“He ascended into heaven…”

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

A Sermon Preached on the Eve of the Ascension, May 13, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.

The Feast of the Ascension tends to get short shrift these days. It doesn’t help that Ascension Day is precisely forty days after Easter Sunday, and therefore always on a Thursday. (Which is why our service tonight is technically a service for Ascension Eve.)

But it’s not just the timing that causes modern Christians to overlook or downplay the celebration of the Ascension. The event itself can make us a little uncomfortable. After all, the Ascension seems to assume a universe in which hell is somewhere below our feet, earth is the world we know, and God in heaven is somewhere up above our heads. The Ascension can seem embarrassingly crude and simpleminded to many modern believers. We who live in the wake of moon landings and the Hubble Telescope cannot be expected to think that Jesus shot up into the stratosphere like a rocket.

So what, then, is this day all about? What do we gather to celebrate this afternoon? What do we mean when we say in our creeds, “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”?

Before all else, we must put to bed the notion that when Scripture talks about heaven all it really means is sky or outer space. Ancient people were not as unsophisticated as we sometimes patronizingly assume that they were. Yes, practically speaking, “the heavens” was a poetic phrase sometimes used to describe the atmosphere and beyond. But when Jesus announced in his earthly ministry that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”, no one thought he meant that stars and clouds were coming down to wear crowns and live in palaces. Theologically, the idea of heaven meant—and means—so much more than simply sky.

Heaven is that realm—that place—that state of being in which God’s glory and God’s power are experienced unalloyed and undiminished. It is something beyond all created order, whether that be the created order we see here on earth or the created order we discover in outer space. Heaven is where God is, and where God reveals himself to be.

This understanding of heaven explains why, throughout Scripture and church history, there have been moments when heaven breaks out on earth—and these have nothing to do with the sky falling and everything to do with God revealing himself more clearly.

Think of Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock as God’s glory passed him by. Think of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Think of St Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road, or St John the Divine’s Revelation on the Isle of Patmos.

Think of the lives of all the saints—those heroes of the faith who seem to dwell in heaven even as their feet still trod “this terrestrial ball.”

Think of moments in your own life when you have felt the presence of God in a better and truer way than ever before–whether that was through a glorious worship service or an astonishing sunrise—through a friend’s deed of surpassing love or a stranger’s quiet act of kindness–in a grand moment of revelation, or in the assurance of a still, small voice.

Heaven is not some place up above our heads. It is the truer reality, the deeper reality, the holier reality which flows unceasingly from the very presence of God and flashes out even now upon the face of the earth.

And it is this to which the Risen Jesus ascends. Jesus the Son of God who dwells eternally in the love of his Father—Jesus the Word of God who became human flesh and dwelt among us—Jesus the Anointed One of God who redeems and consecrates for himself a holy people—Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—this Jesus goes back to the bosom of his father. He returns to the nearer presence of God from whence he came. He ascends into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

And he does it without setting aside or discarding the human body he has assumed. This, beloved, is the part of the Ascension that ought to make us a little uncomfortable. For tonight we profess our faith that having humbled himself to partake of our nature, of our bodies, of our flesh and bone, of our physicality, and our fallenness, Jesus does not abandon those things at the completion of his mission. He lifts our redeemed nature to assume the throne that God has prepared for it. He transforms human bodies from things of weakness and frailty—bodies of corruption, as St Paul calls them—into signs of God’s power and purpose. He restores the goodness of this physical universe declared and accomplished by God in creation, and on his hands and head and feet and side, his risen, ascended body bears the wounds that show his victory over our fallenness. All of this Jesus at his Ascension brings into the nearer presence of God, where the very Angels receive it with joy and holy awe.

This ought to make us a little uncomfortable because it lifts our nature higher than we might ever have dared to hope. This ought to make us a little uncomfortable because it affirms that we are creatures destined to share in the uncreated, eternal life of God the Holy Trinity. This ought to make us uncomfortable, for it transforms our every interaction with other human beings into an expression of the living will of our living Lord now reigning over the cosmos.

All of this ought to make us just a little uncomfortable, a little trepidatious, a little overwhelmed, because at his ascension into heaven, Jesus makes clear that it is in and through us that he intends to reveal heaven here on earth. We are the ones upon whom has been poured out his power from on high. We are the ones who share in the renewed nature which has now been exalted above all things. We are the ones whom he has sent forth to be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth.

But in little more than a week’s time, Pentecost will remind us that we are also the recipients of his promise. In his bodily absence, we have not been left comfortless, for by his Holy Spirit he now lives in us. We are the heirs of his hope. To us have been spoken his good and gracious words, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In his ascension, we glimpse our own.

“Lord, beyond our mortal sight, raise our hearts to reach thy height: there thy face unclouded see, find our heaven of heavens in thee.”