A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 24, 2009 (7 Easter, Year B)
The Sunday after the Ascension
Gravity. It’s the force that draws objects to the Earth’s surface. You can’t fight gravitational pull. If you jump off of a three foot wall, you’ll go down not up. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t learn in middle school science class. Sir Isaac Newton, the apple tree, the Law of Universal Gravitation.
And it is this concept of gravity, this basic tenet of everyday life, that makes it so hard for us to wrap our minds around Jesus’ ascension into heaven. People just don’t float up into the air like Mary Poppins. Or fly like Superman. That’s all fiction or fantasy or wishful thinking and so we don’t know what to do with this piece of Jesus’ life. We tend to ignore it or minimize its importance. And we do so to our detriment because it limits the soaring possibilities of our own faith.
With our lips we say that “With God all things are possible.” But do we really believe it? Or do we really mean “With God many things are possible?” Or “With God some things are possible?” The ascension of Jesus expands our notion of the possible. It’s what allows us to live in a world where “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised.” And where faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.
But gravity holds us back. Sometimes physically but more often spiritually. It’s like a millstone around our necks that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life and faith. But there’s another way. Because when we throw off the constraints that have become so ingrained in us; when we let go of our pre-conceived notions; when we accept that we don’t have all the answers, the possibilities are limitless. Jesus can ascend and our broken relationships are healed. Jesus can ascend and our prayers are heard. Jesus can ascend and our sins are forgiven. Jesus can ascend and our eternal life is assured.
I did defy gravity once and it was an odd experience. It happened on the third of the required five parachute jumps when I was at Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I jumped out and everything was normal – or as normal as things can be when you jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I had a nice smooth exit, I kept my feet and knees together as I’d been instructed to do countless times, I looked up to check my canopy and it was nice and full. And then the strangest thing happened. I started going up instead of down. I looked around and all the other parachutes were descending as they should have been but I kept going up. Now I realize I don’t weigh a whole lot but this was ridiculous. So I started tugging on the straps trying to will myself down until I thought “Hey, this is pretty nice.” And I just enjoyed it – it’s not like I had somewhere to be. It turns out I had hit a thermal air pocket. It’s rare but it happens. Eventually it passed, gravity kicked in, and I landed back on the drop zone bewildered by the experience but in one piece.
And it was a good lesson that things don’t always go as you might expect; that there are other possibilities beyond what we could possibly imagine. The temptation is to give in to the gravitational pull that keeps us solely focused on this world. And when we do so we start playing God ourselves by thinking we can do everything and control everything. And that, friends, is the essence of sin. Because as hard as we may try, we can’t control the world around us. There is a greater force at work. One that defies gravity; one that defies even the grave. The good news is that our being made in God’s own image means that we have the potential to be pulled by the greater force that is God rather than the forces of this world.
I’d argue that God operates on a reverse gravitational pull because God is forever seeking to draw us in. To draw our hearts and minds and souls upward to seek the things that are above. Which is another reason why the ascension matters: it lifts our eyes upward; it keeps us focused on the things above rather than the things below. Which doesn’t mean we ignore what’s happening in our own lives. Quite the opposite. But it puts our lives into context. And the context in which we live and move and have our being is the context of the sacred. It makes everything we do or fail to do an act or missed opportunity to serve God. It means that all our human relationships are dripping with the chance to witness to Christ’s love for us.
It’s helpful to reflect upon the forces in your life that weigh you down. What are the gravitational pulls that keep you from living a life fully open to the spirit? What are the gravitational pulls that limit the possibilities of your own faith life? What draws you away from God rather than toward God? It may be as straightforward as not making enough time to tend to your prayer life. Or being overly negative rather than proactive when you encounter a problem. It may be an obsessive love of creature comforts while ignoring the needs of others.
Whatever it is, it’s comforting to know that we’re not the only ones who struggle with keeping our minds focused upward. This exchange between the disciples and Jesus in the Book of Acts shows that even as Jesus is about to ascend, even as he has spent the past 40 days after the resurrection offering proof after proof of his identity, they still don’t get it. They, like us, struggle with living between heaven and earth. Just before Jesus ascends, they know something big is about to happen. Jesus has gathered them all, perhaps on a mountaintop. And in this moment of expectation they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They still think his mission is to set up a worldly kingdom! They still don’t get it. They still can’t see that his kingdom is not of this world; that it’s not about palaces and grand armies but about servanthood and salvation. But he offers them a promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to bind the heavenly with the worldly. It’s the working of God’s purpose here on earth. Which they won’t understand for awhile.
Perhaps our charge is to live like the astronauts once they leave the earth’s orbit. Freely floating in a sort of spiritual weightlessness with the freedom to let go of the gravitational pull that brings us down. Only when we suspend our conventional notions of what’s possible do we allow the fullness of God into our lives. And only then can we truly say, “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009