SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THURSDAY, MAY 14, 2015, ASCENSION DAY
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when it’s been more important for a Christian to understand and be able to articulate the Christian faith clearly, reasonably, with some grace.
You may know: Monday of this week, the 2015 Pew Research study on religion in America came out. It’s 200 pages long, so I haven’t read nearly 1 all of it, but the numbers are pretty clear:
Now, this is a sermon, not a TED talk - but I want you to know I’ve got numbers for my opening statement tonight:
I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when it’s been more important to be able to understand and articulate the Christian faith clearly, reasonably, with grace.
The problem is: A lot of us are pretty ill-prepared for the task. Ask a Christian “What does the Incarnation mean?” and you’ll probably get Christmas, a story about God becoming a human baby. Ask about the Trinity and you’ll get a decent (albeit always partially heretical) definition of one God, three persons. But all bets are off when we get to the Ascension.
“Wait - Jesus did what now?”
We can regurgitate the creed: “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father” - but why did he ascend? What did it mean? What’s it mean now?
Ascension is not just a convenient place between Easter and Pentecost to stick a party. In an increasingly post-Christian, pluralist, secular society, it’s more important than ever for us to understand our faith — maybe especially the Ascension — because because of its centrality to the Christian faith, and its wide-reaching implications. Tonight, we have time just to touch on 3 of those implications: What the Ascension means for (1) your work; (2) our witness; and (3) the world.
The Ascension & Work
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. (Luke 24.50-52)
Maybe the most troublesome and problematic piece of equipment for the job of a priest is also also one of the most useful and convenient: The collar. I can’t count the times someone stopped me on the street for a prayer or a blessing or for theological speculation about whatever’s on their mind. That’s the upside of the collar; the downside is it breeds a sort of a “creeping clericalism.” The suspicion that the person with the collar does the ministry; that’s sacred work; everything else is secular.
If the Ascension happened, though, that couldn’t farther from the truth, because the Ascension isn’t about absence, it’s about presence. It’s about where Jesus is, not where he’s not. Listen to this:
When the Son of God “became flesh,” he became fully human. Besides being vulnerable, subject to injury and death, he had the limitations of being confined to one place in time and space . . . . But at the ascension Jesus leaves the spacetime continuum and passes into the presence of the Father [and] any time-space limitation to his work passes away. You no longer have to go to a single geographical location in order to receive his ministry. He’s still doing all the things he did before, but now, after the ascension, he’s doing them with access to anyone in any place and all at once. The ascension doesn’t mean the loss of his intimacy, his leadership, and his advocacy; it means the magnification and infinite availability of all of these . . . . Jesus is now (from heaven) “actively engaged in the continuation of his mediatorial work” all across the globe. 
Here’s my point: It’s not about the collar. The priest’s work in the world isn’t more sacred than your work in the world. Just look at the collect for today: “God, whose blessed son ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things; Mercifully give us faith to perceive that he abideth with his church on earth.” The church - the whole church, clergy and laity - Jesus lives in us all. So wherever you go, he goes. The job you do, he does. His work in the world is our work in the world - All of us, loving our neighbors, serving the world, all for the sake and in the name of our ascended Lord.
So what about The Ascension & Witness?
Remember that St. Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles - and he ends one volume with the story of the Ascension, then starts the next volume with the same story. That’s how important this is to Luke. From his gospel: Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. Then from Acts: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Two books, two Ascension accounts, two times Jesus is talking about the same thing: Power. And not just any power - Power to be witnesses. That’s the real puzzling thing about the first 8 chapters of Acts. Here in Acts chapter 1, verse 8, Jesus said “You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But when we get all the way from Acts 1.8 to Acts 8.1, it says this: “There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem . . . .” Do you see? Jesus sent them to Jerusalem and beyond, to the ends of the earth, and they’re still in Jerusalem. They haven’t gone anywhere yet!
Why is that puzzling? When Jesus ascended, he didn’t leave a great body of writing behind him; he didn’t leave books, he left witnesses. And witnesses don’t stay in one place; they’re on the move. All this up here at the front of the church tonight - it’s great. The music, the pageantry, the joy of being together to celebrate this pivotal feast in the life of the church. We come here to tell our stories, to be fed at the altar, to remember who we are. But we can’t stay here. That’s not what witnesses do. And the Ascension means that when we go out into our own Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth we know, we don’t go in our own strength and power. He ascended so he could send the Holy Spirit to give us power to be the witnesses he calls us to be.
Lastly: The Ascension & the World
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
What does the Ascension mean for the world? In a word: Hope. When Christianity is losing marketshare, when people doubt our claims and think Christianity has nothing they need, the Ascension can give them something no other religion or philosophy of life can give them: Hope.
What they see in the paper and on the news - almost everybody longs for a better world (I challenge you to show me someone who doesn’t). But the Ascension says the bad news all around us is not the whole story. Our hope is in the “good news,” the gospel - the news that Jesus lived and died and rose again to put the world to rights. And just as as Jesus ascended, physically and bodily and visibly, into heaven - he will come back, physically and bodily and visibly, to finish his work. So:
If that’s your neighbors’ hope, then Jesus is the only answer. He ascended into heaven, but that’s not the end of the story. He will come again.
Until he does, we’ve got work to do. Called to be witnesses, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we go into a doubting world that needs to hear our story. Why do you stand there gazing into heaven? The world is waiting . . .
Go to work.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (last visited 14 May 2015).
2) Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (New York: Dutton, 2013): 175-76.