Ascension Sunday, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Isolation
ACTS 1:1-11; PSALM 47; EPHESIANS 1:15-23; LUKE 24:44-53
There’s something about the lectionary that I’ve found valuable in this season, much in the way the Psalms have been valuable. For Bonhoeffer, in the Psalms we encounter emotions, and expressions of feeling, that don’t always match the current state of our interior life. Bonhoeffer calls it “praying against our hearts.”
And so in a time of isolation, for example, if we are the sort of person who always wants to keep a cheery disposition, we are asked, in a lament, to recognise where we may truly be, but have a hard time seeing: in a place of mourning.
And it works the other way too, for those of us like me, whose natural interior state tends toward melancholy. To pray against our hearts with the Psalms, as we do in our appointed Psalm for Ascension—we are asked, no matter our interior disposition, to “Sing praises to God.”
The Lectionary, and the seasons and feasts of the church year, do something similar. Left to our own devices some of us might spend every Sunday as if it were Good Friday; and others of us might spend our Good Fridays as though they were Easter. If the Psalms ask us to pray against our hearts, the feasts and fasts of the church year ask us to worship against our hearts.
We’ve done this all through Easter, and I hope its been a good exercise in faith for you—to spend the last six weeks or so worshipping a resurrected Jesus, even if, for some of us, it has hardly felt like a season of new life.
(It brings to mind the commendation we say at funerals, funerals being a time when we are coming face-to-face with our mortality: even in a time of mourning, we are asked to say: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”)
That is, no matter the season of our lives, whether it be a time of joy or sorrow, a season of survival or a time of thriving and the abundance of life, the calendar guides us and asks us to understand those seasons and times according to the wholeness of what God has accomplished for us: becoming human that we might come closer to God, ransoming us through death on the cross, and bringing us to life again in the resurrection. Rather than understanding the mighty acts of God according to our own passing dispositions in life, its our lives are understood according to the completeness of God’s mighty work on our behalf.
And so we worship against our hearts sometimes, getting important reminders that God’s life, and God’s work for us in Jesus, is a greater thing than our own hearts might lead us to imagine, in any passing moment.
The Ascension is one of my own favoured feasts of the church year. And I’d encourage you to not pay too much attention to the naysayers—it was fashionable at one time to mock this feast, to joke about precisely where in the solar system Jesus would be, travelling at the speed he would have been travelling that day. Not quite yet at Jupiter, if I remember correctly.
To mock the Ascension in this sort of way misses the point, or at least what most Christians through the centuries have taken as what’s important about the ascension. And what’s important is not Jesus’s air-speed velocity. We are reminded of what’s important about the ascension in the collect of the day: that “Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord.”
The creeds refer to this in a slightly different way—both the Apostle’s and the Nicene creed say that Jesus “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Being “seated at the right hand of the Father” refers to the place from where Jesus reigns, the place from where Jesus rules over the nations of the world.
The Eucharistic Preface for Ascension puts all these pieces together when it says that Jesus, in the sight of the disciples, “ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory.” Here Jesus ascends not just to rule at the side of the Father, but to “prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be.” The ascension, then, is about more than Jesus’s reign. Our destiny in Christ’s ascension—alongside the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection—is a mighty act of God where God accomplishes something for us. In the Ascension, Jesus secures our ultimate destiny—a destiny of being with him, and as such, of sharing Jesus’s life with the Father.
Where the Ascension hits home for me, today, is that again, I feel as though I’m asked to worship against my heart. What exactly does it mean, today, to say that Jesus has ascended to “rule over all things as Lord”? Is this what the Reign of God looks like? Staying inside? A deadly virus causing all sorts of suffering, whether that be the exhaustion of personal care workers, the fraying mental health of most of us, and a sickness that has set itself against the elderly and the vulnerable?
What exactly does it mean to say, today, “where [Jesus] is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory,” when I myself am more accustomed to feelings of powerlessness, unable to change the behaviour of that guy who will neither wear a mask nor give me enough room on the sidewalk, let alone influence the progression of a worldwide pandemic?
But this isn’t the most profitable way of understanding the Lordship of Christ in his ascension. The truth of the Lordship of Christ is that no matter our failings, or even the natural world’s rebellion against a God who made the world good, is that neither of these things—our rebellion, or creation’s rebellion—will change the ultimate outcome of the story. Every knee will bow. And the trees of the field will clap their hands. There is no rebellion that cannot be overcome by the loving reign of Christ—a reign of mercy, a reign of kindness, a reign of truth.
What we do still matters. We can and do hurt others in significant ways. And the rebellion of the natural world will carry on for now, and it will have real consequences for our lives. But no rebellion against the goodness of God will be ultimately victorious.
Instead, the ascension—the reminder that our Lord now sits now at the right hand of the Father—describes our ultimate end, and indeed, the ultimate end of all creation: all our petty and perverse resistances will be overcome in the peace of the Lord, and in the reign of God. Where Jesus is now, is where we will be, and the whole natural world with us: redeemed, and brought into right and good and true relationship with God.
The victory is his, and will be ours—and all things, ultimately, will be made well in his victory, and in his rule over all of this. May we live in that hope. AMEN.