a sermon on Acts 1:1-11 and Ephesians 1:15-23
preached on Ascension Sunday, May 20, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There are plenty of things up in the air these days, but Jesus is the last thing you expect to see when you look up. Flying in general today is incredibly simpler than it was 100 years ago. Even though the space shuttle never quite worked out to make going into space as common as some had hoped, it’s still incredibly easy to go up. There are hundreds if not thousands of flights out of our city every day. When the winds and the location are right, you can take a more leisurely hot-air balloon flight across the countryside. And if you have enough money, these days you can reserve a spot on a brief flight to the edge of space. When we look up, you never quite know what it is you will see. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or could it be Jesus??
In biblical times, it might have actually been Jesus, according to our readings today from Acts and Ephesians. Today we’re celebrating the great Christian feast of the Ascension, so we are rightly looking upward to think about how Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection from the dead. The book of Acts starts out with this important story in our reading this morning of how Jesus disappeared from the disciples’ sight by rising into heaven. After his resurrection, he had been teaching them about the coming kingdom of God and giving them instructions for what to do when he left them, and they kept asking him questions about when God would restore Israel to its former glory. He responded with a reminder that no one could know about the restoration of Israel, but more importantly, he told them to be ready to receive power from the Holy Spirit so that they could be his witnesses in Israel and beyond. Then, as they were talking with him, he was lifted up into the sky, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No, it really was Jesus!
The wonder of all this is lost in our days when we find it so much easier to become airborne. The disciples were reasonably astonished at what they were seeing – human flight was not something any of them had seen before! The air was the exclusive domain of birds, insects, and other flying things, and Jesus needed to be down here with them. Gradually, though, after Jesus rose up into the air, this event began to take on great meaning for the disciples. They took the words of the two men who suddenly appeared with them seriously and stopped staring idly into the sky. They began to do as Jesus had told them and expected to see him return just as he had left. They got ready to welcome the promised Spirit to be with them in the days ahead.
By the time the letter to the Ephesians was composed some thirty or forty years later, the Ascension had taken on new and incredible meaning for those who followed Jesus. As this letter opens, we get a glimpse of how the early church understood this revelation of God’s power in Jesus’ ascension. The writer here offers his prayers for the Ephesians so that they might know the hope that emerges from Christ, the riches that he shares with all the saints, and the “immeasurable greatness of his power.” This power comes from God and was put to work first in Christ’s resurrection and then in his ascension and exaltation to the heavenly places. His rise into glory is above all earthly rulers, power, authority, and dominion; his name is above every other name for all time; and he is head over all things for the church and the world. It is clear, then, that the ascension seals the deal for the followers of Jesus so that we can know the fullness of his power and glory and honor and hope, now and always. That thing up in the sky is not a bird or a plane but Jesus, ascending to reign and rule in all power, glory, honor, wisdom, and joy, now and forever.
I for one think the Ascension of Jesus gets short shrift in our world today. While our opening hymn celebrating the ascension dates back to the seventh century, in our own time, about the only way you’d know that this past Thursday was a church holy day is that alternate side parking rules were suspended for the day! We’ve become so consumed with the commercialism of Christmas and Easter that we rarely note these lesser feasts of our church calendar where we remember these important biblical events and in this case celebrate the continuing reign of Jesus Christ as Lord of all creation. But even more than all this, I think we consciously or unconsciously avoid this day of celebration at least in part because we resist the real implications of these great words. What would it mean for us to live like Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth each and every day? How would life be different if we took the Ascension claims of God’s power and reign more seriously?
I think there are several important ways that we can respond faithfully to the gift and challenge of the Ascension in this time when its meaning is less clear and anyone anywhere can go up for the right price. In our society that resists accountability at all costs, the Ascension reminds us that we always remain accountable to the one who died and rose and ascended into heaven to reign. In our world where the almighty dollar and yen and yuan and Euro is at the center of nearly everything, the Ascension reminds us that God’s power and dominion extend to every corner of our lives and call us to faithful stewardship of everything that we have and just treatment of those who are in need. In our lives where we think we are in control and can answer to no one but ourselves, the Ascension shows us that Christ reigns over us with justice, grace, and mercy even amidst our resistance. And in the moments when we question God’s care and concern for us, whether in matters of the moment or of eternity, the Ascension gives us hope and confidence that we will share with Jesus the joy of resurrection life.
Lest we get confused about the things that go up or forget about this seemingly lesser feast day, the Ascension still stands before us, year after year, forty days after Easter, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit. We can try to ignore it, but Jesus still reigns and calls us to recognize him and follow him, not so much in his journey to power but in his journey to greater love for ourselves, for one another, and for all creation.
So may we trust the good news of this special day, not so much wondering if we are seeing a bird or a plane or Jesus rising up before us – because we know that it is Jesus! – but always confident that Jesus ascends into heaven to go before us to reign in power, glory, mercy, justice, grace, and peace, so that we might know the fullness of God’s power in Jesus Christ our Lord until he comes again. Lord, come quickly!! Alleluia! Amen.