Sermon–May 13, 2018


Ascension Day (Transferred to Sunday)

May 13, 2018

William Bradbury

Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47 or Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

When I was a kid my mother took us to the parking lot of our local A&P to watch a guy wearing a jet pack lift off the ground and go up about 20 feet, hover, then come back to earth. It made a high pitched noise but was very cool. This is what I think of when I read the story of the ascension with my skeptical, rationalistic eyes. I think, “Of course Jesus didn’t float off into space, therefore this is just another meaningless story that no educated person would ever consider to reveal truth, much less celebrate.” But Luke is not concerned with describing what the ascension looked like, but what the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension meant to the the church. That’s why when Luke tells the story twice–first at the end of his Gospel and then again in the beginning of Acts, he tells it differently. For instance, one major difference is that in the Gospel Jesus’ ascension occurs on the night of Easter—empty tomb at dawn, road to Emmaus in the afternoon, appearance in the upper room in the evening, and Ascension at night. But when he tells the story in Acts the Ascension happens 40 days after Easter. 

Luke is bringing us into a Mystery, not reporting on an event.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “I pray… that with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

We must pray today for the eyes of our hearts to be enlightened,   if we are to enter the Mystery of Cross-Resurrection-Ascension.

Remember how we think about Christmas—if all we could show people is a You-Tube video of a baby being born in a stable they’d say, no big deal, poor people have babies in all sorts of sad, dangerous place. But as we gather to worship on Christmas Eve as the Body of Christ, we are led by the Spirit into the Mystery of the incarnation which is that God is with us in Christ.

In the same way, the Ascension is understood not through a video, but in the worshipping community as we enter the Mystery of Ascension which is  Christ-with-us in God.

Incarnation: God-with-us in Christ. 

Ascension: Christ-with-us in God.

In my sermon on Easter I drew attention to the different way Eastern and Western religious art portrays the resurrection of Jesus. In Western art resurrection only happens to Jesus, so that Jesus is depicted alone outside the tomb. He may be talking to Mary Magdalene, but his resurrection does not include her.

Yet, in paintings from the Orthodox churches of the East, we see something very different.

See Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision  by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Crossan

There is a powerful icon of the resurrection in the Catholic Chapel at the prison at the roundabout in Concord. The risen Christ is not alone, but standing on a small horizontal cross and underneath that cross is an old man known as Hades—the guardian of the realm of the dead, or if you like, the personification of death itself. Hades is wearing shackles on his hands and feet—the keeper of the prison of death is now himself a prisoner. On the floor around Hades is what’s left of the lock that was on the doors of the Prison of the Dead.

Then we notice that the Risen Christ is grabbing the powerless arms of Adam and Eve, pulling them out of the prison of death and sin and bringing them into God’s light and peace which surrounds Jesus. Resurrection is a universal reality, including all the descendants of Adam and Eve, and through them, all creation.

We sing about this every Easter in the 6th century hymn: it begins:

“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:

hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!

Lo! the Dead is living, God for evermore!

Him their true Creator, all his works adore!

Then verse 6 we sing:

“Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chain:

all that now is fallen raise to life again;

show thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;

bring again our daylight: day returns with thee!

Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say.

But what in the world does that have to do with the ascension, you may ask? Just this: Once Jesus has hold of Adam and Eve he never lets them go ——–which means they are forever with Christ in God.

That’s not just Jesus up there, that’s you and me with him in the heart of Triune God!

What the Mystery of Cross-Resurrection-Ascension reveals is that, as many have said, “God refuses to be God without us.”

Talking Thursday evening with 11 inmates about this icon of the resurrection on the wall of their chapel it is clear these men need, and know they need, Jesus to take their powerless arms and pull them out of their living hell. The inmates I’ve talked to are not only in a physical prison, but also in the prison of addiction, and the prison of wrecked relationships, and the prison of guilt and shame. 

These men know what it is like to have Hades as their jailor.

The Mystery of Cross-Resurrection-Ascension for these guys is the story of a jailbreak. Christ pulls down the walls of their prisons and takes them into the healing, forgiveness, and unconditional love of the Father.

This story is also true for you and me, though often we keep it at arms’ length, because we still believe the fiction that we are masters of our lives who have overcome our problems on our own without needing to cry out to God.

These guys know their need of God as they pour over their Bibles in their cells and go to Deacon Bruce’s Catholic 12-Step group. They go to Bible studies, and Catholic and Episcopal masses. By the way, in January Bishop Gayle led the Episcopal Mass—those guys got such a kick out of her.

Some of the men are in the chapel every day, to recall and reenter the Mystery of Cross-Resurrection-Ascension.

There has been a jailbreak inside Concord prison and prisons around the world where Christ sets men and women free on the inside.

Does this mean these prisoners no longer have trouble with addiction, criminality, and broken relationships?

No. Any more than those of us here today will never trip and fall tomorrow. Late at night, we all are haunted by our brokenness, things we’ve done and things done to us, and we do not feel worthy of God.

In the 1958 painting called the “Ascension of Christ” Salvador Dali depicts a beautiful, mostly nude, Jesus with arms outstretched, cruciform, ascending into the Glory of God. What is right in the viewer’s face, however, are not his arms or even his face, which can’t be seen at all.

The focal point of the painting is the bottom of his feet. And his feet are dirty!

Therefore, our faith is not in our worthiness, but in Christ’s faithfulness, whose non-violent self-offering broke the power of death and sin in order to pull us with him into God’s universal fellowship.

Therefore, together we are called to live in Christ, not for ourselves, but for the non-violent transformation of whatever place we currently call home.

Incarnation: God-with-us in Christ.

Ascension: Christ-with-us in God.  

And what happens after Ascension? Well, for that you’ll have to show up for next Sunday: the Day of Pentecost!