[Given on Saturday, May 31, 2014 by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO]
“…While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” – Luke 24:51 (NRSV)
The Ascension of the Lord is one of the most underexposed mysteries of the Church. Whereas churches are filled to bursting on Christmas and Easter, it is rare that more than a faithful remnant appears for the specific reason of commemorating and celebrating the Feast of the Ascension. Surely it is not because the Ascension is less dramatic than the Resurrection or the Incarnation. I mean, lets face it, a man being lifted into heaven ostensibly by a company of angels would be a fantastic sight indeed. And surely it is not because is too fantastic to be believed and thus occupies the space of optional belief in our theological roller-decks. If one can believe in the triumph of Our Lord over death dead or the ability and willingness of God to manifest infinitude in finite space, one can ascribe to Jesus taking flight and disappearing into the sky above Palestine, right?
Perhaps, the reason the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord doesn’t occupy as central a place in our spiritual lives is because we don’t know what to do with it. With Christmas we behold the sacred mystery of the Incarnation by hearing the fundamental call of mystery set to the words “O Come, let us adore him.” In Christmas we are invited simply to the practice of “adoration.” With Easter we are invited to engage that most sacred and holy of mysteries by obeying the age-old words of the Exsultet, “Rejoice.” Peter J. Gomes suggests that to rejoice is to gives oneself over to “joy” with “joy” itself being the moment “when it all becomes clear.” In Easter our true reality is made clear – that life, not death, is our birthright and our heritage and that through Christ we are invited to participate in that revolutionary reality.
But there are no great hymns about the Ascension; rather, the Ascension occupies an obscure place somewhere between Easter and Pentecost. We know something happened to Jesus after the Resurrection, but we aren’t sure what. In the words of one of my youth, we often wonder “when did Jesus die a second time?”
The absence of our Lord is challenging indeed because it propels us to either put up or shut up. Much like the disciples immediately following the Resurrection, we are called to put into practice all that Jesus has taught us because his is physically no longer around to do it for us. The Ascension challenges us because in leaving us, Jesus is showing us that God truly believes in us and our ability to change the world, to participate in the in-breaking of the Reign of God. Leaving us is Jesus’s ultimate act of trust. In leaving he is saying “I know you can do this. You got this!” The Ascension calls us to believe in ourselves as much as God believes in us. Much like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels, engaging in Christian discipleship without Christ being physically present is scary, but it is in fact God’s way of calling us higher.
It is easy to commercialize and mythologize both Easter and Christmas and make their revolutionary messages more palatable for our modern sensibilities. But the same cannot be said about the Ascension and as such the raw, unchecked, uncertainty and scathing challenge of the Ascension remains – put up or shut up.
I’ve recently begun reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in the first two chapters of his book he calls the the faithful to the practice of discipleship that transcends mere religious affiliation. It’s not enough to be a Christian. We are called to be disciples – people who follow Christ in the way of the cross. The Ascension of Our Lord marks the moment in Church history where the disciples were first challenged to stop looking at Jesus and to start living like the Christ. It wasn’t good enough any longer to be what Fred Craddock calls people “overhearing the Gospel,” they, and we, must become people speaking and living the Gospel. Jesus isn’t physically here anymore to do the heavy lifting. We must each take up our own cross and follow where he has led the way.
Does this mean that we are left to labor alone? No. Divine grace reminds us that we are always being assisted by God, that God never gives us a commandment without also granting us the grace to accomplish it. What it does mean is that the first step in discipleship is ours to make.
That’s freewill – the ability to choose to follow where Jesus has led the way, or to walk away from it all. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Discipleship, following where Jesus has led, is the way of life. The Ascension is God’s ultimate statement that God trusts us to make the right choice.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!