Psalm 68:1-10; 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on Sunday June 1, 2014
This last Thursday was the 40th day of Easter which meant it was Ascension Day, a day that commemorates a truth we claim every Sunday when we say, “I believe…in Jesus Christ…who ascended into heaven.” According to Luke-Acts, Christ was lifted up to heaven and a cloud took him away. Honestly, my left brain (my logic and reason) has great difficulty accepting this part of the Creed and the Scriptures. “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”
My problem with this “ascension”is that the author was writing according to an ancient worldview, which held that Heaven was physically above us and Hell was physically below us. Modern science and space exploration have challenged and shattered this worldview thus begging the question, “What really happened to the Risen Jesus?”
My left brain is partially satisfied in thinking that Jesus ascended into another dimension since String Theorists suggest that there are at least 10 dimensions in physical space that our limited, three-dimensional minds cannot perceive. But then that makes me feel like I’m reading a science-fiction story. And why did he have to ascend in order to enter another dimension?
It always helps me to remember that these Scriptures are not scientific documents but rather stories attempting to communicate supernatural phenomenon. Karen Armstrong calls theology “a species of poetry,” employing metaphor and imagery to convey spiritual truth. Luke was using this “species of poetry” when he wrote about the Ascension, so what spiritual truth is he trying to communicate?
The authors of the Christian Scriptures often allude to stories and scenes rom the Hebrew Scriptures in order to express a truth about Christ. Here, Luke is alluding to Elijah’s Ascension in II Kings (2:1-12). Before leaving his faithful disciple Elisha, Elijah says to him, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha responds with a bold request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah, willing to grant his disciples’ request, tells him to watch him as he leaves. So Elisha watches Elijah leave but he also screams while watching Elijah leave because of the whirlwind and fire and flaming horses that snatched Elijah up into heaven! After Elijah’s ascension, all the prophets declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha!”
So according to Hebrew tradition, a disciple receives the spirit of the master while watching the master ascend to heaven. That is why Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). In fact, Jesus said his disciples (us!) will do even greater things than Jesus since he is leaving! (John 14:12)
When Jesus’ disciples received the spirit of their master on Pentecost, they also got caught up in a fiery whirlwind not unlike Elijah’s chariot and began speaking in other languages and preaching and behaving in such a way that others thought they were drunk! And so the Church was born. (And next Sunday we celebrate this birthday of the church, the day of Pentecost.)
Now that same Spirit that empowered and seemed to intoxicate the apostles is available to all of us through our baptism. Just as the disciples received the Holy Spirit after the Ascension so do we receive the Spirit of the master through our baptism. And the Spirit of the master guides us into all truth and empowers us to do even greater things the master himself!
As we learn from Jesus’ final prayer in the Gospel of John (which we just read this morning), the Holy Spirit’s mission is to make us one as the Father and the Son are one. And just as Jesus prays to include and welcome us into that loving union (and yes, he specifically prays for us!) so are we called to include and welcome others into that same loving union. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s mission is to sweep us all into the loving unity that flows between the Father and the Son while empowering us to welcome others into that same love.
And how do we tap into that powerful Spirit of our master and allow ourselves to be shaped and formed by the divine union, the same divine union that the church fathers described as a holy circle-dance (a perichoresis)?
The readings this morning offer (at least) three ways that we can be caught up into the divine union through the Holy Spirit and welcome others into that same union.
First of all, according to Acts, the disciples kept their eyes on Jesus as he ascended. In fact, the author emphasizes the fact that the disciples watch Jesus ascend by saying, “as they were watching, he was lifted up” and then reiterating it by saying again, “While he was going up…they were gazing up toward heaven.” In order for Elisha to have received the double dose of his teacher’s spirit, he had to keep his eyes on Elijah as he ascended. Elijah told him, “If you see me as I am being taken from you, [your request for a double share of my spirit] will be granted you; if not, it will not.” According to the tradition, the disciple needed to watch the master ascend in order to receive the master’s spirit. We inherit the Spirit through our baptism but we also tap into the power of the Spirit by keeping our eyes on Jesus as he shows up in our lives, in the faces of those around us, in this gathering here, in the bread and wine made holy and in the Scriptures.
The Reverend Christian and I both took a course on the Gospel of John at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley with Sister Sandra Schneiders. And perhaps the most significant insight I learned from the class was that the truth that the Christ in the Fourth Gospel is as present to me (to us) as he was to his first disciples. The Gospel itself functions in the same way that the signs (the miracles) functioned to the disciples in the text. So by reading the Gospels together we can keep our eyes on Jesus who seeks to sweep us off our feet and into that mystical dance of love and union between the Father and Son. And in this loving union, we inherit what the Gospel of John calls the “peace which the world cannot give” (14:27), the “joy that is complete” (16:24) which no one can take away (16:22) and the life that is abundant and has no end.
Another way to tap into the power of the Spirit of the master is through humility. As the apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.” In today’s collect, we prayed that God “exalt us.” And in order to be exalted as participants in the divine community and invite others to join us we must be humble. I just finished teaching a course at CDSP on English Spirituality and Mysticism and all of the great English mystics of the 14th century (the Golden Age of English mysticism) insist on the necessity of humility for mystical union with God. According to the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, the only way to comprehend and attain union with the incomprehensible God is through charity and humility.
And finally, prayer. After Jesus tries to communicate the meaning of his immanent death to his disciples in the upper room discourse, he finally looks up to heaven and prays. When we look at the Gospel of John we see Jesus desperately wanting to communicate his love to his disciples and actually finding it to be very difficult and frustrating. And so he prays. And his prayer (of which we read only a part) is considered the “Holy of Holies of Scripture” and is called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus, in which Christ articulates perhaps most clearly his hopes and dreams for his disciples, for us.
So how do we experience and welcome other people to experience this loving union between the Father and the Son? How do we welcome people into the church? Into the beloved community? The community that exists in order to spread and share the love of God with others? As former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” The Church exists to carry out the work of the Holy Spirit which is to sweep all people, including non-members into the loving unity that flows between the Father and the Son. And many non-members are in desperate need of this love and welcome, suffering from addiction, abuse and self-hate. We have the opportunity to transform lives by welcoming them in.
And how do we do this? We do this through humility and through prayer: humbly praying for God to guide us in welcoming non-members (those for whose benefit we exist). And by keeping our eyes on the master, on the One who ascended to empower us with his Spirit. These are some of the ways that we can overcome Ascension Deficit Disorder and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of our master, our Lord and our Savior who dreams that we (as the beloved community) do even greater things than he. Amen.