As many of you know, we meet with a group of pastors on Wednesday mornings called the Rector Set. When the high holy days come around, you can hear from the comments who struggles with which holiday. If it is Easter, one pastor might have this far away look on her face as she ponders just how she will bring fresh light to the resurrection? For another, it might be Christmas, with the worries that the consumer culture will drown out the good news of the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel. I discovered this week that I have some apprehension about the Ascension, the day sandwiched between Easter and Pentecost when Jesus rose again, so to speak, into heaven. Now, technically, the Ascension holiday took place last Thursday, which was 40 days after Easter. But most churches celebrate it today, the following Sunday. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve never been to a special Thursday night Ascension service. It is a holiday on the church calendar that we really don’t celebrate like the others. Who put up their Ascension tree? Or released balloons with pictures of Jesus on them? Many of you will go have a big lunch or dinner today, not to celebrate the Ascension but to celebrate the mothers in your life. If we had an Ascension Day dinner, I’m not sure what would be on the menu anyway, maybe Florence’s divinity. We ignore Ascension, really.
But one of the real reasons that I feel uneasy about the Ascension is that I know I would have been standing there with those disciples, confused about all of Jesus’ Kingdom of God talk and wondering when that kingdom was going to overthrow the kingdom of Rome and reestablish Israel. But especially when he started ascending, I would have grabbed hold of his ankle and yelled, “No, you can’t go! We need you!” This looks like bad news, that we are loosing Jesus.
So, to deal with my uneasiness about Ascension and to find a way to help me let loose of Christ’s leg, I looked for some help. Some 500 year old help. Recently, the denomination has been looking at a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism for our Book of Confessions. First off, who knows what a catechism is? Right; a series of questions and answers about our faith. And a brief history lesson, Heidelberg, Germany is where the two fronts of the Protestant Reformation met, the Lutheran and the Reformed schools of thought. Tension followed, and the ruler of German called for a catechism to be written that could be accepted by both sides, thus the Heidelberg Catechism.
So, here was this new translation, sitting on my desk. And question 49 was what I was looking for to address my struggles. “How does Christ’s Ascension to heaven benefit us?” Well, let’s look at what it says:
First, speaking of Christ, “he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.” This is good news. Every time we say the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that he sits at the right hand of the Father where he will come to judge the living and the dead. One of the jokes that came up in seminary was that, yes, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father, but he does get up occasionally to stretch his legs. But do you know what he is doing when he is stretching his legs? He is gathering up all the prayers that we are presenting to God. When you pray at home and when we do the prayers of the community, Christ is taking up all those prayers and presenting them before the Father’s throne. He is praying for us, interceding for our salvation, and crying out for us in the presence of his Father, because he alone is worthy to go before the throne of God on our behalf. As Ronald Cole-Turner puts it, “Our prayers ascend even now with the exulted Christ to the very heart of God.”
Second, and this is one of the understandings of the ascension that I just found wonderful and really had never thought of before, “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.” Part of who we are is already in heaven in Christ. If you remember the opening of the gospel of John, it says that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, our Emmanuel, God with us. The divine living with humanity. And in the Ascension, Jesus Christ going into the presence of the Father, humanity is now found living with divinity. Jesus isn’t just Emmanuel, God with us, he is also “us with God.” A part of who we are is in the presence of God! Jesus Christ’s ascension becomes our ascension. We have already entered the Kingdom of God! It isn’t a place that we have to wait to go when we die; we go there now, because we are part of it now. In our search for God, in our reaching up for him, we have found God already reaching down to us, pulling us up into his presence. We are in God’s presence in and through Christ.
And the third part of question 49 is the bridge that ties Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the giving of the Holy Spirit that we will celebrate next week on Pentecost. “He sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” This is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and power that we learn from and discern from as we come to know Christ. It is through the Spirit that we haven’t lost Christ, but we have gained the Kingdom of God where Christ sits in glory over the Church and the world. It is through the Spirit that Christ’s presence never leaves us; it is through that same Spirit that we come into a deeper relationship with Christ.
So, what does this mean for us? Friends, we stop looking up and stop waiting for something we think we have to wait for. The two messengers that confronted the disciples do not give words of comfort, but urge them ahead to active engagement in the new era where they experience the Kingdom of God on earth. We are urged to start experiencing the Kingdom that God in Christ has pulled us into now. We realize that this, our humanity, matters, because it mattered enough to God to send the Son. Christ has redeemed our flesh and humanity and glorified it forever in the presence of the Father when we ascended. We see the beauty and splendor of God all around us and in the eyes of those we meet, because all humanity is lifted up. And this is where we come in. If we sit staring into heaven looking for Jesus, then we cannot be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. By his Spirit and presence, Christ is calling us to share the good news of the redemption he has brought to humanity in the name of God’s love, that God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness and restoration can be experienced now and forever.
I end with a legend. There is a very old legend concerning the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to heaven after his Ascension. It is said that the angel Gabriel met him at the gates of the heavenly city.
“Lord, this is a great salvation that thou has wrought,” said the angel. But the Lord Jesus only said, ‘Yes.’
“What plans hast thou made for carrying on the work? How are all to know what thou hast done?’ asked Gabriel.
“I left Peter and James and John and Martha and Mary to tell their friends, their friends to tell their friends, till all the world shall know.”
“But Lord Jesus,” said Gabriel, “suppose Peter is too busy with the nets, or Martha with the housework, or the friends they tell are too occupied, and forget to tell their friends—what then?”
The Lord Jesus did not answer at once; then he said in his quiet wonderful voice: “I have not made any other plans. I am counting on them.”
Friends, the Lord is counting on us, and that makes the Ascension worth celebrating. Amen.