A sermon for Easter 7 / Ascension
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, Luke 24:44-53
My favorite scenes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind are:
- Richard Dreyfus’ mysterious sunburn he got in the dark of the night;
- the spaceship blowing everything off the stage the first time it plays the three note sequence, and
- the magnificent ascension of the space ship into the stars.
There is a similar scene in the movie Knowing as mystic creatures gather all the species of earth, two by two in the ethereal ships that ascend into the stars, just before the earth is destroyed by a massive solar flare. There are all kinds of stories about a hero ascending. Greek mythology tells how Hercules ascends to the gods to avoid death; Roman mythology tells us Romulus has “been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.” In Sumerian mythology, there is the story of Adap ascending to the gods, escaping death. (Ancient Origins) No matter the age of the story something about seeing someone ascend to the stars ascend into the heavens catches our imagination.
The same is true in the Bible. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him. (Genesis 5:24) We all know the story of Elijah being carried off in a chariot and horses of fire ascending in a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11) Of course there is a New Testament ascension story, otherwise we’d never observe Jesus’ Ascension, 40 days after Easter. (Which is always a Thursday so it’s rarely observed in these times.) Matthew and Mark imply an ascension. John treats Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as one event. But Luke describes Jesus’ ascension in short but significant detail. And, by the way, the Epistles also refer to Jesus’ ascension, especially Hebrews, from which we get the marvelous invitation to confession
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14, 16)
Jesus’ ascension is also woven into the heart of the Christian tradition. In both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed we hear:
… rose again according to the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead
To be honest, Jesus’ ascension creates a concern: because some say Jesus has gone away, he’s not here anymore. However; that’s not exactly true. Luke’s tale ends:
And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Remember a couple of weeks ago when we were reading through the resurrections stories; every time Jesus shows up the disciples are terrified. Today, fear has turn to joy, worship, and blessing. (Troftgruben) Jesus’s presence with God, in divine glory, is the final assurance of our inheritance of redemption. It is the source of energy for the mission of the Church. We hear that in the collect appointed for the celebration of the Ascension that “he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages…”
So, now we know a little something about ascension myths in the broader cultures, of ancient times, and today. We’ve touched on ascension stories from the Old Testament. We’ve noted the difference in how the evangelists treat the Ascension, from part of a single story to inferences, to a specific event. We’ve touched on the references to the Ascension in the Christian traditions of Creeds, Liturgies, Holy Days, and collects. We’ve even explored the question: “Is Jesus gone?” And now we find ourselves in that part of the homiletical exercise where we are challenged to ponder “So what?”
Well to do that, let’s stop and take a look at where Luke is. Unlike the other Evangelists, Luke produced two stories; the first, his Gospel, about Jesus, the second about the continuing ministry of the disciples and the beginnings of the Church. The Ascension acts like a pivot; it swings our attention from the story of Jesus’ ministry, as Messiah on earth, to the continuing ministry, the witness of those who believe, to those not yet transformed. Ben Helmer writes:
The Ascension makes Jesus a universal figure, drawing us all to him, and sending us to be witnesses of the Good News. There is no time to ponder; Now is the time to act – together. (Helmer)
Br. Geoffrey Tristram speaks of this time as one when, as the disciples do, we know we can break the death barrier, because
The Ascension was the means by which Jesus was able to share the fruits of his redemptive love with us – share his victory over death with us. (Tristram)
I believe it’s a time we realize we can break the mission barrier because Jesus shares the fruits of his love with us.
Luke’s Gospel begins at the Temple with the promise of Elizabeth’s conceiving. Zechariah stumbles out of the Temple unable to speak. Those around him aren’t sure what’s going on; however, as readers we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann) As his Gospel tale closes, the disciples are gathered at the Temple, joyfully worshiping, and blessing God. Once again, we know “God is at work and something marvelous is about to happen.” (Brueggemann)
Sisters and brothers ~ nothing has changed, something marvelous is about to happen. The presence of the ascended Jesus continues to be a conduit of divine love and victory; continues to be a force for breaking barriers; continues to provide believers with propensity to change the world; and continues to goad us to act ~ now, with whoever we find a common bond. Yes, it means change, read the rest of Acts about that. Yes, it means risk, read Paul’s story. But it also means joy ~ joy born of being in God’s loving presence, joy born of another’s life touched by grace and coming to know the shalom of God; joy born of one less division between God’s people. And I don’t believe it’s always giant mission projects, although there are plenty around. I believe such joy comes from simple one on one encounters; encounter between you, and the stranger of the moment. I believe such joy comes as we witness God’s love touch another. I believe such joy comes as we are touched by the other. I believe such joy leads to worship, leads to ministry.
n.d. 17 5 2015. <http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ascension-heavens- ancient-mythology-001471>.
Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Vol. Genesis. Louisville, n.d.
Culpper, R. Allan. New Interpreter’s Bible, The Gospel of Luke. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. 9. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Ellingsen, Mark. Ascension. 14 5 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Helmer, Rev Ben. Sermons that Work. 17 5 2015.
Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.
Petersen, David L and Beverly R Gavenat. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Tristram, Br. Geoffrey. Breaking the Death Barrier – Br. Geoffrey Tristram. 16 5 2010. 17 5 2015. <http://ssje.org/ssje/2010/05/16/breakingthedeathbarrierbrgeoffreytristram/>.
Troftgruben, Troy. Commentary on Luke 24:4453. 17 5 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.