Sermon / May 28, 2017 / Feast of the Ascension / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 17:1-11 /
Last Sunday, at the 9:15 service, I said to the kids, “Tell me everything you know about Jesus.” And they said, “He was born on Christmas and he came back to life on Easter.” That was it. With a little encouragement, they were able to fill in the blanks a little about Jesus’s time with us on earth, but it was pretty sketchy. One little girl added, “God is in the sky.” And all of that is OK. That’s how kids think about God.
But many of us grownup Christians probably have one foot in the same boat. We might be able to talk a little about Jesus’s message of love, compassion, and inclusivity – and of course, about the crucifixion, since as adults we are accustomed to this world of violence, from which Jesus was not exempt – but most of us are focused on Jesus’s birth and resurrection to the exclusion of other important parts of his story. Parts of his story that help us understand how to appropriate what we claim to believe, so it makes a difference in how we live. Because Christianity is about change. It’s about transformation.
Today, the Scripture tells us about Jesus’s ascension, something lots of people don’t even realize is in the Scriptures. The Bible says that forty days after experiencing Jesus’s presence in various ways after his resurrection, the disciples see him being carried away into heaven. From a field, on a cloud, up into the sky.
Don’t feel bad if you find this Scriptural account hard to believe. Because although I believe Jesus returned to his Father, I don’t think that could have possibly happened the way that Scripture tells us it did. Which is not to say that I don’t trust Scripture or its basic accuracy.
Scripture does its best to tell the story of Jesus. But it can’t make ineffable things plain as day. It can’t explain the unexplainable. Words can’t do that. We all know that God is not in the sky. We all know that clouds have never carried anyone anywhere. We all know that God is not “up”.
But we do know that Jesus’s resurrection appearances eventually stopped. He appeared to people for awhile, in his spiritual body, and then no one saw him anymore. I think this story about Jesus’s floating up into the sky to heaven is how the writers of Scripture tried to describe the end of Jesus’s appearances in a way that their readers would understand, readers who imagined the sacred in terms of clouds and sky and God as “up”. People whose religious tradition included stories of a prophet like Elijah being carried away into the heavens in a chariot as evidence of his divine mission.
But all this doesn’t mean that the Ascension story isn’t true in the theological sense. We know that there was no Adam and Eve, but we also know that their story tells the essential truth about the human condition. Similarly, we can trust that the Ascension story tells the essential truth about how Jesus’s mission was made complete. And what that means for us.
I think it’s important for us to understand that just as Jesus came from God, he returned to God. Or you might say, he went home to God. So when his resurrection appearances ended, he didn’t just trail off into nothingness. Although he had already surrendered his physical body, and now he surrenders his spiritual body, that doesn’t mean his personal existence has ended. Rather, he goes back to the place from which he had come. And that was not a remote and inaccessible place. He didn’t disappear into the ether. He went back to the heart of God. He didn’t leave us. He went to the place from which we all come, and to which we will each return. He went home.
I imagine you remember the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July of 1996. The plane that went down into the Atlantic off Long Island, headed for Paris and Rome. It wasn’t terrorism, it was just some kind of internal mechanical problem, a short circuit. It was one of the tragedies of ordinary life. No one really at fault. Everyone on board, over 230 people, died. Many of their bodies were never found.
I remember reading a series of articles in the Times about the crash, and one in particular has never left me. It featured anecdotes about some of the people who died, including a 16-year-old boy named Ben, from Kentucky. His grandmother’s grief was deepened by the fact that his body was not recovered, and Ben’s little brother, a 7- or 8- year old boy, tried to console her by saying, “Grandma, maybe Ben is not dead at all. Maybe they can’t find him because he’s just walking on home.”
I’m not sure I can think of a better metaphor for the human condition: We’re all just trying to walk on home. What a struggle life is. Even with its significant joys, it is filled with so much contingency and catastrophe, chaos and violence and hatred. There’s so much that seems to argue against the existence of a credible God. This life takes perseverance, it takes patience, it takes courage. I don’t know about you, but I’m often not up to the task. A puny thing like a broken ankle this winter had me questioning the meaning of my existence. One short-circuit, and my whole life fell apart. I realized what a coward I am, how lost and impatient and mean I can be when I realize I am not in control. Before you leap to make excuses for me at coffee hour, ask my husband how I behaved during those 4 months on the couch.
When God sent Jesus to us as a human, God was sending divinity into humanity. We were invaded by the sacred. When Jesus ascended to the Father, he was bringing our humanity back into divinity, making the circle complete. In the incarnation, all of God came to be part of us. In Jesus’s ascension, everything human now becomes part of God.
We are completely united with God, and God is united with us. Shame on us for thinking that is just ho-hum church talk. Because if we realized how amazing that is, that life we share with God, it would make Jesus flying up to heaven on a cloud look like the kind of pyrotechnics middle school boys try to pull off. I think if we really believed that God lives God’s life in us, if we really believed that our essential life resides inside the heart of God, if we really trusted it, we would live in a different way. In a more trusting way. In a more peaceful way. Because if we are all already united with God, and God with us, there is nothing to compete over, there is nothing to make war over, there is no reason to carry a bomb in your backpack. Because once we claim our humanity in that way, other people are sheer gifts to us, not threats. They come into our lives bearing the heart of God in their hands.
At the last supper, Jesus said to his friends, “I have to go. I have to leave you so that my Father and I can come to you as the Spirit and make our home with you.” So Jesus was saying that he had to walk on home. So that God could finally, truly, make God’s home not up in the sky but in you, in me. That’s what heaven is. That’s where we really find life. That’s where we really belong. Once you know that, nothing can hurt you, not a plan crash, not anything.
If that sounds abstract to you, consider this example. when I donated blood a few years ago, I got a “thank you” email a few weeks later from the Red Cross. It was an extraordinary message, because it included a photo of the man who had received my blood. A young guy in his 30s who had been randomly shot in a parking garage in White Plains. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess I had always assumed that donated blood went into a hug holding tank in the sky. No. My blood was now coursing through that man’s blood. I was in him, and he was in me. We would be forever one. This is what God is always doing on a cosmic level. This is the way the world really is. We just can’t see it most of the time. This is what the church is for, to transform us into people who can see clearly this amazing thing that God has done for us, and give it to the world.
We’re all like Jesus. We’re all like Ben. We’re all just walking on home.