May 24th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Ephesians 1:15-23
The story is told of a mother who would take her son to nursery school, kiss him good bye and would always say to him “Darling, I’m leaving you in good hands, OK?” She did this every day she took her little son to nursery school.
Time marched on, as time is wont to do, and the little boy, now an adult, had the responsibility of caring for his mother, who was quite old now and experiencing dementia. The son took his mother to a care home, one of the hardest things a child can do. When she was settled in, and as he said good bye, he remembered the words of his mother when he was quite young. He kissed her and said, “Mom I’m leaving you in good hands.” His mother, who could hardly remember things now because of dementia, held onto his hands and tears started streaming down from her eyes. She remembered her own words from years ago.
In no small way, that is part of what Ascension Sunday is all about. The church, in its infancy, was saying goodbye to the One who had called it into being and commissioned it to continue his work. It was a bittersweet moment, but one that had to take place.
For all the years of my growing up, we never spent much time considering the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. I guess it was enough that we said, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, that “he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” We didn’t mark the day with decorations, like at Christmas, or sing hymns that were reserved for the day, like at Easter, or have a birthday party, like at Pentecost. Ascension Sunday slipped by virtually unnoticed.
From an ultra-practical standpoint, we need Ascension Sunday to wrap up the Jesus story. Much of our church year is centered on Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection, that it just seems right to conclude the story with the Ascension.
When Wendy’s grandmother had developed her own memory loss and dementia, she would often ask, “Whatever became of Keith?” - her husband. The question upset my father-in-law. He couldn’t cope with the idea that Lila had forgotten Keith. One day, she asked the question, “Whatever became of Keith?” Bill answered with the name of the cemetery where his father was buried. “Chestnut Hill.” “Dead, huh?” was Lila’s reply.
At its most basic level, observing Ascension Sunday is answering the question, “Whatever became of Jesus?” “Back to heaven, huh?” Yes.
But, there’s much more to Ascension Sunday than offering a simple and tidy end to the Jesus story.
The Ascension of Jesus offers us some language to speak about how Jesus is both absent and present. We no longer experience Jesus in a bodily, physical way. We cannot see him, hear him, touch him, converse with him - as we would any other human being. Physically, Jesus is gone.
Yet, we continue to experience Jesus as present. Far more than a memory, we experience Jesus as present - in the world, in the church, in our lives. Through the giving of the Holy Spirit - which we will celebrate next Sunday - we experience Jesus as vitally present here-and-now.
If anything, the Ascension changes the way we visualize Jesus today. The worst thing we could do is to say that the Ascension is when Jesus “left us.” Jesus’ word to us is, “I will not leave you as orphans.” (John 14:18) “Orphan” is a loaded word in the scriptures. It does not simply mean the absence of a parent. To be an orphan is to be defenseless, powerless, unprotected, and vulnerable.” To be orphaned is to be left to one’s own devices in a dangerous and inhospitable world.
The Ascension challenges us to think and speak of Jesus, not in a passive, past tense, but in an active, present tense. Jesus empowers us through the Spirit, equips us through the Spirit, commissions us to the ministry and mission that he embraced, and prays for us as we make our way through life. Jesus is not removed and unmoved by the world and our lives within it. Jesus’ word to us today is as good as the day he gave it to the disciples: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)
The Ascension also invites us to look through our everyday reality to something more. We can become easily and quickly bogged down in the world and the mess in which we find it. We can become depressed and despondent when we watch the news or read a newspaper. We may even find ourselves yearning for the life of an ascetic, who shuns the world and its practices to live in simplicity and solitude.
The Ascension reminds us that there is more to life than can be seen. The Ascension reminds us that there is more to reality than what we can perceive and experience with our five senses. The Ascension confirms God’s word that there is a greater splendor and wonder to life than we may believe.
The Ascension reminds us that our true citizenship is in heaven and that we are called to “set our minds on things above.” (Colossians 3:1) We are, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “strangers and foreigners of earth…seeking a homeland.” (Hebrews 11:11-14) There is more to life than can be seen and there is more to living that is apparent. The Ascension reminds us that there is much, much, more.
Finally, and fifthly (for those of you keeping track), the Ascension reminds us that we are not “off the hook.” The Apostle Paul, or whoever wrote the Letter to the Ephesians, gives it to us clearly:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
One of the most interesting phrases is “head over all things for the church.” The Greek word we translate “head” is kephale. This word can be translated as a source more than authority. Think of the word as referring to “headwaters.”
All of us see the Ohio River flowing along the southern border of Indiana. But, I grew up where the Ohio is formed. I’ve been way up in northern Pennsylvania, up to Cobb Hill, in Potter County, to the headwaters of the Allegheny. There was more water in my street after last Saturday’s rain than there is at the headwaters of the Allegheny. But as the water, which you could step over with ease, journeys south, it is fed by other rivers and streams, until when you get to Pittsburgh, the river is wide and deep and then joins with the Monongahela River, which flows north from West Virginia, to form the Ohio.
Jesus Christ is the source - the headwaters - that grows, expands, fills, and shapes even his people - even his church. The presence and power of Jesus Christ flows through the church - through you and me - and continues to reshape, reform, and redeem the earth.
We are not “off the hook.” We are the channel through which Jesus continues to flow into this world. This requires our commitment and our faithfulness and our full participation in the ministry and mission of being “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
William Pierson Barker was a Presbyterian minister in the Pittsburgh area. Working with his friend, Fred Rogers, Bill was the hand and voice of Doctor Bill Platypus and Elsie Platypus. In one of his many books, he wrote:
“If the last mighty act of God had been the resurrection and ascension, today there would be no church. If the pattern outlined in the first chapter of Acts had continued, the apostles and others would never have left Jerusalem to witness. They would have formed a religious club, perhaps a ‘Jesus Memorial Society’. Like other such groups, it would probably have had meetings, dues, minutes, and the usual club paraphernalia. In spite of valiant endeavors by loyal adherents to ‘keep the organization going,’ the band of believers in the Risen Jesus Christ would eventually have dwindled away and in time the memory of Jesus would have become an interesting footnote in the history books of the Middle East.”
(William P. Barker, They Stood Boldly, pp. 19-20)
We are called to be the channels of the very power of God that was put to work in Christ. We are called to be part of something far greater than anything that passes for power and authority wielded by temporary leaders on earth. We are called to be the church, called into being by God, led by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.
Is Jesus “above and beyond?” Removed and unmoved? Unconcerned and uninvolved? Absolutely not.
Is Jesus “above and beyond?” Moving beyond the expected? Changing lives and changing the world? Is he continuing to call people like you and me to channel his transforming and reconstructing presence in the world? You bet he is.
And we are called to move “above and beyond.” As the song by Gentleman Jim Reeves puts it:
This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore…
Christ has ascended to take up his place “beyond the blue” and one day we will see him there - triumphant, victorious, and glorious. He is there right now and will be there forevermore. Amen.
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