May 20, 2012
Sermon for Ascension Sunday 2012
May 20, 2012
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
It’s one of the main features in Matthew, Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles. John doesn’t describe the event, but he refers to it a number of times (it obviously had profound meaning for him). It’s been on the Church calendar since the late 4th century at least, and it’s one of the major celebrations of the Church, though rarely observed on the actual day. It sounds a little like a scene from the Star Trek TV series which introduced us to transporters – Scotty beaming people’s molecules back and forth across the infinite reaches of the universe – but predates the popular sci-fi show by almost 2000 years! It is, without question, one of the strangest stories ever told. And Luke’s economy of words is just plain frustrating; he wrote “as the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
That’s about all there is to the Ascension, and we wonder how such an incredible thing got so little attention! Do you suppose our Biblical forebears witnessed such extraordinary things so frequently that they were relatively unimpressed? “Hey Benjamin, I saw your aunt Zipporah last week at the market; I guess it was her time because right there between the fresh produce and sacrificial doves she was taken up; the last thing I heard was “Tell Benny he can take a break when he’s memorized all of uncle Obadiah’s prophecies.” The way Matthew and Luke tell it, it’s got all the punch of the Lazy River ride at Lake Fairfax.
Compare it to the Incarnation.
According to Luke, Jesus arrived with amazing fanfare, the heavens lit up by the brightest star that ever shone, a multitude of radiant winged beings proclaiming peace on earth; singing Gloria in Excelsis! While the Ascension of Jesus has all the interest and excitement of riding the up escalator in J. C. Penny’s!
Today is the Feast of the Ascension, transferred of course because it was actually on Thursday.
And do you know, Jesus was not the only or even the first to ascend from earth to Heaven?
There are Biblical stories and traditions stating that Moses; the prophets Enoch, Elijah, Baruch, Ezra, Isaiah, and Zephaniah; the Patriarch Abraham (what happened to all the women?); even Adam and Eve, were all carried up to Heaven.
I’ve never seen anything like that, have you?
What do you make of this? Is it a factual event? Is it literally true?
This is just the kind of theological conundrum Seminary professors love to impose on their students, who spend hours and hours researching things they know they cannot prove or disprove.
And yet there is a very clear answer to the question of our Doctrine, our belief, about The Ascension. And it’s very simple: it’s not about literal truth (and by that I do not mean it is not true); it is about faith.
The creation of the universe in six days, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit, the sky filled with beautiful and terrifying angels, Jesus descending to the dead, a brick and mortar mansion in Heaven; Armageddon and the final physical battle between Jesus and satan . . . We cannot confirm any of these as literal truth, nor can we refute them. And the debate itself is misleading.
The Bible is much more than a collection of true stories and events; it is meta-truth - truth within and beyond truth. We can skip along the surface, study the words as they sit dead on the page. We can say this is the inerrant Word of God divinely dictated, literally true and not to be questioned, or even studied prayerfully for greater understanding – though there are more problems with that than there are thorns on a rose bush. Or we can immerse ourselves in God’s Living Word, explore beneath the surface, probe the depths, learn who, when, where, and why these great lessons were recorded, translated, printed, and passed on generation after generation to people who read them, try to live by them, draw on the love and courage in them, make great sacrifices because of them, even die for them, to make sure the goodness and grace of these sacred and living stories doesn’t stop here.
The Bible is inspirational because the Holy Spirit makes the words come alive. The Spirit of God sets fire to human imagination, inflames our faith. Every generation must wrestle with the truth and meaning of this living collection as they were written for us. The Bible is much more than hellish and holy words on pages, chapters in books, and books bound together, preserved from an ancient and foreign culture.
Listen to this! The words Paul wrote to the people of Ephesus have life; ”I pray” he said, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power for everyone who believes.”
We will pray for the children who will be Baptized this morning, “Grant, O Lord, that all who are Baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection, and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever. Amen.”
Whether or not the Ascension of Jesus is true just as Matthew and Luke told it, there is truth in, under, over, around, and through it; a truth that changes us, that lifts us up; a truth that engenders faith, hope, generosity, kindness and compassion; truth that can heal a broken world.
We can imagine what has never been thought of or done before! We can do what other people will tell us is impossible! Hopeless situations can be reversed! We can forgive people who have hurt us deeply! We pray for our enemies! The sick can be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless can have clean and secure shelter, we can befriend strangers, believe there is more to life than whatever time we have in these mortal frames, trust that God is with us, and that we will be reunited forever with loved ones who have died!
Because Christ has ascended and the Spirit of God is with us there are endless possibilities.
When asked what happens to us when our time is up Paul said “We don’t know exactly what God has in store for us; but we do know that we will be like the Ascended Christ.”
On this celebration of The Ascension, God grant us faith, hope, and love that transcends all limitation, and transforms the world.