Sermon–Jesus Ascends to the Center? June 2, 2019

Sermon–Ascension Day

William Bradbury

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

She’s 93 years old and her coronation as Queen of the United Kingdom was on this day, June 2, 1953—66 years ago. When she dies, if she ever does, her son, Charles, Prince of Wales, now 70 years old, will become King. We could say Charles will ascend to the throne when his mother descends from it.  This is the place we must start if we are to understand the stories of the ascension. No one, probably not even Luke who wrote them, thinks the Ascension is about Jesus floating up into the sky, like the Wizard departing Oz in a balloon.

Luke is bearing witness to Jesus, crucified and risen, ascending to the throne of God, the throne of the Universe, where “he shall reign forever and ever. Halleluiah!”, as we sing on Easter Day. So the Ascension proclaims, first of all, that Jesus is King of the Universe, and therefore, all other leaders are not. This is why we pray Psalm 47 today: “God is King of all the earth, God sits upon his holy throne.”

This is good news if you are suffering under the tyranny of someone like Emperor Nero, who in AD 64 possibly started the fire that destroyed much of Rome, and who, according to Tacitus, “seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty.” Wikipedia

Tyrants then and now do not have the final word, for Jesus, crucified and ascended is the first and last Word of God, though for a time we must suffer tyrants cruelties!

So the artists that portray Jesus rising up into the sky may obscure the reality of Christ’s reign, but they do alert us to a second important truth: Salvador Dali’s 1958 painting “The Ascension of Christ” shows us the bottom of Jesus’ feet directly above our heads, as he rises into an atom that looks like a giant sunflower. His arms are outstretched, but his face is hidden.

This is a powerful reminder that the Ascension is not Jesus’ disembodied soul floating off, leaving his body and our humanity behind, for what ascends to the throne of the cosmos is the divine-human One, the New Being, who knows us and loves us, who after pulling us out of Hades on Easter never, ever, lets us go as he enters the fullness of God.

This gives us the answer to the question, often attributed to Albert Einstein, “the most important question for humanity is this: Is the universe a friendly place?”

There are plenty of reasons to say, “No, obviously the universe isn’t friendly to human life since we eventually all suffer and die.” This negative answer creates the mindset that we must protect ourselves from the unfriendliness of others, no matter what violence it takes.

But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place because Christ is at the center of all things, then we will use our lives to make friends with it and all who are part of it.

Jesus of Nazareth called the power behind the universe, Father, and taught us to act toward everyone, even our enemies with the Father’s mercy and forgiveness.

Character matters and the character at the heart of all reality is the character of Jesus. The Ascension of the crucified Son of God and Son of Man assures us that the one on the throne has entered our suffering from the inside. God knows our fear of death and the experience of a horrible dying.

It means that what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30 is still being said to you and me today: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Christ has entered God’s dimension of reality which means Christ is now present in and to all reality and not just first century Palestine. Christ is available to you and to me this morning with the passionate desire to heal our minds that imagine we are separate from God and God’s love and thus to heal our fear that we are lost and alone in space.

Saint Paul understands that the Ascension shows God “has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Therefore, we are charged to look for Christ and Christ’s beauty in all things: You and I sometimes have to go on vacation to see the beauty in our world. Go to the Maine coast and watch the sunrise over the water and the beauty knocks me right between the eyes—“Yes, this is an enchanted world, heaven on earth.”

But returning home we may soon fall back into a half-stupor and become blind to the beauty of the Cosmic Christ who “fills all in all.”

So, as we practice seeing Christ in special places, like in this beautiful church, we grow in our ability to see Christ in the grocery store.

As we see and serve Christ in our own children, we grow in the ability to see and serve Christ in all children, even those of a different color, class, or country, even those on our southern border.

Saint Theresa of Calcutta sees the beauty of Christ in a dying man on the streets and picks him up and cares for him.

As we grow in our facility to see and serve Christ who the poet says “plays in 10,000 places”, we grow in our ability to live with the grain of the Universe instead of living against that grain. Gerard Manley Hopkins

If, as Martin Luther King asserts, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice”, then as we move in harmony along that arc we grow as human beings to see and serve Christ in every person.

Paul, hoping for us to experience the power of the Ascension, in Ephesians 2 and 3 prays that “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened”, so that we might “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and be filled with the fullness of God.”

Some of my country relatives back in the day would sometimes quote Robert Browning, who wrote, “God’s in his heaven—All’s right with the world.”

This is a good saying for Ascension Sunday, as long as we remember that in the Bible, heaven and earth are not two separate and distant places, but rather they are two dimensions of the one reality created by God. N. T. Wright says it’s like the two dimensions of a flag: there is the cloth it is made of, and there is the meaning it carries. Just as we can’t understand a flag by ignoring its meaning, so, too, we can’t understand our lives by ignoring their heavenly meaning. Medical students can fully dissect a corpse but they can’t tell you who that person really was.

We come to understand our lives when we see that at their center are the mercy, forgiveness, and love of Christ. This is “the perfect love that casts out fear”, as First John tell us.

So it makes perfect sense for those of us trapped in fear—fear of life, fear of death and everything in between, to welcome Christ to ascend to the throne of our hearts and to put us to work for God’s kingdom.