May 8, 2016 — Ascension Day
Rev. Alison Quin
Happy Ascension Day! On this day we celebrate the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly life and his return to God. This feast day has great significance for Christians. But it’s easy to miss the meaning because the language used to describe the event is from another era and doesn’t quite fit with our current understanding of the universe.
For centuries, people visualized a three-story universe, with heaven above, hell or the underworld below and earth in the middle. So the language used in Luke and Acts to describe Jesus’ ascension made sense to people. Jesus was carried up into heaven, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of sight.
It was still a strange, supernatural event, but it at least fit into people’s concept of what is beyond the visible world.
Copernicus began the deconstruction of the three-story universe, and our travels to outer space confirmed it. Despite cartoons in the New Yorker and other sources of popular culture, not many people think of heaven as a place right above us, among the clouds. So, how do we make sense of the ascension?
We could say that the ascension is simply a metaphor, and there is no need to relate it to our understanding of the physical universe. But Christianity claims that there is life after death, and that isn’t just a metaphor. And so it is important for us as people of faith to address science, even if we believe that in the final analysis, science is incapable of fully comprehending faith.
Contemporary physics actually supports the existence of many things beyond what we can see—light beyond the visible spectrum, dark matter, ghost particles, multiple dimensions and even multiple universes. These invisible particles and realms are posited to explain the visible world, and some have been proven to exist.
It would be an interesting and fun exercise to retell the story of Jesus’ ascension in terms of our current understanding of the cosmos. Jesus disappeared into another layer of the universe, or into a different dimension.
But the more important aspect of the Ascension is what it means for us.
Ascending to the Father, Jesus completed his earthly journey—having come from God, he returned to God. In this way, he reveals our future, the future we share with him. He promises that he will prepare a place for us, and that he will return and take us to himself. Having willingly accepted the narrowness and limitation of human life, he entered a richer and fuller life with God. Having willingly suffered for us, he returned to joyful union with God. And we will join him there.
That is the hope to which he has called us, and the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it.
The feast of the Ascension celebrates the fact that we don’t ever have to worry about our future again.
But what about the past and the present? The reading from Luke makes it clear that we don’t have to worry about the past either. Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Jesus broke the hold that the past has over us. Our sins are forgiven, our every wound can be healed, our broken relationships can be mended. This is true for us as individuals and as nations. Our history need no longer define us. We may not have fully taken absorbed it yet, but it is good news—really good news.
If we are liberated from the past, and our future is assured, why do we worry so much?
Well, that still leaves the present, and there is plenty to worry about in the present. We worry about our health, finances, family members, the community, the nation and the world. Most of us are champion worriers.
Our anxiety is exacerbated by excessive busyness, a lack of rest and by the illusion that we are in charge.
The disciples were no doubt anxious as well, as they faced Jesus’ departure. They had been through a lot—the excitement and hope of Jesus’ ministry, the devastation of his death, the shock of his resurrection, and the 40 days after his resurrection when he tried to prepare them for their mission.
Most of us respond to anxiety by trying to move faster, do more, take control of the situation. But Jesus told the disciples to wait. Go to Jerusalem and wait. Stay here until you have received power to go and proclaim the gospel.
Waiting when you are anxious is counterintuitive. We want to take control, to act now. The disciples resisted Jesus’ instruction to wait—their response was to ask when he was planning to restore the kingdom to Israel.
They wanted him to take control, and use political power to overthrow the Romans. If he would just make them the winners and the Romans the losers, everything would be fine.
But Jesus patiently redirected them from seeking political power to the mission he is giving them. Go, and be my witnesses and proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth. But first, wait here until you receive power from God.
Jesus had a mission for them that would ultimately be far more transformative than a change of regime.
God has a mission for us as well. It is a tall order: proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth. Set people free from fear, uphold the dignity of all people, work for justice and peace.
But we don’t do any of it on our own. We have the help and comfort, the guidance and wisdom, the strength and power of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit will be next week’s celebration at the Feast of Pentecost.
For now, just remember, when you are anxious, slow way down. Remember that God is in charge. And wait. Wait patiently and expectantly, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide you and give you strength. And know that you too are part of bringing good news to the world.