, we are set on fire with the Spirit of God. Whether our hearts burn with the compassion to feed the hungry, the passion to pursue peace, the warmth which comforts the sorrowing or the dying, the inspiration which produces art or music, we lift them and are lifted up into the presence of God when we burn to serve God’s purpose and God’s people.
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking up toward heaven?”
Called back to the present, back to earth, the disciples carried Christ’s flame in their hearts back to Jerusalem, back to their brothers and sisters, back to the prayers and the devotion which waited for the moment of Pentecost, when the flames would spread and warm the earth.
As we lift our hearts and our gaze to God, let us be assured of God’s flame, God’s Spirit, God’s love burning in us, purifying and accepting us with all of our scars and all of our secrets, inspiring us to share God’s love with all of God’s people, to the ends of the earth, and in our own lives, families, and homes.
*Madeleine L’Engle, “For Ascension Day, 1967,” in The Weather of the Heart: Poems by Madeleine L’Engle (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1978)
**Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year: Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament (London: Dacre Press, 1952), p. 34