Homily for the Feast Day of the Ascension, May 17, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Ascending into heaven
“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him.” –Psalm 96:9
Tonight we celebrate the feast day of the ascension, the day when the disciples’ vivid encounters with the Risen Christ came to an end. For forty days after that first Easter morning, the disciples had had a series of startling, joy-filled, hands-on experiences in which they touched and talked and ate with Jesus, who was filled with and shining with a divine life that the New Testament calls “resurrection.” And then, on the feast day that we mark today, the risen Jesus withdrew from the disciples’ sight. He no longer lived bodily on earth with his disciples, but, as the story tells us, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
I’ve been pondering with some bemusement the timing of the election for the tenth bishop of New Hampshire. I don’t know how or why the decision was made to schedule the election so close to the feast day of the ascension, but in any case, here we are, praying our way toward Saturday accompanied by these images from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Using the imagery that we’ve been given, we can’t help asking ourselves, “Just as Jesus was lifted up to heaven, will Rob be raised up to New Hampshire, will he be lifted up to become a bishop? And just as Jesus withdrew from his disciples’ sight, is Rob about to withdraw from our sight and to leave for somewhere else?”
We may feel some uncertainty as we gather here tonight, and maybe some impatience or anxiety. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, and in recent weeks I know that I’ve had moments of feeling as if time had slowed to a crawl, moments of wishing that I could somehow peer ahead into the future and see what was going to happen and how things would turn out. We may not find much comfort in the imagery of the ascension, which seems to be all about Jesus going away. Going away? Who needs that? What meaning or hope can we find in Jesus’ going away, and how can his departure deepen our faith at the very moment when we are wondering whether Rob is about to go away?
Here’s what I think. From start to finish, the Bible is a love story. Scripture tells us that 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. What this means is that from now on every aspect of human life, every aspect of our selves, has been caught up in the life of God. There is nowhere we can go, nothing that we can experience, that God does not share with us. We have been drawn into the divine life of the Holy Trinity, whose loving energy circulates within us just as surely as air moves through our lungs and blood moves through our veins.
The ascension means that Jesus Christ is no longer limited to one particular place and time. Now we meet Christ everywhere. To adapt the words of St. Patrick’s breastplate: Christ is behind us and before us, above us and below us, beside us and around us. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Because of the ascension we encounter a Christ whose living presence infuses the whole creation, permeating everything with his life. And because of the ascension Christ is as close as our inmost self. As Augustine put it, “Jesus ascended into heaven so that we might return to our hearts and there find him.” God is now closer to us than we are to ourselves, the very archetype of all intimacies, and nourishing all our relationships.
There is good news in the ascension, for if God is now present in everything, if God is not bounded in time or space, if God’s love encircles and embraces and sustains all things, then we can let each other go with gratefulness and joy. Like you, I surely don’t want to say goodbye to Rob, yet if God calls him to leave, I know that God will be with us, and within and around us, above and below us, just as surely as God will continue to be with him. And if God calls Rob to stay, I know that God will be with us, and within and around us, above and below us, just as surely as God will continue to be with him. Either way, we’re all going to keep leaning on those everlasting arms!
Being elected a bishop is often associated with being lifted up, with being elevated, of enjoying a higher rank or status. But of course the God we know in Christ couldn’t care less about rank or status. God doesn’t care about prestige. The God we know in Christ is humble and lowly of heart, eager to serve and to set free. The only lifting up that God cares about is that we be lifted up in love — that we grow in love. The best reason to become a bishop is to keep growing in love. The best reason not to become a bishop is to keep growing in love. Bishop or not, priest or not, layperson or not, wherever the Spirit sends us, whatever God calls to do, what matters to God is whether we are growing in love. If Rob is elected bishop on Saturday or if he is not, what God wants most for him – and for us – won’t change. God simply wants him, and us, to grow in love wherever we are, trusting that the conditions and circumstances of our lives are the very place in which God wants God’s love to be expressed and to shine.
Last night some of us watched a video of the writer and teacher James Finley, who spent seven years as a monk under the guidance of Thomas Merton, and who eventually left the monastery to marry and to become a psychologist. Finley is a humble man, apparently without a trace of ego or self-consciousness, and in his gentle way he explained that a mystic doesn’t talk much about his or her visions and spiritual accomplishments. Instead, what a mystic says is, “Look at what love has done in my life. Look at what love has done.”
So let’s keep our eyes on love, and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, for the breath of God that Jesus breathes into his friends. The Spirit is with us tonight. It will be with us — and the good people of New Hampshire — on Saturday. And it will be with us in full glory on Pentecost, a week from Sunday.
I invite you to join me in a prayer of self-dedication that was written by Jerry May:
Loving God, do with me what You will, work in me as You will. Give me quiet or noise, peace or pain, clarity or distraction. Strip me or console me, wound me or caress me, for in my heart I am nothing but grateful for your Love. Amen.