A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 12, 2013 (Sunday after Ascension)
As a little boy I was enamored with balloons. Not the kind your dad blew up on your birthday until he nearly passed out but the ones filled with helium; the kind you’d get at a carnival or a street fair. A helium balloon was magic because it defied all logic — if you dropped anything else like a book or your Darth Vader action figure, it fell to the floor. But if you let go of a helium balloon it went up into the sky, that place full of mystery and intrigue.
My parents, like every parent, knew that the first thing you do with a newly acquired balloon was to tie it to your child’s wrist. Nothing made you feel more special than walking around with a balloon tied to one of your appendages. It was like having your own personal, brightly-colored floating pet. It followed your every move, jumped when you moved your arm, and responded to even the gentlest breeze.
Of course one thing you learn pretty quickly as a child is that balloons are not immortal. They pop unexpectedly and scare the bejesus out of your grandmother or else they float away into the abyss. There’s nothing worse than that tear-inducing moment when the string comes untied and you just stare at your balloon as it floats higher and higher; above rooftops and then tree tops until it becomes a tiny spec in the sky before eventually disappearing. I always wondered just how high that released balloon would go — the moon? Mars? Heaven?
Unfortunately, letting go of a balloon is precisely how many of us envision the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. We imagine the disciples standing around with the resurrected Jesus one moment and then staring as he magically floats up into the sky — like a holy Mary Poppins. Higher and higher he goes until, like that balloon, he becomes a tiny spec and disappears before our eyes. We don’t know exactly where he’s going except that it’s to that mysterious place called heaven; the place where God resides.
The problem with this is the way it impacts our view of heaven. We associate “up” with heaven which by itself isn’t a bad thing. And it makes sense in that things “down here” are known to us — we can touch them — while thing “up there” are full of mystery. But “up” can also imply remote and distant and unattainable. Which is a terrible way to think of heaven! And anyway, despite all of the cartoons of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates standing on a cloud, we really have no idea where heaven is or even that it’s a finite place at all.
One of my favorite quotes that underlies the human construct that heaven is “up there” was attributed to the first human in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Upon his return from orbit he said, “I went up to space but I didn’t see God.” The implication being that if you go all the way up and can’t see God, all religion must be false. Now, it turns out he never actually said this; the words were put in his mouth by the Soviet propaganda machine. The only one who claimed to have heard him say it was Nikita Kruschev himself. We now know that Gagarin was actually a faithful member of the underground Russian Orthodox Church, a fact he kept hidden from the religion-repressing regime. But at its basest level you can see why Kruschev would think this would discredit the whole notion of God. If God is “up there somewhere in space” and you don’t see him, well, there must be no God. Never-mind the vast expanse of interstellar space and the fact that we’ve only explored a tiny fraction of it. But then such was Cold War logic.
The antidote to all of this is Christmas. Yes, the whole manger scene and the Star of Bethlehem and everything else we associate with the nativity of our Lord — well, maybe not the elves. But specifically, the beauty of the Incarnation — God’s coming into the world in human form (that thing we celebrate at Christmas) — is that it places God right in our midst. Jesus can uniquely relate to us because he has experienced the human condition — he knows our pain and joy, our grief and our elation. The Incarnation indelibly links earth to heaven and heaven to earth thereby pulling them together, if only briefly. Think about that the next time you trim your tree.
But this image of Jesus floating away like a balloon puts the emphasis on Jesus being removed from us; that after doing his time among us he’s cashed in his chips and is simply enjoying retirement staring down at us from God’s right hand. Speaking of which, a child once asked me, “why does Jesus always sit on God’s right hand? Isn’t that uncomfortable for God?” But the mystery of faith is that Jesus is both here at hand with us and also with God at God’s right hand. It’s not one or the other but both.
Now if we try to completely wrap our minds around this holy bi-location along with Jesus’ ascension, we’ll go nuts. Trying to rationalize mystery is a losing proposition. But the thing is, we don’t need to get bogged down with the physics of the Ascension. That Jesus is with God is more important than the means by which he got there. I, frankly, don’t really care if he floated or walked or took the T.
One way to get a sense of the importance of the Ascension is looking at the disciples’ reaction to it. Luke tells us that after Jesus was “carried up into heaven” the disciples “worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” That doesn’t sound like a kid that’s just watched his new balloon float away. As any parent knows, that’s always accompanied by, to put it Biblically, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And it never takes place next to the balloon vendor while you’re still at the fair; it’s always in the parking lot just when you’ve finally gotten to your car after fending off the crowds.
So why are the disciples full of joy? Why were they “continually in the Temple praising God?” On the surface level their Lord has just left them for good. But their hearts are overflowing with joy because they knew that wherever Jesus was going, he would always be with them — just in a new way. A way that meant he could never again be crucified or taken away from them. A way that would mean no matter what they faced in this life, nothing could ever separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And that, my friends, is what the Ascension of our Lord is all about.
© The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck 2013