Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension Day



homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Ascension Day, May 5, 2016

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ
What a puzzling feast we celebrate today! And yet—this is important—Ascension Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year. Who can name the other six? (Hint: They’re listed on page 15 of the prayer book.)

Easter Day
Ascension Day
The Day of Pentecost
Trinity Sunday
All Saints Day
Christmas Day
The Epiphany

Add to these the fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and you have a list of the most important days of the year.

We’re right in the middle of a string of four of these principal feasts that land rather close together. Ascension Day is the 40th day of the season of Easter, which means it is always observed on a Thursday. Despite being a principal feast of the church, many churches don’t get around to observing it. I hope we would do so every year even if we didn’t have a regularly scheduled Thursday Eucharist!

What makes Ascension so important? The first thing that comes to my mind is this: We talk a lot about Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection. But if Jesus had never ascended, he’d still be hanging around in resurrected bodily form. I’ve never seen him in this way … have you?

It seems that Jesus came and went for a while after his resurrection, always surprising the disciples when he did appear under consistently mysterious circumstances. He was the gardener, except he wasn’t. He was a stranger, except he wasn’t. He was breaking bread, and then he was gone. As I said in another sermon recently, I find the confusing nature of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to be among the very best evidence of their truth: hucksters would have tried to put forth a cohesive attempt at a conspiracy. Instead, we find that the resurrected Christ is elusive, but no less physically solid for it.

And then, one day, he goes away for good, or at least until some other time. Two mysterious figures in white robes tell the disciples that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Unlike a lot of Christians, I have no interest in making a pronouncement about what this means. Actually, I fail to see how end-times predictions are helpful to anyone. They keep us staring up into the sky. They distract us from the fact that God has moved on, and it’s time we moved on as well. There’s nothing to see here.

So, for ten very strange days, there is nothing to do but wait. The disciples dutifully go back to Jerusalem as instructed and wait to see what will happen next. And we’ll get to the Feast of Pentecost a week from Sunday—another principal feast, and the fulfillment of this entire cycle of divine movement.

Adventures in missing the point ...
Of course, this whole scene starts with the disciples still not understanding what Jesus was always about. Now that Jesus is back, they’re ready to resume their original plan of gaining political power at the expense of their oppressors, the Romans. The disciples about ready to hold up signs shouting, “Jesus: Make Israel Great Again!” But Jesus shuts down all that talk, saying, “This isn’t for you to control. You’ll get power, all right—maybe not the kind you wanted, but instead, the kind you’ve always needed. You’ll get power to be my witnesses to the end of the earth.”

In Greek, the word “witness” and the word “martyr” are the same word. Some power! Power to die? Yes indeed. The disciples will receive the power to die, both metaphorically and literally. Power to proclaim? In spades. They will change from disciples, who are followers, to apostles, who are leaders of a movement. But in order for them to do that, Jesus needs to get out of their way. If he hung around, they’d always be depending on his physical presence to tell them what to do. They need to begin to rely on God’s Spirit at work within them.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once wrote that the resurrected Christ is “the light we see by; we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes.”[1] In other words, in the Ascension, Jesus stops being somewhere in order to be everywhere.

The blueprint of creation is not just birth, death, and resurrection. It is birth, death, resurrection, ascension, sanctification. Sanctification means the ultimate state of holiness, theosis, being raised to the full stature of Christ—this is the direction in which we are headed. It is the course we set from the very beginning in our baptismal vows. What might this look like for us? God has made Jesus eternal; what, then, does God plan for us?

Paul writes to the Ephesians:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

So it’s about coming to know God—becoming God’s friend—in order to understand a hope to which we are called. What is the hope to which God has called you? Surely it involves not staring up into the sky, but going back to town, to the front lines. It might involve some waiting—patiently or impatiently. It might involve trusting that power will come to you from the One who made you, who loves you and treasures you. And it will most certainly mean that the power you are given is to be used in the service of love and reconciliation.

It is impossible to be a solo Christian; all of our lives are wrapped up in each other’s. And since Jesus Christ has ascended and fills all things, that means that all things and all people matter. Nobody is disposable. The eternal welcome of everyone into a process of sanctification sure fills me with hope, even as I look around at a fearful, broken world. Evil is real, but it is also a defeated rebel. We are all ascending, and while that theological truth may not make itself known in any sort of scientifically verifiable way in our day-to-day lives, it is a place to hang our faith.

So while we come here once or twice a week and stare up into the sky, as it were, praying to the God whom we come to know better and better throughout our lives, today is about remembering to turn away from the sky and go down the hill into the world. God is not in the sky; God is right here among us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Let’s go find out what the Holy Spirit is doing and join in that work joyously. Amen.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Ascension Day,” in A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Press, 1995), 69.

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