Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2005, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts
Ascending into Heaven
Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with a cry of joy.
I can’t remember a spring in New England that I’ve savored with more delight than this one. After a long, hard winter, how sweet it’s been to watch colors rise to the surface, to see forsythia and then magnolia, crabapple and now dogwood trees bursting into bloom, to look up at the hills of the Holyoke Range and see a haze of pink, followed by so many astonishing shades of green that I found myself wishing that I knew as many words for “green” as the Eskimos apparently have for snow.
Energy seems to rise in the spring. Not long ago I took a walk in a nearby town. It was one of our first warm days, the sun was shining, and I saw a young man walking down the sidewalk on his hands. He’d taken off his shirt and his feet were waving in the air like two flags. I saw a child holding hands with a woman with multi-colored dreadlocks, or maybe it was ribbons that she’d woven into her hair, for the braids dangling over her ears were pink and orange and green. And I saw a sentence painted on an old brick wall and the sentence said, “Change the future.” Let me tell you, joy rose up in me. I thought to myself, Christ has risen. The world’s gone topsy-turvy. People walk on their hands, they wear ribbons in their hair, and they know the truth: anything is possible. With God’s help we can change the future.
My spirits soared.
Here on the Sunday after Ascension Day, it feels right to muse a bit about images of rising, of being lifted up. A few moments ago we listened to that familiar passage from the book of Acts, the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven [Acts 1:1-14]. It is the Bible’s only detailed account of how Jesus departed from his disciples and returned to God. As we heard, for forty days after his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appeared on different occasions to his disciples. At last, on the fortieth day, Jesus gathered his disciples together, promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and was then “taken up” or “lifted up” in a cloud. Jesus disappeared from their sight, and the disciples returned to Jerusalem to gather in prayer with the men and women who had known and loved him. Little did they know that ten days later, on the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would suddenly come upon them with great power.
Now the coming of the Holy Spirit was all well and good, but I have to confess that for a long time I didn’t know what to make of the ascension bit. Every Sunday we repeat the line in the Nicene Creed, “he ascended into heaven,” but secretly I suspected that one shouldn’t look at this part of the story too closely. The thought of Jesus ascending into heaven evoked the irreverent and definitely unhelpful image of Mary Poppins slowly rising into the sky, umbrella in hand. Surely, I thought to myself, surely the disciples’ last sight of Jesus was not of the soles of his feet.
My difficulty came from assuming that I was supposed to take the image quite literally and to believe that heaven — and God — were literally “up,” a geographical place “above” the earth, and that after his death Jesus had to be re-united with God by going “up” — up and away. On this point I was no better informed than the first Russian cosmonaut, Yurij Gagarin, who returned from the first manned orbit of the earth to announce triumphantly that he hadn’t seen God when he was up in space, proof positive (in his view) that God does not exist. For years I avoided using the traditional imagery of heaven as “up” and the earth as “down,” precisely because taking those images literally invites such a simplistic response.
But this spring has reminded me that even if heaven and God are not literally “up,” and the earth and the rest of things not literally “down,” there is still something in our language, in our psyche, that links transcendence and joy with moving upward, with elevation. “I was feeling down,” we say sometimes, “but now things are looking up.” Happiness makes our spirits “rise”; we feel “uplifted.” Joy, hope, inspiration — all these feelings of exaltation lift us up, they enlarge us, they carry us beyond ourselves, they may even move us to ecstasy, which literally means “ex-stasis,” out of a static place.
Is it possible that our moments of joy, our own experiences of feeling inspired or lifted up, are hints of Christ’s ascension, moments when we are aware that we are part of a great circulation of love that is always going on between heaven and earth? For that is the great love story that we find in the Bible: God so overflows with love for God’s creation that — to use the familiar imagery — God in Christ descends among us, descends into our depths and finally into death itself, and then God in Christ gathers up all that he is and all that we are, and carries everything back to the Father, the Creator of all.
That, to me, is one message of the ascension: we can trust our moments of joy, we can notice and value those moments of being uplifted by what is beautiful or noble or pure, or by the sheer exuberant creativity of life, because in those moments our hearts are rising with Christ to give thanks to the One who loved us into being. And when we feel no joy at all, when we are in a time of sorrow or confusion or pain, we can trust that because of the ascension, all that is in us — our cares and concerns, our needs and our loves — have been taken up with Jesus to be drawn into the heart of God. Through Christ’s incarnation, God came down among us and became one of us, and through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ bore everything back up to God.
The ascension also means that we can have a living relationship with Jesus. After the ascension, the life of Jesus Christ can never again be limited to one spot or identified with only one moment in history. Because of the resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ is not far off, a man who lived — as fairy-tales say — long ago and far away. Instead he is radically present to us, intimately close. As St. Augustine once put it, “Jesus ascended into heaven so that we might return to our hearts and there find him.”
Thanks to the ascension, we can also speak not only of an inner Christ, the Christ that lives within us, but also of a cosmic Christ. The ascension means that Christ is everywhere, beyond us, around us, within everything that exists. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” [Eph 4:10]. Because of the ascension we encounter a Christ whose living presence infuses all of creation, permeating everything with his life.
It can be tempting to think that we’ll run into Christ only in predictable places – only in church, maybe, or only in passages of Scripture, or only in the sacraments. Yes, we do meet Christ here, but not only here, not only in the places we expect. As Luke makes clear in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts, the risen and ascended Christ can also meet us where we least expect it. This week I did something I’ve never done before: I put Luke’s story of the resurrection side by side with his story of the ascension and compared the two accounts. I was surprised by their similarities. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the women can’t find Jesus when they go looking for him in the tomb. “Suddenly,” says Luke, along come “two men in dazzling clothes” who stand beside the women and ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” [Luke 24:5]. In Luke’s account of the ascension, the disciples can’t find Jesus when they go looking for him in the sky. “Suddenly,” says Luke, along come “two men in white robes” who stand by the men and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” [Acts 1:11].
It seems that men and women alike need a couple of heavenly messengers to prod them with a question that helps them see that from now on, they’re not going to find Christ in some limited, predictable place. The living Christ simply can’t be confined, whether in a tomb below or in the heavens above. The living Christ now fills all things. We look around and find him in the secret places of our own hearts, in the faces of the poor, in the trees bursting into bloom and leaf, and the ferns unfolding their tiny green fists. We look around and find him in laughter and multi-colored ribbons on a city street, in the embrace of friends, in every truthful and loving word, in every act of kindness. We look around and find him in each other’s faces, in the bread and wine that we share at the altar, in the hope that inspires us to restore our building stone by stone and to create a space that praises God.
You know as well as I do how much suffering there is in life, how much loneliness and sorrow. You know how daunting the problems that we human beings face, from war to global warming, and how hard it can be just to live a single day wisely and well, much less to “change the future.” Will we have faith and strength to face life’s challenges in a creative way? Will we rise to the occasion? If we do, it will be through the One whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. It will be through the One who lived, died, and rose for us. When the celebrant calls out, “Lift up your hearts” we have the joy – and great privilege – of calling back in reply, “We lift them to the Lord.”