A sermon on the Ascension of Christ, the “present tense” of the gospel, from the texts for Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53).
The good news of the Ascension
The ascension of Jesus can seem a bit weird to us today. We don’t share the cosmology of those who first told this story, and thus we find it a bit odd to imagine Jesus floating upward into the sky. Some have gone so far as to mock the ascension with the epithet “Spaceman Jesus”.
But this is unnecessary. “Ascension” is symbolic language. For Jesus to be “taken up into heaven” doesn’t mean vertically upwards toward outer space, it means to be taken into God’s realm (“heaven”) as king of the whole universe. Jesus hasn’t moved to another location in the cosmos, but rather has moved into heaven (which overlaps and interlocks with “earth” in a variety of ways).
The good news, then, of ascension is that Jesus the Human One is Lord of the whole cosmos right now, and he rules by sharing his power with us, his body the church, authorizing us to bear witness to his lordship in every place where his kingdom hasn’t been fully manifested.
Why does evil persist, then?
The first question most of us have in response to this good news, of course, is… Really? If Jesus is Lord, then what’s the deal with all the suffering and evil we see all around us every day in our world?
Unfathomably wealthy people are tirelessly working to hoard more and more resources at the expense of the rest of us, especially the global poor, and destroying our planet to do so.
White supremacist policies and attitudes continue to wreak havoc and trauma daily among minority populations.
Sickness and natural disasters continue to cause persistent suffering that ripples out through relationships and communities.
It’s easy to look at these things and wonder if Jesus really is Lord, after all. Shouldn’t he be doing something about all this?
You will receive power
These same kind of frustrations were present among the disciples when Jesus last speaks with them. We see in Acts that the resurrected Jesus has been appearing to them and teaching them (intriguingly, sometimes “through the Holy Spirit”). And now Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-11).
They ask “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They’ve witnessed the resurrection! But they’re still not sure what it all means or how it’s all supposed to work out. They have a specific idea in mind about what Jesus means when he talks about the kingdom, and it involves restoring Israel to national sovereignty and dominance.
The disciples are (rightly!) expecting Jesus to take power and make something good happen, but they don’t yet have an imagination for the way that power and authority work in the kingdom of God.
Jesus answers: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then he’s “taken up” before their eyes, and a cloud hides him from sight.
Jesus is telling the disciples, “You’re assuming you know what the expansion of the kingdom will look like, and your big question is when… but actually when is the wrong question, because you’re looking for the wrong what.
Jesus is leading them into two big shifts here:
- The kingdom won’t look like you expect! Get ready to be surprised, and
- You are going to be a big part of this. You will receive power, you will bear witness, you are involved in this.
“It’s not something you’ll just watch, it’s something you’ll participate in, because I’m sharing my power with you. And this power I’ll share with you is not power to tell others what to do; it’s not power to control and dominate, but the same kind of upside-down power I exercised on the cross.”
This is the cruciform power of witness: representatives of Israel’s true King proclaiming his lordship to the world, announcing the new state of affairs, and inviting all to receive and participate.
So we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord right now over the whole cosmos, and he rules by sharing his power with us, his body, the church, authorizing us to to bear witness to his lordship in every place where his kingdom hasn’t been fully manifested.
Eyes to see the connection
In Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul gives us the radical implications of the ascension, praying that the church would have a spirit of wisdom and revelation, to know God better; to have the eyes of their heart enlightened to see their true situation.
He’s praying that they’ll see that even in the midst of persecution and suffering, they have hope and a vision for the inheritance that God is bringing to them.
And also that even in the midst of situations that are not going according to God’s will, that they would know God’s incomparably great power for those who believe.
The power we have been given is the same power God exerted in raising Christ from the dead and seating him at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Because of the ascension of Jesus, we have hope for the future, and power in the present.
The ascension of Jesus means that Jesus is (present tense) Lord over the whole cosmos, and that we as the church are radically, organically, mystically connected to him as his body. The ascension is the present tense of the Gospel! In the Apostles’ Creed, it’s the phrase about Jesus that’s written in the present tense. This is where we are in the story: “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
The Collect for the Ascension also bears witness to this truth:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Jesus the Human Being went into heaven, bringing humanity into God’s presence, thus bringing divinity and humanity together forever. We are now permanently connected to God through Christ. As St. Augustine put it:
Just as [Jesus] remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him… Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear… While in heaven he is also with us, and we while on earth are with him.
Jesus takes all our suffering and pain and trauma right into the heart of God and heals it there, and he communicates to us through this “quantum” connection all the wisdom and love and power from God’s throne.
And now our eyes are enlightened so that we can see that this is the “realest reality” for us! Now we see everything through the lordship of Christ, because our life is actually connected to the ascended Christ. We are seated in the heavenly places with him at God’s right hand, and Christ’s presence fills all things in heaven and earth!
Because we are in Christ, his power flows to us for the world.
Once we see this, we can unclench our fists for a few moments, take a couple deep breaths, let go of our preconceived notions about what God should be doing, and receive divine, cruciform power, allowing it to work within us and through us for the blessing of the world.
And so even in the midst of ongoing suffering and evil, we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord right now over the whole cosmos, and he rules by sharing his power with us, his body, the church, authorizing us to to bear witness to his lordship in every place where his kingdom hasn’t been fully manifested.
How to bear witness
So what does it look like to carry cruciform power, to bear witness to Jesus’ lordship?
In places where we’re in touch with suffering and evil, it often means first allowing ourselves to grieve and lament and and rage against that which destroys and corrupts God’s good creation. Sad things should make us sad. Injustice should make us angry. God meets us in our anger and sadness.
And then it often means simply laying down our preconceived notions of what God should be doing, and instead ask for eyes to see what God is already doing in those situations. From this place of “enlightened heart-eyes” we can gain insight into how we can participate in what God is doing.
A prayer of response
God in heaven, enlighten the eyes of my heart to see how you are at work in ________. I proclaim Jesus’ lordship over this situation, and pray for wisdom and power to bear witness to your kingdom. Amen.