A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 28, 2006.
Based on Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:49-52 (7 Easter, Year B).
Up doesn’t mean away. Out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Today we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to heaven and when it comes to the Christian faith, things aren’t always as they appear. And so up doesn’t mean away and out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Jesus ascends but he doesn’t leave us. It’s one of the mysteries of the faith; one of the paradoxes of Christianity. The ascension – that movement up and away – doesn’t lead to emptiness, but to fulfillment. It doesn’t leave us orphaned, it leads Jesus to an even greater presence among us. If the greatest paradox of our faith is that Jesus’ death on the cross leads to new life, then the ascension ranks right up there.
For us, of course, up usually does mean away. When we want to hide things from children we put them up high. Like the cookie jar. Which works only until they inevitably discover the concept of a chair. But the ascension of Jesus doesn’t leave him out of reach. Jesus’ ascension flouts the whole notion of “out of sight, out of mind.” And Jesus is never out of reach because even though Jesus is no longer with us physically, he is even more present with us spiritually.
But it’s hard to let go. This is never clearer than with the exchange in John’s gospel between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” Jesus tells Mary. Noli me tangere, in Latin. Literally, “touch me not.” But I like the translation “do not hold on to me,” because that’s our natural inclination. Like Mary, we want to hold on to the things we love. To hold on to them gives us a certain power over them. It’s perhaps why we become so attached to our possessions and things. But Jesus is not a possession. We do not possess him; he possesses us. And so we, like Mary, must let him ascend to the Father so that his mission and ministry may be completed. The fullness of Jesus is not in the earthly realm and so he must ascend to heaven in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.
Let’s face it. The ascension is an ethereal concept. People don’t just fly up into the sky. Superman perhaps. But it’s a hard concept for 21st century Westchesterites to grasp. At Old St. Paul’s, the parish I served in Baltimore, there was this great big hook that was hidden way up in the ceiling of the chancel. It was lowered every Christmas to attach giant garlands and then it was hoisted back up. And the effect on Christmas Eve was stunning. Whenever Ascension Day rolled around I always thought about that giant hook and how dramatic it would be if I preached the sermon on my way up to the rafters. Fortunately our organist reminded me that I wasn’t the one ascending. It’s always good to stay grounded (so to speak).
But even if I’m not ascending while I preach, I do love the image of Jesus blessing the disciples as he is ascending. As Luke tells us, “While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” Jesus well understood that this was not an easy moment for the disciples. As much as he warned them that up did not mean away, they were probably still skeptical and so his ascension must have seemed like a final goodbye. He was leaving them; they were losing their Lord. And so Jesus offers them his blessing even as he is ascending. A recognition that goodbyes are hard even when we know the goodbye is not final. Just as the death of a loved one is hard even though Jesus has given us the promise of eternal life. And so the blessing is a wonderfully pastoral gesture, meant to comfort the disciples in their grief. Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus saying, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So, again, up does not mean away. Jesus’ ascension only makes Jesus more present. If the incarnation, the coming of God into the world in human form, is about Jesus coming to a particular group of people at a particular time in history, the ascension shows us the universality of Jesus Christ. His ascension to heaven allows Jesus to become present to all people for all time. The ascension allows Jesus to be with us always, even to the end of the age.
While we may have a hard time relating to the physics of the ascension, one of the lessons here is that we sometimes need to simply accept God’s blessing. Know that you are blessed by God. Accept that you are blessed by God. Keep with you this week the image of Jesus blessing you as he ascends to heaven. Hold on to this blessing even if you cannot hold on to Jesus physically. Jesus does not leave the disciples comfortless. Neither does he forsake us.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006