A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 8, 2005.
Based on Acts 1:1-14 and John 17:1-11 (7 Easter, Year A).
“Why do I have a belly button?” Zack asked me this question at the dinner table this week. And so I launched into a discussion about umbilical cords and the ways in which babies are nourished in their mothers’ wombs. I talked about actually cutting the cord in the hospital and how it was necessary to sever that tie so that a baby could take his or her first steps toward independence. My conversation with Ben and Zack soon turned into an existential discussion about the relative merits of “innees” versus “outees.” But this whole concept carried over into my reflections upon Christ’s ascension. At first glance an odd connection – birthing and ascension don’t normally go together. Even when Ascension Sunday falls on Mother’s Day, which, I assure you, is unusual.
But this morning is the Sunday after the Ascension. And so our lessons point to this theme and we sing hymns with phrases like, “When Christ was lifted from the earth.” In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the actual story of Jesus being lifted up and taken away from the disciples. As they were watching, we’re told, Jesus “was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
The ascension of Jesus is like the cutting of a divine umbilical cord. Jesus cuts the disciples loose. He withdraws physically from them. But the ascension, like the cutting of that cord is not abandonment. It simply ushers in a new relationship between disciples and Lord just as the cutting of an umbilical cord ushers in a new relationship between mother and child. There is newfound independence but there are also new ways of nourishment and comfort. For a child it means love, milk, and near constant attention. For the disciples, and so for us, it means love, the sending of the Holy Spirit to guide us, and the presence of Christ in our lives.
It’s important to remember that the ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus is going away. It’s not about abandonment but fulfillment. The relationship must change. And through the ascension Jesus is even more present with us. Which seems paradoxical. But in the same way, a baby cannot be held in its mother’s arms inside the womb. The relationship must change. The child must leave the safety and security of the womb to experience love in a new way. Through the ascension, we experience the love of Christ in a new way.
Both the ascension of Jesus and the birth of a child are inevitable stages along the continuum of life. For a mother, I’m told that nine months in the womb is plenty. For Jesus, the ascension is the inevitable fulfillment of Christ’s promise to us: that he will be glorified by the Father and reign with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s all part of one single, saving drama — the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. What’s known in theological circles as the Paschal Mystery. Paschal, because it relates to the “passing over” of Christ from death to life and mystery because precisely how the entire cycle takes place is beyond human comprehension. Let’s face it, the ascension is a tough concept for us post-Enlightenment modernists. People don’t just fly up into the sky.
But the particulars don’t really matter. What’s important here is that in order to complete his mission of salvation, Jesus must return to the Father. Or, to use the language of the Gospel of John, the logos or Word that is Christ must return to the Father. It is inevitable in the same way that a child’s birth is inevitable after nine months in the womb. Jesus must return to the Father so that he can prepare a place for his disciples in heaven. And be glorified so that we may believe in him and be saved.
Baptism plays right into all this. Because baptism is, after all, as the Prayer Book says, “the sacrament of new birth.” In a few moments Riley will pass over from sin and death into new life and resurrection. She will be indelibly drawn into the Paschal Mystery of the Christian faith and brought into the community of faith that we all share. And through this new birth, she will enter into a new relationship with Jesus Christ.
I didn’t go into quite this amount of detail when I spoke with the boys about belly buttons this week. But the answer to the question, “Why do I have a belly button?” is a profound issue of faith. May God bless all of us who continually seek deeper connection with God in Christ. And may we remember that nothing, not even the ascension of Jesus, can separate us from the love of God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005