Thursday, May 21, 2009
Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into Heaven
Ascension, Pietro Perugino, c. 1500
May 21, 2009
Choral Evensong at Calvary Episcopal Church, East Liberty
Ascension Thursday, 2009
Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
Sing praise to God, who reigns above, the God of all creation, the God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a great evening! This past Lent the rector of Calvary Church pointed out that when we Episcopalians do something for the first time we will name it “the first annual.” The second time around, the event is a “tradition.” And so by now, as this is a continuation of a pattern for several years, it is inevitably an “ancient and venerable tradition” for our two parishes and two choirs to share together the celebration of this Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.
By the old calendars this the end of the Great 40 Days of Easter. In most places we no longer extinguish the Paschal Candle at this service, but we are nonetheless looking now for the next few days through this coming weekend and on to Whitsunday to the themes of Ascensiontide, a ten-day coda, a final chapter in the narrative and season of Easter.
God has gone up with a triumphant shout, indeed. The world as it was, gone forever. Nothing ever the same again. The world and universe and new creation of God, now opening before us in all its power and all its beauty. In the ending is the beginning; in departure, an arrival; and in this evening, our new morning.
I would just personally say thank you, Harold, for the honor of the invitation to preach this evening of Ascension Day. And all of the good people of Calvary Church as our hosts this year. Certainly it isn’t possible to step into this pulpit without an awareness of the great heritage of gifted preachers who have ministered in this great parish, over the past century and more, and certainly continuing to the present. And to say thank you to Alan, Peter, and to those of both of our choirs. It is an inspiring and beautiful gift that you share with us all this evening.
We have before us these two fascinating accounts by St. Luke, one from the end of his gospel and the other from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. I guess I tend to jumble them together and synthesize, though each account seems nuanced in emphasis and shaped for its narrative context. Jesus blesses his friends at his departure with the promise of a powerful, Spirit-filled ministry to expand from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and across the whole earth. He disappears from them and is lifted up into the heavens. And we hear that word of promise from the Angel. “He will come again in the same way as you saw him go.” And finally the disciples return to Jerusalem with joy, and in continual worship at the Temple, in their anticipation about what would come next.
In any case: as I read the stories, and as I close my eyes, what comes to mind is the very lovely Ascension Window designed by the well-known early 20th century glass artist and illustrator Clara Miller Burd, in the North Transept over at St. Andrew’s, with the focus there on the vivid expressions of wonder, awe, and worship in the faces of the disciples, which are full of light and radiant, beaming, as Jesus is lifted up before them into the heavens. Sing praise to God, who reigns above, the God of all creation.
So what does all this mean? For us. A necessary moment in the story, of course, as we account for the fact that in the new morning and first days of Easter Jesus was present for his friends in a resurrection body that they could see and touch--that he ate with them in the upper room, prepared breakfast for them on the shore of Galilee--but now is present for us who must walk by faith, and not by sight. All one with the affirmation of baptismal faith, “The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
But critically, what the Ascension does is move the force and meaning of the Resurrection from the past to the present, and with implications for the future.
If Easter were simply about the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, perhaps the reasonable response would be, “Lucky for him.” But the good news is more, because it’s not only about that one morning long ago, but also and even more, it is about a new reality continuing into this present, a new reality into which we have been incorporated, a new reality which changes our lives with a new identity and a new purpose. A new community of relationship, in which we live no longer for ourselves alone, but in and for Christ as he lives in our midst, among us and in us. As he reigns over all in heaven and earth. As he promises his return in magnificent glory and perfect judgment at the end of the age. To heal our brokenness with his perfect righteousness, his holiness, his peace.
What Ascension does is announce with clarity that from this time forward, from now on, we do not live by ourselves or for ourselves alone, but in him, and for him, and in one another, and for one another. He is Lord. Over all. And we are his.
And there is in the joy of the disciples as they return to the Holy City and await the promised Spirit, a sense of energy and purpose not one-by-one, but all of them together. All together. They go up the mountain one by one, his disciples, his friends. They come down, we come down, as his Body, the Church.
And if I may borrow a phrase the great Anglican Congress of 1963, which I’ve been thinking about in some other contexts lately, in some ways the high water mark of Anglican Communion life in the 20th century—this joy of the disciples not grounded in their individual experiences and sense of vocation alone, though that never disappears, but in the sharing of a common life marked by “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.”
As Paul says in First Corinthians 12, the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ Not any more.
Loving one another, then, because he loved us. Linked with one another. Woven together. Working with one another, because he sent us. Responsible to one another, accountable, in humility, because from the right hand of the Father he will come to be our judge. For us now, difficult as we can be for one another, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Gathered here, his Church.
Ascension, then--not the end of the story, but a hinge, a transition, and the first page of the new chapter, our new chapter. Not a scene from the distant past, but a mirror, in which we may discover more perfectly who we are in this present, and who we may become, growing in and with one another more perfectly to be like him. To be his image and likeness. One by one and all together. Not loss, but healing.
Not a parting of the ways, but the first moment of restoration and reconciliation, and renewal--the fulfillment of his promise. Blessing, hope, work to do, life eternal--all shared together, all one as we are one in him. God has gone up with a triumphant shout . . . . The God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation.
And now to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all honor, might, majesty, power, and dominion, now and for evermore. Amen.