The feast of the ascension and why it matters...

NOTE: As is often the case on Tuesday, here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday - June 5, 2011 - which is the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus.  I am trying to explore the implications of Christ's radical grace in this message in light of tradition.  What's more, this feast day - Ascension - has been troubling for many contemporary people of faith.  So, here's a shot.  If you are in town, why not join us at 10:30 am?

Today marks the Feast Day of Christ’s Ascension into heaven: well, literally that took place on Thursday – 40 days after the resurrection of Easter – but given our penchant for convenience and efficiency, the contemporary church allows us to celebrate this ecumenical blessing on a Sunday. After all, more people are more likely to be in worship today than on Thursday, right?

• So what do you know about Christ’s ascension into heaven?

• The texts and the creeds tell us that he now sits at the right hand of the Father but what does that really mean? Any thoughts from today’s readings or your experience?

Most Christians in our tradition are baffled – and even embarrassed – by Ascension Sunday because on so many levels it just doesn’t make sense. We tend to be bottom line, empirical people – rational and even broadly scientific – who don’t have time for superstition or foolishness. Consequently, we tend to just skip over this Sunday without giving it much depth or thought because it sounds like antiquated religious mumbo jumbo and we want to know how faith can help us in our everyday lives:

• What do you mean literally lifted up? To where and how high? After the NASA space programs we KNOW that heaven isn’t UP; so what is scripture really trying to say to us?

• And what good could possibly come from confessing that Jesus’ post-resurrection body was truly raised into heaven right before the apostles’ very eyes? What would that even look like and why does it matter?

Protestants don’t do Ascension Sunday very well – I’m not sure Roman Catholics do it much better – but those in the Reformed tradition really don’t get it. So let me offer an alternative – maybe even an antidote – to our contemporary, bottom line obsession with facts and knowledge when it comes to this feast day because sometimes our “facts” blind us to God’s living presence in the bigger picture. 

Eugene Peterson, pastor and biblical scholar and poet, has observed that the Bible uses words in such a way that "the revelation of God to us in Jesus" is shown to be so "large and full of energy – and our capacities to believe and love and hope are so atrophied – that often we need help in hearing the Word made flesh” and living into its blessings. In his book, The Contemplative Pastor, he writes that most of us are so focused on results and doing that we no longer know how to hear the poetry of God's love in scripture. What’s more, because modern "people are not comfortable with the uncertainties and risks and travail of creativity,” we tend to confuse "knowing" with "wisdom."

Not all words, you see, create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform and regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. And while communication is good, it is a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. So the pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of loving relationships between God and God's fighting children and our fought-over creation.

Communion with God is what Ascension Sunday points towards: with poetry and creativity, we are offered a unique vision of God’s love for us that goes well beyond mere communication into wisdom. In the Reformed tradition, Christ’ ascension means:

…that in heaven there is one who, knowing firsthand the experience of suffering and temptation, prays for us and perfects our prayers… Christ’s ascension is a witness and guarantee of our own resurrection, as well as an invitation for us to set our hearts and minds “on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1-2) to rule over all things in heaven and throughout the universe (Eph. 1:10, 20-23). And the ascension of Jesus serves as the prelude to Pentecost, when the power of the risen Christ came upon all believers through the Holy Spirit – including you and me.
(Reformed Worship @

So let me sketch out for you what these deeper truths of Ascension Sunday might mean for us, so that we, too, are empowered by communion with Christ’s gracious spirit much like the early apostles were, ok? Because, you see, this story is NOT about something that just happened once in ancient history. Like our cousins in Judaism at the Passover Seder, we, too believe that as we enter the story faithfully, we experience and live into its blessings from the exodus to the resurrection.

First, consider the invitation to awe that is a part of this story: this is a reminder that God is the LORD – not our co-pilot, not our drinking buddy and not a distant clock mechanic who once set creation into motion only to step aside for eternity to watch in silence. We’re talking about experiencing the love of God in our flesh – a love that is like a fire – that melts and transforms and purifies and is vastly different from anything we can imagine.

• What did the apostles do when Christ was raised up and disappeared into the cloud? The text tells us this: After Jesus gave them his last words, the apostles watches as he was taken up and disappeared into a cloud. And they stood there – mouths gapping and eyes wide – staring into an empty sky.

• Ever been the Grand Canyon? The Taj Mahal? The cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC or St. Peter’s in Rome? How did you react? What did you feel in the presence of such enormous beauty and power?

That’s a clue – albeit pale by comparison – to what the apostles discovered on the day of Christ’s Ascension: they were awestruck by the love of God. No wonder their mouths hung open, their eyes were wide and they stood in silence. Awe evokes humility – wonder – and respect. In what is arguably the classic study of awe written in 1902 by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, we read that awe is:

• Ineffable – that is it is an experience with the sacred that cannot be fully expressed in words.

• It is noetic – that is the encounter creates clear feelings that we have learned something life changing from the inside out.

• And it is passive – a gift, if you will – given to us from beyond that we can neither control nor earn because awe is not an act of the will.
Ascension Sunday invites us to have our hearts awakened to God’s awesome love given shape and form in Jesus Christ – and that is a profoundly counter cultural invitation. Many are too busy to be awed – or too cynical – or just too tired or sophisticated.
So let me ask you: do our churches – as the body of Christ – help or hinder this lost sense of awe? 

For a long time “we used to focus so much on making worship reverent and holy that guests sometimes felt out of place or unwelcome. But today, as we try so hard to make people feel comfortable and included, our sense of awe has eroded.” (Joan Huyser-Honig)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want anyone to be locked out of Christ’s awesome grace. At the same time, let’s think about some new/old ways of reclaiming a sense of awe in worship. Look at this place: one of the reasons I love it is because it is so grand – excessive and extravagant in its beauty – the whole architecture invites awe. So let’s keep alert for ways to awakened to awe.

Second, Ascension Sunday challenges us to give up our embarrassment about following Jesus. You see, at the heart of ascension poetry is the confession that Jesus is not only a historical figure from 2,000 years ago, but that he is alive today in the church as well as at the right hand of God the Father – or Mother – in heaven.

Last week I had a conversation with some members from another congregation in our area about church renewal. A few of you were a part of that with me – and I am grateful. And one of the things that I keep going back to as I revisit this conversation is how uncomfortable they became when I said, “At the core of church renewal is the living presence of Jesus. He is all we really have to share with the world – and without Him everything else is just technique.”

• Now the discomfort with that statement was palpable. Not because I was telling them that Christ is the ONLY way to God. I don’t believe that is true; Jesus tells us in St. John’s gospel: in my Father’s house are many mansions… and I trust him.

• No what created the discomfort was embarrassment: we educated folk don’t like to sound corny – or out of control – or like the fundamentalists. And we hate being lumped into the same category as those who use Jesus’ name to wound or shame or follow wacky theologies like the rapture.

Are you with me here? Do you know what I am talking about?
Well, what this embarrassment has created all over America is a wishy-washy, disconnected sense of God that no longer knows what to do with Jesus. One of the best minds of our time, Frederick Buechner, put it like this in one of his confessional novels – and pay careful attention – because he is talking about you and me when he references himself. The set up is a young man who has been asked to pray but doesn’t know what to say. So an older woman:

…tried to teach me to pray because I’m lousy at it. She’s prayed for me… and now wants me to pray, too… but the prayers are so corny. So she tells me I need to practice saying my prayers to Jesus… it’s important that you call him that – not Christ or Lord or anything else – because Jesus is the part of his name that embarrasses people to death when they use it all alone. Just Jesus… try it because underneath that embarrassment is he part of us that’s revolted by him… that part of him that comes to us in our weakness… And then she said this: what I want you to do for me is to walk back through your memory, as though it were a long hall, and ask Jesus to open all the closed doors and to bless whatever he might find inside.

Ascension Sunday speaks to us about a Jesus who is not just part of the historic past – he is alive now to bring us healing and hope – for on the Cross he experienced everything we know about pain, fear and temptation. So why not bring everything to him in prayer? How does the old song put it:

What a friend we have in Jesus – all our sins and griefs to bear – what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear: all because we do not carry everything to him in prayer.

Preacher Rob Bell got it right when he said that the grace Jesus brings to us is costly: “It will require a death – a humbling – a leaving behind of the old mind. And at the same time it will require an opening up, loosening our hold and letting go, so that we can receive and expand, find, hear, see and enjoy God’s love that fills both heaven and earth.” This feast day is an invitation to get over ourselves – give up our embarrassment – and come to the banquet of God’s love with Jesus.

And that bring us to the third blessing: today tells us something about heaven. We don’t like to talk much about heaven – I guess there’s just way too much to speculate about – but do you understand that what we think and believe about heaven and hell matters here on earth? I am really serious about this: what we believe about heaven and hell matters here on earth so we need to talk about them.

Some Christians believe that heaven is an escape hatch – a way out of life’s pain – and the whole point of living is to get promoted to someplace else. Such an understanding, of course, has no concern for “the millions of people starving, thirsty and poor; the earth that is being exploited and polluted; or the disease and despair that are everywhere because… these Christians are only interested in getting into heaven.” (Bell)

See what I’m suggesting? What we believe about heaven matters – and it matters here as much as beyond. So what Ascension Sunday tell us about heaven could make a huge difference:

• Like knowing that when Jesus was raised to heaven to be at the right hand of the Father his flesh is now our flesh united with God. What happened to Christ, you see, is what he promises for us – no matter how sick, tired, afraid or overwhelmed we feel – we, too, will be united with God forever.

• So we need not live in fear or shame today. That is the only way the first disciples could go out into their streets and feed the hungry – and clothe the naked – and embrace the dying. They knew that even if the Roman Empire crucified them – and for a time it did – they, too would be reunited with God in complete healing.
So they became their best selves – their most liberated selves – their most courageous and compassionate selves – filled and empowered by the Spirit because after the Ascension they knew that Jesus was now at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus had made this clear to them saying: Everything mine is yours, and everything yours is mine… They'll continue in the world while I return to you. Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life… so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind. As long as I was with them, I guarded them in the pursuit of the life you gave through me… (Now let me guard them forever in heaven.)

What was true then, dear sisters and brothers, is true today: Jesus and God are one – united – and we are united with Jesus on earth as it is in heaven. In this we can live in joy and freedom knowing that we can never be separated from the love of God. Never –not in life – and not in death – and that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.


Black Pete said…
The holy mystery that we always so want to rationalize... Jim Croegaert says it all so beautifully in his hymn "Why Do We Hunger (for Beauty)?":
RJ said…
You've shared that one before - it is perfect - thanks.

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