Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP, adapted)
A few weeks ago, my grandmother and I went out to dinner. Over our meal, I asked her to tell me some stories about her childhood, particularly her memories from during World War II. She was preteen to teenaged at the time, and she recalls the rationing, the young men going off to war, the victory gardens and the celebrations when it all finally ended.
But what struck me was her clear memory of the meaning of a late-night knock on the door during those years. Her father, my great-grandfather, Charles Stevens, was one of the first flying chaplains in World War I. During World War II, he served as the pastor of Salem Baptist Church here in Winston-Salem.
Because of his pastoral presence and his experience in the military, he was frequently called upon to go along to death notifications. My grandmother said that during the war, anytime there was a knock on the door late at night, she knew some young man in the community had been killed. She would sneak to the top of the stairs to listen. She told me she had had a crush on an older boy in the neighborhood, that he looked so good in his uniform. She cried the night she heard his name spoken at her front door.
Before the ascension, the disciples may have been primed to expect something to happen. The traditional site of the ascension is the Mount of Olives, which is more than 2500 feet above sea level. Anytime Jesus went up on a mountain, something significant happened. The disciples may have responded to a hike with their teacher with the same attentiveness with which my grandmother responded to a late-night knock on the door.
For an example of a high-altitude happening, the Sermon on the Mount was, of course, delivered at a relatively high elevation. One uphill trek that Jesus took ended in a series of miraculous healings. Jesus called the disciples from on top of a mountain, and both the Transfiguration and the Great Commission occurred on one. And Jesus seems to have favored high places for prayer and preparation. As they ascended the Mount of Olives, I imagine the disciples speculating about what memorable experience they were about to have.
But the most recent thing that had happened on a hill was a truly terrible thing: the crucifixion. At one time, going up on a mountain may have been cause for excitement; but now, I wonder whether the disciples felt some of the trepidation that my grandmother remembers associating with a knock on the door in wartime.
It’s hard to say whether what happened on the Mount of Olives that day was good or bad. It was a miraculous, unforgettable confirmation of Jesus’ divinity; but it was also him leaving his friends behind yet again.
It reminds me of the semester I spent working at Duke Hospital as a chaplain intern in seminary. I was assigned to the pediatric ward. It was gut-wrenching work to be on that floor, but that only made it more exciting when someone got to go home from the hospital. Discharges in pediatrics were a true celebration: the staff lined the halls cheering and blowing bubbles as the patient left to go home, sometimes after months and months of hospitalization.
But I remember the first time I saw one of those children we had sent off with such fanfare be readmitted to the hospital. It was such a disappointment. It cast a shadow over my happy memory of the discharge.
The disciples celebrated when they realized Jesus truly had risen from the dead. But did his second departure leave them as disappointed as I was when I saw that child’s name back on the patient list? As amazing as the ascension surely was, we could forgive the disciples for being a little more hesitant to cheer and blow bubbles.
When I told my internship advisor about this patient being readmitted, he reminded me something that he would say to me many times that semester: Lazarus died again. We don’t think about that part—we just hear the happy story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. But he didn’t come back to life forever. He eventually died a second time, and Mary and Martha had to grieve all over again.
My sermon title for today is “Don’t Just Stand There!” And I’ll get to that. But sometimes we need to just stand there for a moment. When the cancer returns; when the addict relapses; when the faith you thought had been revived crumbles under the force of life experiences and world events. The fact that we have holidays like Memorial Day is a testament to our need to just stand there sometimes. If you’ve ever stood before the Vietnam Memorial or any other war memorial, you know what it means to have no other choice but to just stand there.
It is understandable that the disciples would linger on the Mount of Olives, looking up to where Jesus had gone. They had been through the emotional whiplash of witnessing his execution and then being confronted with the resurrection. How would we expect them to respond to this second departure except by just standing there?
We can identify with the disciples’ need to stare at the place where Jesus had been before he left. Crosses by the highways and battle memorials do the same—they mark the point of departure from this world to the next.
But the disciples were also looking for the answer to a question. It was a question that Jesus, perfectly in character, had answered in such obscure terms as to leave it essentially unanswered. The question was this: “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
This question shows that they still don’t get it. After all those years on the road with their itinerant rabbi friend, after all the teachings and miracles, even after Jesus died and rose again, they still don’t get it.
Their question came in response to what the resurrected Jesus was teaching his followers. Our passage today begins with the phrase, “As a result.” As a result of what?
If we back up to the first five verses of the book of Acts, we read that Jesus had been speaking to the disciples about the kingdom of God and the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples completely skip the Holy Spirit part and latch on to the word “kingdom.” But their question shows that they’ve missed the point. They are asking about an earthly kingdom with a human king. They are asking whether Jesus is going to restore political power to the Israelites who have been occupied by the Roman Empire.
The disciples, like many Jews at the time, expected the Messiah to oust the Romans, restore the Judean monarchy and put Israel back in power. Time and time again, Jesus tried to show and tell them that his mission and message was far more expansive. But even the resurrection didn’t move the disciples beyond their earthly messianic expectations.
To understand why, we need only to look to Lazarus again. Lazarus was raised from the dead, too. To the disciples, being raised from the dead was a miracle, but it did not make you God. Even the resurrection could not open the disciples’ minds to something greater than their political goals and imperial aspirations.
When Jesus speaks of the kingdom, he is not talking about manmade empires or earthly power as we think of it. Jesus is talking about something entirely different. As if to prove his point, Jesus ascends to heaven in a move that shows him to be nothing less than divine. In the resurrection, Jesus is raised to life by God; in the ascension, Jesus is raised to glory as God.
The Ascension called the disciples to set aside their fixation on the restoration of Israel and open their minds instead to the restoration of all things. It calls us to put an end to our desperate attempts to cement earthly power and to find salvation in earthly rulers. Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote that the Ascension “refutes all attempts at setting up another government, another ‘place,’ from where orders and promises would reach us. It is the ultimate refutation of all dictatorships.”
The Ascension calls us to turn away from nation building and to turn toward kingdom building. Part of what the disciples may have been hoping for as they climbed the Mount of Olives was the establishment of Israel’s empire in place of Rome’s. But instead of ascending an earthly throne, Jesus ascends into heaven, revealing not only his glory but also an inbreaking kingdom to which no human realm could ever compare, a real and present salvation the likes of which no ruler, dictator, or political leader could ever offer.
We cannot blame the disciples for just standing there in the flood of awe and grief they must have felt. And we cannot blame them for just standing there as it dawns on them that they’ve gotten this Jesus all wrong—and that this is incredibly good news, because the truth is so much bigger and better and more powerful than they ever imagined.
We, too, might just stand there. But as in every event in Jesus’ life that took place at elevation, there comes a time when we must come down the mountain. Those listening to the Sermon on the Mount may have wished they could stay and listen to Jesus’ teachings forever—after all, he was providing lunch in the feeding of the 5,000; but Jesus wanted them to go and do what he had taught. The disciples present at the Transfiguration tried to build altars on Mount Tabor and remain there to worship, but Jesus told them they had to go back down into the valleys. And, thank God, when Jesus went up on the hill of Golgotha to be crucified, he did not stay up on that mountain, either.
“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” Jesus’ ascension is good news for the church because it means that the church gets to be the church. The church exists to worship and to be the body of Christ on earth. The Ascension creates space for us to worship and to work in Jesus’ name. This is exactly what the disciples do once they leave the Mount of Olives.
It is tempting to read the Ascension as a story of Jesus leaving us behind. But Jesus’ departure isn’t really a departure. It’s an expansion. Jesus remains with us always, just in a different way, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus going on ahead of us to heaven not only paves the way for us but also connects us to heaven.
4th century theologian Saint Augustine says this: “just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies… We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.”
Surrealist painter Salvador Dali painted a depiction of the Ascension based on a vision he had in 1950. This painting brings together two of Dali’s obsessions: Catholic mysticism and nuclear physics. Quite the odd couple. The painting shows Jesus from below, the soles of his feet front and center, his body straight as a board, his arms extended and his features hidden.
In the background are two overlapping circles; one, the realm of the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove; the other, the nucleus of an atom, vivid yellow and similar in structure to the center of a sunflower. An atom is the smallest unit of matter and a source of nuclear energy. For Dali, the vision represented Christ’s fundamental unifying power. The painting shows Jesus moving not only upward but also inward, to the essential building blocks of the created order, to the literal heart of the matter.
It is impossible to ponder nuclear physics in a work of art inspired and created in the 1950s without thinking about the atomic bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by nuclear weapons just 5 years before the vision Dali drew on for his painting. This is a sobering reminder of the destruction that is unleashed when we take atomic power into our own hands.
Dali’s painting and the Ascension remind us that while we might grasp for such power here on earth, Christ holds it already in heaven. When we stop looking to ourselves for salvation and start looking to the ascended Christ, we find that power already available to us in the form of unifying love. The Ascension expands our vision and our reality from the invisible atom to the vastness of time and space, and it calls us to act accordingly.
Malcolm Guite wrote this sonnet about the Ascension:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
“Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” Earth is part of Heaven’s story now. In the Ascension, Jesus takes us with him to the heart of things, and in his love, we can be in heaven now, today. Don’t just stand there. We are Christ’s body. We are his cloud of witnesses. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is with us, always.
Thanks be to God. Let us pray.
Grant, Almighty God, that as we do believe your Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also ascend there in heart and mind, and continually dwell with him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen. (BCP, adapted)