Our readings for celebrating both the 7th Sunday of Easter and Jesus's ascension to the Father: Ascension Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=45 AND: the 7th Sunday of Easter Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=46
Today we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1st Timothy and 1 Peter. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. Of course with the Church from very early on and across the world, we affirm this very thing in our shared profession during worship, of the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.
So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief. Yet it’s rarely something we talk about in the Church. I would suggest this is for a couple of reasons. First, I think we’re uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy and power because, well, it’s often been experienced or described to us as a political order that has not only established order, but also enforced brutal and sometimes violent laws. So the language which describes Jesus as being enthroned next to the Father is often left to the side or simply absorbed into the resurrection discussion so we don’t have to deal with language we might find repellant.
Of course Scripture itself can give us warrant for doing this. The Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for 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’ (John 20:17). Even Saint Luke in the gospel and in Acts talks about the Ascension as both a current and a future event happening. So again, how tied is this Ascension of Jesus to God’s ‘right hand’, to the resurrection. Do we have to think of them as separate events? If so, why?
Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but he also affirmed its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have had no effect. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:
‘This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together,
without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.’
What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our very selves, our nature as human beings, up with Him into the heavenly places – had he not ‘gone up’ – something that required waiting, a separation out from his resurrection, we could not have been reconciled to God.
This is what we hear in our gospel reading from Luke: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is 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, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Of course we know the disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, watching the Scriptures being fulfilled. Only with the resurrection then, could they truly come to know what the Scriptures mean and how every single word of Scripture is fulfilled in his suffering, death and resurrection. But you see, this is important: it is not simply that the Scriptures were fulfilled, but that all of history was fulfilled in this moment; all the events of history are and will be fitted into those Scriptures, drawn into God himself in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
It is one thing to know this. But it is quite another to understand and then be moved to witness or testify to this fulfillment of the Scriptures; to the very person, the life, death and resurrection itself. It was essential for Jesus to return and be with the disciples again, to be present, to be with them, for them to see, hear, and put their fingers into him, to be able to proclaim this real event to those who would not be able to directly be with Christ, but who, as Jesus says to doubting Thomas, would have to come to Christ in and with persistent faith, not sight. And time, the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension is a living embodiment of simultaneous waiting for God to act, and of persistent waiting in him, in faith. Waiting, without being able to touch, in literal terms, his cloak like he warned Mary not to do. “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet ascended.”
You must wait, my children, wait in faith, sometimes in suffering, sometimes in fear, sometimes with deep Peter or Thomas like doubt. Wait as we are stuck in a desert of serpents who bite at one another for power and control to quell our fears, wait with self-doubt, confusion, loss of purpose, broken love and years of facing its consequences, wait as a vulnerable babe borne in a manger in a world of uncertainty and possible threat, wait in a world filled with false hope, distorted purposes conditioned into us from birth; wait as our minds and bodies decline, looking back to see what trail of witness we have left in this world. Wait, not however, in despair, but knowing that the time of our waiting has actually been lived, taken on, and taken up when Christ is with us between his resurrection and ascension.
This time between his resurrection and ascension is critical to recognize because it is a sign to us, that God has been with us from the beginning, that he remains with us in our waiting, whatever form of good or bad unfolds in our lives, and that, as he says, to the disciples in Luke, that when he ascends, he will not depart from us but remain as the Holy Spirit draws us into him and unites us to the Father in heaven. In heaven and on earth we persist as his body. In our faithful witness and in our failures to do so, we are sanctified (stripped of false coverings, revealed more and more for who God made us), enabled to see how we are being drawn into his life if we’re willing to look not at ourselves alone, or ourselves in the constructions of our world, but ourselves as we are being moved by the Spirit and conformed to him.
Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point:
‘He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.
So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.’
When Jesus came into the world – which we celebrated at Christmas – he took on every part of us, our whole nature and ever peculiar aspect of who we are, he took with him all the brokenness of that nature to the Cross and when he was raised, he made for us new life. But it was with the Ascension that this union was completed, our humanity being forever joined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the children of God’.
The Ascension is therefore truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and human beings. This is the truth and the sure hope on which our faith can endure waiting. And as represented by Christ in the time between his resurrection and ascension, we are given the time to come to know his love for us. What would it mean to you to be loved unconditionally; where all the places in your life of shame, deep anguishing shame, of guilt, of fear, of loss, of regret, of worry, of hope, of joy, where all these places are met by the one who gave his life so that you might have life, forgiveness, and deep abiding love not contingent on your success at life, but merely your faith in opening up to receive this love? What would it mean to you? What would it mean for how you treat those around you? What would it mean about how you live your life, the things you hold of value, the things that you cling to, the things you’re willing to let go of? What would it mean for you to be set free from fear and despair, in the time that you have left, free to love as you have been loved by God in Christ? AMEN.