Now pray for me as I venture to speak in the name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Following his appearance to travelers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appeared a final time in Jerusalem – and the record of his Ascension occurs as the conclusion of his post-resurrection appearances. His being “carried up into heaven” is also the prelude to Pentecost when, as he promises in today’s reading from Acts, his Spirit will descend upon his disciples. According to Luke (24:51), after instructing the disciples and then commissioning them as his witnesses, he led them out of the city as far as Bethany where, as he was blessing them, he was“carried up into heaven”. The account in Acts [1:10-11] puts it this way: that when he had promised them the gift of his continuing Presence “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight”…[and that while they were] “gazing intently into heaven as he went…two men stood by them in white robes …and spoke to them: ‘This Jesus who has been taken from you up to heaven will come in the same way as you have seen him go into heaven’”.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is about to return to the Father and I invite you to imagine a picture of his disciples in the ‘upper room’, anticipating the promised outpouring of his Spirit. They are only vaguely aware of what they are waiting for, but it becomes increasingly clear that the glory of Jesus’ death and his resurrection cannot be seen in isolation from the rest of his life. Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that these events are held together with his incarnate life when he reflects on his earthly life. He says to the Father in his high priestly prayer: “I brought glory to you on earth by doing everything you told me to do…and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world”. His point, I think, is that although his disciples are left in the world – they are not of the world but for it – exactly the same as Jesus had been during his earthly life. So now the awareness in the group becomes clearer. They do not belong to this world but they have to live in it as people with a very different optics – with a profoundly changed way of seeing and being in the world. Today’s gospel reading confronts us with a surprising and supernatural event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws. We call it a ‘miracle’ – an event that is the work of divine agency – a spectacular and awe-inspiring happening that obliges us to adjust both our thinking and our behavior to its impact.
I suppose that all miracles are troublesome and contrary to our common modes of thinking. So I’ll just say at the beginning that in my personal experience Jesus’ Ascension, together with other NT miracles, is a very difficult miracle for modern people to embrace. That seems especially true for Christians for a very simple reason. It’s hard, I think, because it introduces a new relationship between him and us. We know, of course, that miracles cannot be explained. Still, I think they can be somewhat understood – and a golfing analogy occurs to me as a good illustration of how we can think of the Ascension. When golfers come to a green that has a huge mound in it – a really big hump that makes putting very difficult – they say that an elephant is buried there. I think this metaphor describes our reception of the account of Jesus’ Ascension. It’s like a buried elephant in the churches of North American Christianity. Every pastor knows that Jesus’ resurrection, and now his bodily rising into heaven, dominates the NT account of his life and death – but for too many of us this is an embarrassment; so lots of us pretend it isn’t there. If we ignore the preposterous wonder that Jesus was taken bodily into heaven, will anybody notice it’s there? Maybe the ‘elephant in the room’ will just go away.
My sense is that for 21st c. Westerners the ‘elephant’ is not only the miracle of Ascension but the phenomenon of miracle itself – natural and human events that leave us mystified and breathless. Instead of accepting that something miraculous has occurred, we search for a moral in the story – or maybe some sort of commonsense meaning. All of us have been taught to do that in our public school systems and colleges – and clergy have been similarly been taught in mainline seminaries and divinity schools. My Old Testament professor, however, was fond of saying that, in his opinion, we just ought to take miracles straight – like good bourbon. But apart from him, many of my teachers were at pains to show how allegedly miraculous events in the Bible were not real miracles at all – or that miracles weren’t the real point of the story. They argued that the people who wrote the Bible were educated for their day, but naive and ingenuous by our standards. They didn’t enjoy the benefit of post-modern critical methods like demythologizing and deconstruction for understanding what is real. Miracle, in a word, is an just an early version of ‘fake news’.
So when we celebrate Ascension Day we come face-to-face with an ‘elephant’ in our faith. We learned early on that Christian faith rests on miracle – then we had to decide whether to embrace it or reject it. So as awkward and uncomfortable as it might be for 21st c. North American Christians to acknowledge, the central part of this story is that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. And we need to think seriously about that – that he rose bodily from the grave – that he ascended – and was ‘carried up into heaven’.
I once saw an Easter cantata in which the climactic scene was the Ascension. The plan was that the actor playing Jesus would be slowly and dramatically hoisted from the stage and out of view through an opening in the ceiling. As he signaled for the ascension to begin, he was saying’ “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”. And his flight upward was progressing nicely until the stage hands lost their grip on the rope – and the actor dropped back toward the stage floor. While his ‘disciples’ looked on with horror, he remained in character as his feet dangled a few inches above the floor. “Oh, and one more thing,” he said, as he was yanked up into the ceiling and out of sight, “love one another”. Maybe a bit clumsy – but the audience got the point – he was gone! I suppose the modern colloquial expression would be something like “Elvis has left the building”.
In lots of ways that process of adjustment and modification is paradigmatic of all earthly life. Change, it turns out, is a fact of life. But despite that truism, with a couple of exceptions developmental theories began to lose emphasis in both religious and secular education circles in the late 1980s. Now, however, in perhaps another example of ‘what goes around comes around’, some of the work currently being done in the neurosciences shows renewed interest in developmental hypotheses – particularly in the brain. So far from being a dead-letter, processes of developmental change are receiving increasing attention in the growth of not only individuals but also of communities and cultures – and we are learning that faith communities like ours have evolved in much the same way. Just as we experience changes in ourselves and in our human relationships, we also can see change in our relationship with God. Maybe that is why Acts and I Peter and John’s gospel – in fact, all the readings appointed for Easter 7- note that our relationship with God evolves and matures – from a generous God in creation to a stern judge in the Garden of Eden to a covenanting benefactor to a suffering God to a God of consummate and unbounded love in Jesus.
Jesus’ Ascension, which we celebrated this past week, illustrates what current political campaigns call an advance worker – somebody who goes ahead and gets a head-start on things that need doing. Jesus’ Ascension tells us that his work is not done. He isn’t finished – so he goes ahead of his followers to intercede for them, that ‘they all may be one, as he and the Father are one’. His cross, with its vertical and horizontal beams, foreshadows his Ascension by showing that the focus is not entirely along a vertical axis but along a horizontal one as well. Having accomplished the work that was given him to do on earth, the risen Christ ascends to heaven – but just as his feet leave the ground, he points his disciples forward to times and places where the eternal intersects the temporal. ‘Remember the words I have given you,’ he says – ‘love one another’.
Those of us who have reared children, or had responsibility for an aging parent, or just engaged in serious self-reflection, have observed that the journey from birth to death passes through a number of developmental changes; and parents know that “leaving the nest” is not a metaphor ‘just for birds’. It’s also a way that humans use to describe the time when our young set out from home to be on their own. I think it’s also an apt phrase as we attempt to grasp an understanding of our Lord’s Ascension. Just think about it. We actually show how much we love and respect our children by preparing them to leave the comfort and security of hearth and home. We don’t expect our kids to hang around indefinitely. We want them to grow up and succeed in life. We want our daughters and sons to be good people – honest, helpful, gifted, strong, compassionate, stout-hearted, intelligent, robust. The list could go on. So I invite you to think of Jesus’ Ascension as a sort of cultural rite of passage for his disciples – very like ‘leaving the familial nest’ was for us and is for our children. He wants them and us to learn that we can and must live without his day-to-day bodily presence. Much as parents are out-of-sight but nevertheless present to grown children after they have ‘left the nest’, Jesus wants us to know that he is ever-present to us and with us and for us. For many Christians the elephant of the Ascension is that Jesus’ bodily presence has been taken from us – and that seems a liability. But it’s actually a blessing to recognize that his bodily absence is the occasion for receiving the gift of another, continuing presence that is ever-present to sustain and comfort us. Think about how Jesus’ Ascension is something like the Incarnation in reverse – and think about how Jesus, who became flawlessly and consummately human, has now taken our humanity fully into the Godhead. The perfect humanity that was killed on the cross is not only resurrected – Jesus is not only no longer held down by death – but now, in the Ascension, he is lifted into the glory of the Trinity where he reigns and intercedes on our behalf.
With miracles like this, of course ours is the most materialistic of all religions. Jesus was indeed human – like us in every aspect but without sin – and then he died and ascended bodily into heaven. That’s our salvation and our great comfort – the eternal has intersected the temporal – the vertical has converged with the horizontal – our humanity has been embraced by the divine Trinity. Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. He is no longer limited by time and space. His reach now is universal. And that, my sisters and brothers, is really good news – and reason for us to be seriously comforted by this continuing connection. All we need to say is Deo Gratias. Thanks be to God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.