Ascension Day — 25 May 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 93 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20b]
When we think of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ – (I don’t know how often you actually think about the Ascension of Christ, apart from on Ascension Day, but, after all, we do refer to it every time we say the Creed – “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father” – and so presumably you do occasionally think about the Ascension of Christ, at least briefly!) – what comes to our minds? Well, a lot of the time, I suspect, maybe first of all, is this story that St. Luke tells us today. In fact, Luke tells this story twice. We hear his second telling in the first reading today, from the first chapter of his second book, that we call the Acts of the Apostles; and then we hear Luke’s first telling, from the 24th chapter of his Gospel. They are mostly, but not exactly, the same story.
The major difference between them is that the first, Gospel, story, apparently takes place at the end of Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection. (A very very long day, if you actually set a clock running on the events in Chapter 24!) The second story, at the beginning of Acts, takes place 40 days later. (“40 days” is always a symbolic number in the Scriptures, whatever the chronological reality behind it may be.) I hope you are not distressed by this discrepancy. You should not be. Unimaginative literalism is an illegitimate child of the Enlightenment, not of the Christian tradition itself. St. Luke was, or at least was functioning as, a Hellenistic historian, and in the Greco-Roman world historians understood their task as to explicate the meaning of events, at least their understanding of the meaning of events, not to provide a CNN transcript. This is true of all of them – Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Suetonius, all that crowd – including the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. On a spectrum of historical writers we would put them somewhere between Doris Kearns Goodwin [Team of Rivals, a history of Abraham Lincoln, presidency] and Hilary Mantel [Wolf Hall, a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII]. Probably closer to Ms. Mantel. But I digress.
There are a number of references in the New Testament, direct and indirect, to the ascension of the risen Christ into heaven, where he reigns – as for instance in the Epistle from Ephesians today. But St. Luke is the only one who provides a narrative, a story. This suggests to me that the narrative is not the essence of the reality of the Ascension, despite the fact that this narrative so readily captures our imagination, which is probably why Luke uses it. Luke likes to tell stories. (We get most of our favorite parables through Luke.) And after all, this narrative gives us “Toes.” (Ah, you don’t remember. Just as well.)
The problem with the narrative is that it seems often to imply, although I don’t think this is what St. Luke intends, that now Jesus is gone. Yes, Jesus will come again, but as it turns out, his coming again is not any time soon (at least not so far!), although some Christian sects have spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for him, and other sects have wasted an immense amount of energy trying to decipher from misinterpreted Scriptural passages just when that coming is going to happen. But the bottom line of all this is that we operate on the assumption that Jesus is not here. And that is absolutely not what we celebrate on Ascension Day.
“But isn’t Jesus in heaven?” Yes!
“And so he’s not here.” No!
That raises the question of the relationship of earth to heaven, which is another homily, or another lecture series, or another book, for another time. And still another question for another time is what we mean when we profess our faith that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The important thing, I think, and the bottom line for today, is that Jesus is not somewhere else. And certainly not long ago and far away, in first-century Judea or wherever. Heaven is not somewhere else. Heaven is here. Jesus is here. St. Matthew concludes his Gospel by telling it right: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”