May 29th | The Reverend John Vanderzee | Luke 24:36-53
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One of my favorite stand-up comedians of the past half-century was Rodney Dangerfield. He was also a successful actor, producer, and screen writer and influenced many comedians that followed him. He was best known for his self-deprecating humor and monologues using the catchphrase "I don't get no respect!” One such line went, “I don’t get no respect: my psychiatrist told me I was crazy. I told him I wanted a second opinion. He said, ‘Okay, you’re ugly too.’” And another, “When I was a kid my family moved a lot. But I always found them.”1 Those are among the mild ones. The sad thing about Mr. Dangerfield was that people would always confuse him in real life with his oafish comedy persona. In that way he also often got no respect.
I’ll bet you’re wondering where I’m going with this. Just be patient.
On the liturgical calendar this is the seventh Sunday of Easter, or the Sunday just before Pentecost. It is less well known also as Ascension Sunday - the Sunday following the ascension of our Lord which was celebrated this past Thursday. The most devout of Roman Catholics honored the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday by going to mass. In centuries gone by, the Feast of the Ascension was a big deal. Now, even for Catholics it appears to be a lesser feast day, and Ascension Sunday for Protestants is pretty much ignored if not largely forgotten. The lectionary writers even offer alternative readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter; thus, one can disregard the Ascension altogether. The Ascension of our Lord is the religious holiday that gets no respect.
This morning I want to talk about why the ascension of Jesus Christ, as told by Luke both at the very end of his Gospel and also in the second chapter of Acts, matters for Christian worship and discipleship today.
I must admit I’m like most preachers who tend to shy away from preaching about the Ascension. I suppose it’s because I have always seen this peculiar account of Jesus’ rapture into heaven as strangely otherworldly - especially for the normally worldly and down-to-earth Luke. I found myself wondering, was this a literal event or was it the only way Luke could imagine Jesus’ departure? After all you couldn’t have Jesus riding off into the sunset like John Wayne. You couldn’t have Jesus die at the end of the story, for he had died already once and in so doing defeated death. And so, Jesus just floats upward toward heaven. So, what do we make of this strange event and what does it all mean?
Before the actual ascension part, Luke sets it in context of his particular post-resurrection narrative. It is some unspecified number of days after his resurrection (in the Book of Acts, Luke has it as forty days) that Jesus makes his final appearance to his disciples as they are gathered together in a private safe-house somewhere in Jerusalem. Jesus greets them as he had done before: “Peace be with you.” They react as if they had seen a ghost, but Jesus calms their fears, shows them his scars, and asks for something to eat as if to show them that he was in-the-flesh-real. He then, as Luke describes, “opened their minds” to understand the Scriptures about how the Messiah must suffer, and die, and then rise on the third day.
He then instructs them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all the world beginning in Jerusalem. Only they must hold out there and wait for the promised Holy Spirit. Then they followed Jesus to a hill outside Bethany, and it is there that, while in the midst of blessing them, he “departed up into heaven.” They returned to Jerusalem as instructed, their hearts full of joy and anticipation. What happened that made Jesus’ departure such a celebrated event for the disciples and subsequently for Christ’s church?
I would like to suggest three possible meanings of Christ’s ascension as the first quarter of the 21st Century comes to a close. First, Christ departed in order to “make space,” if you will, so that the future of the church can begin. As long as Jesus remained on earth, his disciples would continually rely on his physical presence to lead them and show them what to say and do. It was necessary for Jesus to take on the full reality of his ascended Christly role so he could encompass heaven and earth in a way that transcends space and time.
As theologian Harvey Cox put it, “The early church’s belief in the Ascension can be read as its refusal to allow its Lord to be localized or spatially restricted. The Ascension in its simplest terms means that Jesus is mobile. He is not a Baal-like idol, but the Lord of all history.”2
So, in making space for the church to do its saving work, he was transported beyond space and time to the heavenly places in order that, paradoxically, he could be everywhere present and directly accessible to all believers. This needs some unpacking to counter what people commonly think of heaven and earth as distinct and detached places.
Most believers think of heaven as some faraway place way up in the clouds somewhere, or some celestial dwelling infinitely distant from earth. Not so, says N.T. Wright. For Jesus, “going to heaven” isn’t a matter of disappearing into some far-off distance. Jesus is like someone with two homes, only the homes are right next to each other, in a sense co-mingling with each other, and there is a connecting door of sorts. It is not a perfect analogy, admits Wright, because heaven and earth are not the same kind of space. Heaven is not above the earth; rather it permeates earth. In other words, earth is contained in heaven. If Jesus is now in heaven, he is also present to every place on earth.3
The role of the church, then, is to be Christ’s physical body, metaphorically speaking, embodied here on earth serving as Christ’s hands and feet by serving others - the poor, the lost, the marginalized, the excluded - wherever the church can be found. Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples should be seen as the church’s commissioning, and by inference ours as well. How is this to be communicated in such a way as to capture our imagination, and how might we live this out? Biblical scholar Christopher Irvine suggests the answer might be found in a well-known nursery rhyme:
Pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been?
I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under the chair.4
The implication in this rhyme is that this common cat, despite his adventurous excursion to the queen’s castle, remained preoccupied with the usual cat routines of life, and so failed to take in and fully experience the majestic glory of being in the queen’s presence which was the very object of his journey in the first place.
Unlike the cat in this rhyme who failed to see above the floorboards, we Christians are invited in this Ascension season (which one could say is all of Ordinary Time up to Advent) to raise our sights above our daily habits and preoccupations, see the whole picture of an enthroned universe and then to regard everything else in that light.
In other words, Christ summons us to raise our sights, to broaden our view, to cast off the blinders and blunders of human prejudice and marginalization, in order to contemplate the full picture of our human flesh borne by Jesus himself and presented to God. In so doing Christ, through his Spirit, becomes our advocate.
If the first purpose of Christ’s ascension is to make space for the church to serve him and the world he loves, the second purpose of the ascension is to establish Christ as ruler of heaven and earth at God’s right hand.
If heaven is a place that is both beyond earth and yet also encompasses it, heaven is also the place from which the world is governed, and Christ has taken his rightful place as sovereign Lord.
This is how, in the story of Jesus - the long narrative stretching back to his baptism, and before that to his birth - comes to its fulfillment. He was born to be a new kind of king who would upstage Caesar himself. It is this claim that, of course, eventually sealed his fate, a claim he did not deny and for which he was mockingly labeled “king of the Jews” - the sign that was posted over his bleeding body on the cross.
And now with his resurrection victory and ascension into heaven, Christ is enthroned officially as what he already was in principle. This is what Jesus meant when he told his followers that the Son of Man would “come into his kingdom” and that they would see it for themselves. And they did on that morning on the mount just outside Bethany.
Along with another fellow pastor, I became sort of a rebel in the Bloomington chapter of Rotary when I conspicuously refrained from putting my hand over my heart when we said the pledge of allegiance. I was not only making a political statement in the way Colin Kaepernick and others following him did with the Black-Lives-Matter movement. More importantly I was also saying, in effect, my ultimate allegiance is not to my country. My supreme allegiance, tainted by sin as it may be, is to Christ and his Kingdom which is being prepared and rehearsed now by his church, but which will come to complete fruition when he comes again. At Christ’s ascension, he took his place as ruler of the universe, and it is to him and his realm that we as his church pledge our allegiance.
This takes us to the third reason why Jesus’ ascension matters. If you recall at the end of Luke’s story, he writes that “lifting up his hands he blessed them.” All the while he was blessing them, he “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” It is this final, continuous act of blessing as he was leaving them that the disciples may have cherished the most in their memories. His outstretched arms, once nailed to a cross, were now bestowing his benediction that would last forever, not only in their collective memories but also in the ongoing life of his church universal right up to now. That is why we conclude our Sunday worship with the charge and benediction. It is a kind of reenactment of Christ’s blessing on his church that he first enjoined at his ascension. And with that blessing comes both a challenge and a calling: to live as he had lived, to love as he had loved, to bless as he had blessed.
I read somewhere that at the highest point of the Mount of Olives one of the sites claimed to be the place of the ascension, now stands the Augusta Victoria Hospital, administered by the Lutheran World Federation. The hospital staff serve Palestinians who are living amid the occupied territories. The team there are experts in, among other things, radiation therapy and pediatric kidney dialysis.
A late 19th Century mosaic on a high wall of the hospital chapel depicts the ascension, with Jesus arising into the clouds, flanked by two angels in white, as Luke’s version in Acts depicts the scene. What is most notable about this particular representation is that the eyes of the angels gaze not upon the ascending Jesus, but are clearly directed toward the congregation - as if to ask, “Why are you standing there looking up into heaven?” “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And, of course, that’s exactly what the hospital team has been commissioned to do - to heal and restore broken lives.
I am also thinking about the families and schoolmates of the nineteen children and two teachers in that 4th-grade classroom who were killed by an 18-year-old young man who probably had experienced extensive emotional and physical trauma of his own. Yet he was allowed to acquire assault weapons. We can no longer just stand there and allow guns to proliferate and get into the hands of people who intend great harm. The warning signs were there, but people ignored them. They and we just stand there. It’s as if the eyes of those angels depicted in that painting are looking at us and our representatives in Congress to do something.
I felt it important to accentuate the ascension of Christ this morning not so that we may be so enthralled as to be left in speechless wonder, and clueless as to where to go from here. Christ’s ascension matters because he is making space for the church to do its work in the world, and that means speaking truth to power and to ourselves whenever we can. Christ reigns over his realm of heaven and earth as king, and to bestow his perpetual blessing on us, the people that he loves and came to save from sin and violence and callousness.
It seems, from the reading of Luke’s gospel account, that that first congregation “got it,” for they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy,” knowing that the best of the Jesus story is still waiting to be completed starting with them. And so, let us also rejoice that Jesus Christ reigns as ruler of our lives, and as difficult as it is to see right now in our heartache and grief, we need to be open to the hope that the best is yet to come. It’s now our job, with God’s help, to make it happen.
To God be all honor and praise and glory.
1) Rodney Dangerfield, Google
2) Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, pg. 53
3) N.T Wright, On Earth as it is in Heaven, audiobook
4) Christopher Irvine, “pussycat, pussycat…” Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year C, pg. 163