On Ascension Sunday we experience the culmination of the Gospel story. In Luke’s gospel the ascension of Christ is not an event marked by great fanfare. In fact Luke only dedicates one sentence to Jesus ascending. Afterwards the disciples continue to worship in great joy. It is almost as if the disciples had missed Jesus ascending.
Our task is to recognize what the ascension of Christ means for us in the church today. What does it signify in terms of Jesus’ earthly ministry and what future signs does it point to for the church.
You may find the Primer for Sunday’s worship: Going Up helpful to read and reflect on before reading/listening to the sermon.
Text: Luke 24: 44-53
Ascension Sunday – Audio Sermon
We know how stories begin. We have seen the formula in fairy tales:
Once upon a time…
We have even seen a modification of the formula at the movies:
A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…
The opening of a story serves as an opportunity by the author to introduce you to key characters and plot points. The beginning of the mystery!
So if we recognize how stories begin, how do they end? Is it with a satisfying conclusion where the bad guys are caught, the mystery is solved, true love is discovered and the world is saved.
Today we read the end of a story. We read the end of Luke’s gospel which concludes with the disciples worshipping Jesus. A sentence before that Jesus ascended into heaven.
It is an interesting scene. Jesus is blessing the disciples as he ascends. Afterwards the disciples are full of joy and worship Jesus. With this Luke’s gospel comes to a close. However, if you look at the story we see that the action does not stop with the final piece of punctuation. The last period in the sentence does not stop the action. We read that the disciples were continually in the temple blessing God. That final sentence is not rooted in the past, instead it set in the future.
If the final sentence does not end the action, but in fact allows the action to continue then I would suggest that the final sentence of Luke’s gospel has direct implications for us.
This morning we celebrate Ascension Sunday. A piece of scripture which ties everything together. It is a reminder that we are freed from our sins not only by Christ’s death on the cross, but also through the resurrection. The promise of life eternal with God is affirmed with the ascension of Christ.
The way we have viewed Christ’s ascension has changed over time. In the past the ascension of Jesus was viewed in light of Christ’s kingship. Such a viewpoint upheld patriarchal models of authority. Today through theological and pastoral reflection these earlier models are being challenged and Jesus is seen as standing in solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and victims of violence. We have gone from a view of Christ the King to Christ the Servant. Now to be sure, I view Christ as King and Lord of my life. However, I do not believe Christ is content to sit upon a throne and watch. His life amongst us, his healing ministry and teaching say differently. Perhaps we can more accurately call Christ our Servant King.
The ascension of Jesus points towards a future event. It promises a future of hope, it points to the glory of God. It also requires walking with Jesus through the daily experience of life and all that it comes with it. Doubt, conflict, hope and joy. This is what Jesus did while he was among us. He walked with us and experienced life with us. His ascension points the way to our future hope.
Jesus ascends. He goes up. He was carried up to heaven. That notion of Jesus being carried up might be troubling for us in a literal sense. Through science we know that above us is the sky, full of clouds and beyond that we break through the atmosphere. Then we have space, which is vast and mostly unknown to us. Perhaps it is hard to think of Jesus as travelling up. We don’t think of heaven as being a place in the clouds. We also know that while we might release a balloon and watch it rise up, if someone in Australia does the same thing does it go up or does it go down? Suddenly up as a direction become very relative.
Thomas Troeger writes, “The direction of up may have left our cosmology, but it has never left our souls.”
I would like you to think about the little word up for a moment.
What does it mean to:
Stand up for justice.
Speak up for others.
Look up at the stars.
Look up in hope.
Pull yourself up.
How do we feel when:
The sun is up.
We reach up.
We rise up.
I think there is a lot of power in that little word.
You might also be aware of the following expression: Up, up and away. Those of you who read Superman comics or listened to Superman on radio will remember this call sign. But while Superman might go up, up and away, Jesus remains with us. Yes, he ascends but he still with us today.
So do not dismiss the word up so lightly. The feeling or sense of up-ness is one which should be celebrated. Up in this sense is point to heaven. It speaks to the blessing which has been spoken and continues to be spoken to us.
At the end of Luke’s gospel Jesus leaves the disciples with a blessing. As he is blessing them Jesus withdrew and was carried up to heaven. This does not suggest that Jesus left the blessing incomplete. Rather I believe it means that even today we are all recipients of that divine blessing.
Our passage from Luke reminds us to open our minds to something new. Consider what Jesus says to the disciples at the beginning of our passage. That he has come to fulfill the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. Jesus recounts the fullness of scripture to the disciples and then he sends them on their way to carry out his teaching. As they go he blesses them and ascends.
It is the end of one story and the beginning of another. Jesus’ ascension points to the next chapter which is taken up by the disciples. We are also part of that next chapter. It is the end of one thing and the beginning of something new. We, this church, ‘the church’ are part of something new that God wants to do with creation. Something new that God wants to do in human hearts.
The ascension of Christ is the Divine Act of making space so that the mission of the church can begin. While Christ is with us, so long as God is living amongst us our attention is diverted, rightly so, towards God in the flesh. Theologian David Cunningham writes, “So long as God was in the world in human form, all eyes and hearts were fixed there. Jesus’ ascension makes space for the disciples to turn their gaze upon the world, where ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”
Rowan Williams suggest that each of the divine persons does not seek to gain pride of place of to assert hierarchical dominion over the others, but to give place to the others. The result is that the Trinity models the true nature of community, in which our own need for self-assertion gives way to us enjoying equal participation by all parties.
Luke presents the tension between the radical values of God’s reign and the wisdom to discern God’s action. As the church we trust what God has given through grace, which is the reign of God.
Friends let us worship Jesus. Let us share the good news with great joy. Let us continue to bless God. For we recognize that in his ascension Jesus has made room for us to do his work. Amen.