[Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal, Winter Park, Ascension Day, May 25, 2017)
When I was a teenager growing up in Central Florida, my Dad used to awaken my brother and I early in the morning to take us out to the back of a sprawling cow pasture near our house. Across the pasture there was an unobstructed view of the horizon. With transistor radio in one hand and a camera in the other, we would watch the horizon with its first faint hints of sunrise for a tiny red glare, the fiery lift-off of a rocket from across the state at Cape Kennedy, headed for outer space.
My guess is that a lot of you who grew up in this part of Florida have similar stories. Our lives were filled with the seemingly magical ability of humanity to escape the field of gravity which encircles our Earth and fly away into the solar system taking men to the moon and later taking unmanned flights to the edges of the solar system.
Ascension was a notion that was very real for Central Floridians.
So imagine my surprise as I sat in a humanities course at Valencia years later watching a film in which scholar of world religions Joseph Campbell discussed the Ascension narrative from Luke’s Gospel. In tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus takes the disciples out to Bethany, withdraws from them and then just takes off, rising into the sky, much like the Saturn rockets taking men to the moon. I’ll never forget Campbell’s assessment of that account:
Given his lift off speed and the time that has elapsed since this event, Jesus is probably passing Saturn’s rings right about now.
Of course Luke is wrestling with a problem that all the Gospel writers are facing: If a crucified Jesus rises from the grave to resume some kind of normal life activities, how does the writer finally get Jesus off the stage? How does Jesus exit the scene?
Mark avoids that problem with his ending at an empty tomb. Matthew ends with Jesus on a mountain preaching while the credits roll. John’s gospel ends with an et cetera clause, saying Jesus did a lot more things but it would take several books to account for them. Among the gospel writers, Luke alone feels the need to have Jesus make a dramatic exit, ascending into the skies like a Saturn rocket.
One of the more regrettable effects of the Enlightenment era with its focus on observable, empirical evidence as the sole arbiter of truth has been the tendency to treat our scriptures as factual accounts recorded by eyewitnesses on the spot. This has been particularly true in Protestant circles whose Reformation, which focused on the authority of the scriptures, occurred on the eve of the Enlightenment. The result has been varying degrees of literalism in the reading of scriptures that were never intended by the communities who generated these writings to be read in that manner. The point Joseph Campbell was making in his facetious comment about the Ascension was that anytime you take a symbol literally, you kill it and it loses the power that all symbols have to touch us in ways and at depths that literal accounts simply can’t.
Of course, the writers of Luke’s Gospel understood this implicitly. They knew only too well that their targeted audience in the Roman world with its Greek language and rich mythological imagery would understand implicitly that this Ascension of Jesus was not a historical event. It would not show up on the front page of The Jerusalem Times the next day.
The Greek world took for granted gods and goddesses who could descend from the heavens to interact with human beings - sometimes spawning children with human women, offspring who would be seen as both human and divine - only to ascend back into the heavens. Indeed, where might we have heard such a narrative before? Consider the words of our creed: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven….[and then, after his crucifixion and resurrection,] he ascended into heaven.”
At a very basic level, Luke’s writers knew what images would sell to their Greco-Roman audience. It is a classic example of good marketing – if you want to sell your ideas, use the language and the imagery of your customers’ lifeworld.
Now this is what I would pose to my students at the university were I teaching a class on this Gospel. It is a critical, academic examination of the text being studied. But I believe that there is much more to Luke’s Ascension narrative worth considering.
To begin with, it is critical to note that the Ascension takes place after the crucifixion. Jesus has been subjected to the worst suffering that human beings know how to impose on one another. For his Roman executors, it was a suffering driven by fear, by a grasp for power, by concern for economic privilege combined with an abject disregard for human life.
When Jesus ascends to be reunited with the G-d from whom he came, he takes the suffering of humanity with him. Not only is it suffering he has experienced first-hand, it is also the very suffering he has devoted his life to addressing - healing the sick, reassuring the poor that G-d loves them and embracing the outcast. In doing these things Jesus challenged the holders of power in his society, those whose privilege was a direct result of that suffering. As Bishop Barbara Harris often says, “There is a reason they killed Jesus and it wasn’t because he asked the little children to come to him.”
Of course, a G-d who is as close to us as the very breath we breathe already knows about human suffering. One of the characteristics of G-d frequently referenced in the Hebrew Scripture is compassion, the ability to suffer with the other. But with the ascension of Jesus back into the heart of G-d, the sufferings of human existence become very real, immediate and inescapable. As a result, the compassion of G-d is now complete. G_d our Creator shares completely in our suffering.
But I believe there is a more important reason the writers of Luke felt the need to remove the resurrected Jesus from the Earth. Luke’s Gospel is the first part of a two volume writing which concludes with the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel part ends with the disciples atop the Mount of Olives just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles begins with the disciples walking across that valley, returning to the Upper Room where the followers of Jesus including a number of women are gathered. Immediately they begin the business of shoring up a battered community which has just lost its beloved leader and who face a hostile Temple establishment and a Roman occupying force with the power to annihilate them.
From Luke’s perspective, as long as Jesus was with them, the disciples relied upon him for leadership and guidance. Once he is gone, it is up to the disciples to figure out how to ensure that this Way of Jesus will survive and hopefully thrive. No doubt, the words of Jesus still ring in their ears about a Kingdom of G-d where the poor are blessed, the hungry fed and those who weep will laugh. If that Kingdom is going to come on earth as in heaven, as Jesus taught them – and us - to pray, it will be because his disciples have themselves taken up Jesus’ ministries of healing, lifting up the lowly and embracing the outcasts. And they will assume those ministries knowing that the cost of challenging the values of the Roman Empire - dominating power and the protection of the privilege of the few attained at the expense of the many – may well be the same cross that Jesus himself faced.
This is where the Ascension narrative becomes real for us. We live in a world where access to healing turns on one’s income in a society with more than enough resources to easily treat all of its sick and injured. We live in a world where the lowly are often demonized, where their poverty is attributed to them as somehow a lack of their own initiative and hard work, even as many of them work more than one job with few benefits and whose wages put together still do not produce a living wage. We live in a world in which the outcasts from foreign
lands and different religions are demonized, the image of G_d they bear lost beneath the caricature of the Other we impose upon them. And we live in a world where one out of three nation-states including our own continue to use the power of the state to kill those just like Jesus who violate their laws, a practice Pope Francis recently recognized to be “a mortal sin.”
Truth be told, the values of the Roman Empire are largely our values. If Jesus descended once again to our world this very night, he would readily recognize the power dynamics and unequal social relations that he would encounter. Indeed, they are very much like the dynamics of the world he left behind that day on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus entrusted his followers to ensure G-d’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. But his Way of Jesus all too quickly became a religion about the Christ, a religion which now comes in 34,000 different denominational flavors. While the religion of Jesus focused on a way of living which recognized duties to oneself, to others, to the good Creation and to the G_d from whom all things come, the religions we have constructed about the Christ have largely focused on the next world and what we must do to ensure ourselves a good afterlife. At a very basic level, these religions are largely about us, not Jesus or the kingdom of G-d he envisioned.
So, what might happen if we took Luke’s Ascension narrative seriously though not literally? What might happen if we realized that in departing from this Earth, Jesus left us in charge of the Way of being the people of G-d he had taught and modeled? What might happen if we took seriously the words we pray with regularity that G-d’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven?
I think I might know. See if these questions sound familiar:
· Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
· Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I hope you recognized them. These are the questions we pose to all those we baptize into the Episcopal Church and at the celebration of every baptism thereafter we recite them together as a community. These questions reflect the very heart of the Way of Jesus. They are the values of Jesus’ kingdom of G-d. And the response to these questions our liturgy asks us to make is simple: I will, with God's help.
Luke’s message of the Ascension is crucial for the followers of Jesus: If there is going to be a Kingdom of G-d, on earth as in heaven as we pray, it will be because we who would follow Jesus prove faithful in living into the Way he modeled, entrusted to us and ultimately gave his life for. Let us answer the call of an ascended Jesus to us this night to be faithful to that Way. Let us remember that while our own affirmative response to that calling must always come first- “I will” - we can never do it alone. We always need God’s help.
Tonight let us answer Jesus’ call to us with this simple response: I will with God’s help. AMEN.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017