A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Ascension, May 5, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.
Jesus was born. Jesus was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus ascended into heaven.
If we approach the Nicene Creed with the question, “What did Jesus do?”, that is what we will find for our answer. The Creed tells us nothing of the teaching of Jesus, nothing of the healings of Jesus, nothing of the preaching of Jesus, nothing of the praying of Jesus, nothing of the miracles of Jesus. The Creed tells us, simply, that he was born, that he died, that he rose from the grave, and that he ascended.
Of those four events–birth, death, resurrection, ascension–it is an undeniable fact that the last one receives the least attention. As wonderful as it is to worship with you all tonight, we must admit that the crowds on Christmas Eve were slightly larger.
And yet from the perspective of our forefathers in the faith–those folks who composed the Nicene Creed–this day, Ascension Day, is on par with Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Regardless of the fact that most people–even most Christians–don’t realize it, the Church ranks this day as a principal feast–one of the chief celebrations in the liturgical year.
Why? What’s so important about the ascension of Jesus? Why does it matter? What does it mean?
Perhaps we should begin by saying clearly what the ascension is not. The ascension is not about Jesus shooting up into the sky like a bottle rocket. A surprising number of people seem to have this dismissive, slightly embarrassed understanding of the ascension. That may be due to the tradition, in artwork, of depicting just the ascended Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Our own lovely ascension window gives us a good example of that.
The trouble with this view of the ascension is that it seems to rest on an outdated understanding of the universe. It sort of pictures the cosmos like a house with a first floor, a second floor, and a basement. If earth is the first floor, then hell is the basement below us and heaven is the second floor over our heads.
But this day is not about Jesus climbing the stairs to the great master bedroom suite in the sky. This isn’t about him flying away up over our heads. Rather, when our Creeds say that “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we mean that Jesus has gone into the nearer presence of God. Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father now returns to the bosom of the Father.
Heaven, in this view, doesn’t just mean “up in the sky.” Heaven means that place where God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s purposes are experienced without corruption or interruption. “For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part: then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”
Jesus returns to the nearer presence of God. The Son who was never separated from his Father–even in that moment on the Cross when he felt forsaken by his Father–now goes to take his seat at the right hand of his Father. The ascension is the completion of the work that he came to do.
The Creed tells us that it was “for us and for our salvation” that God the Son came down from heaven, and “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Just as he was born for us and for our salvation, and he died for us and for our salvation, and he rose for us and for our salvation, now he ascends for us and for our salvation.
The ascension is the completion of this great work. And it may well be the most astonishing and most glorious part of this great work. For when Jesus ascends, he does not do so empty-handed. When Jesus returns to the Father, he takes something with him. When Jesus goes to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, he carries back with him a prize.
That prize, beloved, is you and I. When Jesus ascends to the Father, he does so in the same incarnate body that was born, and died, and was raised from the dead. When Jesus ascends, he lifts human nature into the very life of God. When Jesus ascends, he raises our humanity, not simply to the same place of innocence and purity lost to us in the fall. When Jesus ascends, he exalts our nature to heights beyond what we could have asked or imagined. Jesus lifts us to God.
It is a hand like my hand that pushes upon the gates of heaven. They are feet like your feet that now tread the paths of angels. Lips like these lips now plead mercy for sinners. Eyes like these eyes now behold the face of God.
That is the greater glory of this day. And that glory should give us pause. That glory, frankly, should terrify us. For as soon as I consider that Jesus has lifted human nature into the life of God, I realize with trembling just how thoroughly unworthy my nature is.
I recall each time that this hand has been used to grasp and clench and claim for my own selfish ends. I remember each time that these feet have carried me away from the suffering of others. I hear in my memory every bitter word and foul curse that has been uttered by these lips. I see again every unworthy image that has darkened these eyes.
Knowing the sorry state of my own human nature–and seeing written across the front page of every newspaper, every facebook page, every family history, and every national narrative the sorry state of all human nature–I shrink from the thought that that our incarnate Lord should have lifted us to God.
But in my dismal despair, I lift my eyes again to the feet of Jesus disappearing into the clouds in our ascension window–and I see there the prints of the nails! I recall the words of Jesus spoken in our Gospel lesson tonight. I hear again the assurance “that the Messiah [was] to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” I remember that the ascended body of Jesus still bears in his hands and feet and side and head the wounds that have made us whole. I realize once more that the Christ who has lifted our nature on high has also borne my sin and your sin in his body upon the Cross, and that he has broken the power of death forever, and that he has not left us comfortless, but has clothed his Church with power from on high!
When I glimpse again, in this holy feast, the ascension of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, I know that my great high priest–a high priest who has suffered with me and for me–now stands on my behalf in the nearer presence of our holy God.
And where he is, so we also shall be. “For this Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same was as you saw him go into heaven.” In Christ’s ascension, we see the sure and certain promise of our own. AMEN.