Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ascension Day Sermon

The Ascension of Jesus

On Wednesday, I was listening to NPR on my way to pick-up my son from ballet class.   They were broadcasting a segment from their series, Teenage Diaries Revisited.[1]   It’s not as bad as it sounds!  In the mid-nineties a group of diverse, young voices from around the country recorded their own stories, interviews, and commentaries.  NPR invited these same now 30-something adults to record an update about their lives. 

One of the updated stories was shared by Juan, an undocumented immigrant, who originally recorded his story as a 17 year-old living in Texas just 300 yards from the Rio Grande River.  He is now a 35 year-old plumber, married with three children in Colorado.  Although still undocumented, he has made a good life for himself and his family. 

What struck me about his story, however, was his description of his relationship with his four year-old son, Alan.  “My son, he is four years old, he is always running around, he is always in a hurry, I don’t know where he is going.  But, whenever he falls down, I don’t pick him up.  My wife, Millie, she is always saying, ‘Why don’t you pick up the kid?  Don’t you care for him.’  I do care for him.  That’s why I don’t pick him up.  What if one day I’m not there?  He’ll need to be able to pick himself up.”

I was deeply touched by Juan’s story.  As a father, I know how painful it can be to let go, to allow my own son to pick himself up.  The art of loving is indeed about knowing when to hold on and when to let go.  As kids growing up, we experience this truth from the other side as well.  Much of the pain of adolescence derives from our conflicted feelings about differentiating ourselves from our parents, see-sawing between clinging and pushing away.  It is a dynamic that we experience in all of our relationships.

Even so, I want to nuance Juan’s description of the art of loving his son, reframing it in a way that may shed light on the Mystery of the Ascension that we are celebrating today.   It isn’t so much that Juan is letting go so that Alan can get along without him, can adapt to his father’s absence.  Rather, Juan is letting go so that he can be with Alan in a new, permanent way. 

Juan is slowly teaching Alan how to imitate him, how to become an adult like him.  Alan is internalizing Juan, if you will, taking his identity from Juan, in such a way that his father will always be with him.  Juan is letting go, so that he can be with Alan forever.  One day, for better and for worse, Alan will realize how much he carries Juan within himself.  And so it will be for his children, and his children’s children.

The art of loving is about learning when to hold on and when to let go.  It is a dynamic that we experience in all of our relationships, including our relationship with Jesus.  The Mystery of the Ascension is about Jesus letting go of his disciples, and our letting go of him, so that he can be with us in a new way, forever, as we learn to take our identity from him.

All of the Gospels testify to this movement of letting go in their own way.  In the longer ending of Mark and in Luke the Ascension is explicitly described.  Matthew alludes to it obliquely in the Great Commission, sending his disciples in mission to the whole world and assuring them that he will be with even until the end of the age.  John’s Gospel includes the wonderful encounter between the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalen, in which Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”[2]

Like Mary Magdalen, our tendency is to want to hold on to Jesus.  We want to freeze our relationship with him, locking it into a particular place in time that is familiar and comfortable.  We want to hold on to the Jesus who was back then and there, who picked us up whenever we fell down. We want to be loved on our terms, clinging madly or pushing away, sometimes within the same breath. 

But Jesus loves us on his terms.  He challenges us to imitate him, to take our identity from him so that we can grow-up and take responsibility for our part in his mission to heal the world.  Jesus ascends to the Father, so that we can discover Christ within us.  He lets go so that he can be present with us in a new way, forever; internal to our way of being in the world such that we are empowered by his Spirit to share in God’s mission.   

Ascension Day is not about the absence of Jesus, as if Jesus is restricted to an historical figure back then and there.  It is about this same Jesus being now, at the “right hand of God,” always and everywhere present with us.  We find him wherever we go.  He always has been there already, all along.  And, through the gift of his Spirit, we find him in us, forming us and equipping us to pick ourselves up again and again, much as Alan carries his father, Juan, within himself.

The Risen Jesus is the Cosmic Christ.  There is nowhere that he is not.  The Mystery of the Ascension requires us to think about the universe differently.  As Bishop Tom Wright has noted,

…[W]hen the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment Westerners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C.S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia stories and elsewhere of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s story to the real world of grown-up Christian devotion and theology….

What we are encouraged to grasp precisely through the ascension itself is that God’s space and ours- heaven and earth, in other words- are, though very different, not far away from one another. … God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they retain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day, … they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever.[3]    

In the Mystery of the Ascension, Jesus lets us go so that he can be present with us in this new way, in a dimension of reality that transcends our limited sense perception, but is brilliantly transparent to the “eye of the heart.”[4]   We encounter the Risen Lord in this new way as we come to realize our identity with Jesus, the Christ nature within us, and share in his mission of healing the world. 

The Ascension is in the service of mission so that we, too, can “receive power from on high” to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus name.[5]  Jesus loves us so much that he lets us go, so that we can grow into mature, responsible lovers of the world in His name.  And in loving the world in His name, we discover Him more fully, more powerfully, more resplendently present that we ever could have imagined.    We discover that deathless Love against which the principalities and powers of this world can not prevail, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”[6]  Amen. 

[2] John 20:17.
[3] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 115-116.
[4] Ephesians 1:18.
[5] Luke 24:45-49.
[6] Ephesians 1:22-23.

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