Sermon: May 28, 2017


Ascension Day–Sunday

May 28, 2017

William Bradbury

Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Meditation teacher Tara Brach said some years ago a friend of hers was attending an interfaith conference which began by asking the group how they wanted to refer to the divine or “what it is that all human hearts most deeply cherish”. The first person said, “Shall we call it God” and a female Wiccan said, ‘No way!’ Another said ’What about ‘goddess’; then a Baptist minister thumbed that down. Then someone says, ‘how about “Spirit” and an atheist shakes his head…this goes on for a while then finally a Native American suggests, ‘how about ‘”The Great “Mystery’?  Everybody agrees because they all sense the mystery behind any religious or spiritual idea. Podcast “The Over-Controller, Part One” As we reflect on the ascension of Jesus we too know that we are facing The Great Mystery. Luke in his accounts of the Ascension at the end of his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostle is attempting to describe that time when the Risen Christ disappears into a cloud in order to complete his resurrection to the right hand of the Father.

We know in the Bible that “cloud” is a metaphor for the Divine Presence: It is a cloud that protects the Children of Israel through forty years in the desert. We are told in Exodus that when the cloud moves the people move, but when the cloud stays put the people stay put.

When they are in their right minds they don’t want to get ahead of the Divine Presence!

Which is the best advice for those of us who don’t feel alive unless we’re breathlessly rushing to that next place or time we must get to in order to maintain our sense of control over our lives.   

Never get ahead of the Divine Presence!

But of course we often avoid the Divine Presence precisely because when we slow down we face that inner voice that tells us we are not a worthy, good enough, human being unless we are rushing around. To slow down to the speed of life where God is, is the very thing that scares us the most because we are convinced God can’t be trusted with our lives.

Therefore, for some, it is a relief to see Jesus to be beamed up to heaven, because we imagine heaven is on the other side of the universe, so far away from any ability to look us in the eyes and call us to drop the false self we market to each other and let the True Self we are in his presence, emerge.

But this is not what Luke is trying tell us: for the New Testament heaven is as Karl Barth puts it, “the hidden sphere of God in the world.” Or as N. T. Wright says, heaven overlaps and interlocks with earth.

We might say heaven is God’s dimension of reality that interpenetrates all the other dimensions of space and time. Our Collect today says, Jesus “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”

Therefore, in the ascension Jesus is actually drawing nearer to us than our own breath, even our own thoughts.

 This is why Luke says that after Jesus leaves the disciples they are filled with joy. They have experienced the joy of being known and accepted by God in Christ and now they know that experience hasn’t ended in the crucifixion, but been guaranteed for all time in Christ’s ascension.


This is The Great Mystery.

So Luke is telling us much more than where Jesus is. He is telling us who Jesus is. Jesus says at the last supper—“if you have seen me you have seen the Father”. That is, when we see Jesus heal the sick we know God is a healing, not a destroying, God. When we see Jesus eating with sinners and outcasts we know that God is a reconciling, and not a dividing God. When we see Jesus choose non-violence and go willingly die to the cross to unite us God, we know our God is a non-violent, not a destroying God. This means we have to unlearn the violence the Old Testament writers have projected onto God.

 Or we could put it this way,

Jesus is the character of God made visible.

 This is absolutely crucial for us to ponder because if we have a flawed view of the character of God, we will necessarily have a flawed view of reality and our place in it.

Listen to how theologian Greg Boyd puts it: “Your life will never outrun your mental picture of God.”

So when our image of God is a grown-up version of Santa Claus who is making a list and checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty and nice, then our life will be an endless cycle of trying to please the list keeper in the sky and our relationship with others will be filled with our own list-keeping, as we judge who is worthy of our affection and who should get the lump of coal, in the form of, say, bad housing, ineffective schools, and our self-righteous contempt.

The Ascension tells us that God does not have the face of Bad Santa, but the face of Jesus Christ.

In other words, Luke is trying to save us from worshipping a god that is too small.

When I fall into the idolatry of believing in a small, petty, god, I know my ego is reasserting itself as the lord of life.

IN such moments I find it a helpful to dethrone myself by meditating on the enormous mystery that is this universe we live in, the creation of the creator God.

Lying on rocks on the dark side of an island in Maine where I see the Milky Way rebalances my inner world. Now I can admit that my ego is the emperor who has no clothes.

I think this is what Albert Einstein is pointing to when he says: “Once you accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.” 

The Ascension is an enthronement story that contradicts the enthronement not just of me, but of all that seeks to claim my worship.

Jesus is now Lord of heaven and earth therefore Caesar, money, race, sex, national identity, and violence are not, and never will be.

Therefore the ascension is calling us to be hungry to know Jesus so that we might know the nature of ultimate reality.

But there is even more to The Great Mystery: Right before his ascension Jesus tells the disciples that they must wait for the promise of the Father….For “you will be baptized with Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

 The Great Mystery intends to live in us and through us, incorporating us into the very life of Triune God, so that the world may know the one true God in the face of Jesus Christ and awaken to the fact that it too is part of The Great Mystery.

 Beat philosopher Alan Watts used to say that when we come to this understanding we can look through a telescope at the vast reaches of space and say, “why, that’s me!”

Jesus points to the same thing, but on the micro level, when he says:  And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”