In a moment we shall again stand together to proclaim the mystery of faith. We shall offer a great thanksgiving. Responsively, we shall offer the Lord’s presence to one another. Responsively, we shall encourage one another to lift our hearts to the Lord. Responsively, we shall recall the right goodness, the good rightness of great thanksgiving. Friends, we are rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing.
Our Lord’s ascent(c)invites our assent(s).
The gospel is rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing, even as it is read and spoken in order to root us and ground us in love. St. Luke, the author of the reading for today, has every intention of bonding us to the long parade of women and men who lived with happy hearts, in joyful blessing and great thanksgiving. Our Sunday service of ordered worship has its own roots deep in the past, carrying us in memory all the way back into the first century. You come from people who were thankful people, joyfully praising God. They give us a clear example, these earlier witnesses, of a balanced faith, a faith honest to God about sin, death and meaninglessness, but a faith yet confident, joyful and thankful in life. Luke ends his first book, the gospel, and as he starts his second, the Acts, with a hymn to ascent.
Now we may pause a moment to be grateful for the form of Luke’s message. He does believe in doing things decently and in order. Luke provides, by his own assessment, dear Theophilus, an orderly account. It is his view that the words of the Old Testament in law and prophets and psalms, when written of the Christ, are fulfilled in an orderly account of the life of Christ. It is Luke’s further view that Christ opens minds to understand Scripture. Luke makes plain the prediction, embedded in a right reading of inherited Scripture, of cross and resurrection and repentance and forgiveness and the preaching of all the above. It is his understanding that disciples are thus witnesses of all these things. They will be blessed as they bear witness. We will be blessed as we bear witness. You will be blessed as you bear witness. His ascent invites your assent. Luke’s gospel ends with our reading today, an orderly ending to a well ordered gospel. Jesus blesses and leaves. The disciples give thanks and stay.
Some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of this passage say simply, ‘he blessed them and parted from them’. Others read, ‘he blessed them and parted from them and was carried up into heaven’. It is not clear, at least to this interpreter, which reading is stronger, which more probably original. Yet it is significant, at least to this interpreter, to see and know that more than one version of this passage exists. The addition, if it was a later addition, of ‘was carried up into heaven’, makes this passage a suitable and qualified Ascension passage, unmistakably congruent to the account in Acts 1. Luke’s penchant for the orderly may have inspired a follower of his to do likewise, and clean up one aspect of the conclusion to the gospel. To Luke it mattered to put things in order, to get things right. His spiritual descendents may have had the same passion. The true desire to get things right reveals, makes naked, a sense of joyful blessing. A passion for true goodness, good beauty, beautiful truth, in life, work, politics, music, art, architecture, religion, hospitality and friendship reveals, unclothes, such a spirit.
We are thankful for Luke’s orderly account. We may be a bit mystified by the mythic account of Ascension. We may be less than certain of the meaning of such symbolic imagery in our own time. But we can be utterly confident about the effect of Ascension, on our forebears, and so on us. The religious consequence of the Luke’s conclusion to the Gospel is and invitation to lead a new life.
For all the dimness of creation, of the created order and the history within it, for all the trouble in life, in the gift of life and the history that comes with it, for all the fracture in body, in the body of Christ and the history that comes with it, still, at Ascension, there is hope, and promise, and life. Sometimes the gospel and we its very human interpreters need to shore up our sense of the way things have gone wrong. I suppose Lent and perhaps Advent too are markedly important seasons for emphasis upon the Fall—the way creation has somehow been loosened from the divine grasp. Other times the gospel and its very human interpreters need to short up our sense of creation as God’s creative act, in thanksgiving for what is right. Eastertide and Ascension may be such times. Today, in gospel and Eucharist, is such a day.
Such good news. After a frightfully long, old time religion winter, which seems to have ended about 40 minutes ago—today, sun, light, warmth, color, growth.
With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day. As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people. This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life. A doubt that things can change very much. A doubt that anything new could ever emerge. A doubt that people can repent and turn around. A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly. A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged. A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted. A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable. A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice. A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.
When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the Ascension gospel. Such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system
in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right,
in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced the high pressure of creation,
in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope,
in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation.
This is a pastoral problem. It is not a political conflict, it is a theological contrast. It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness. Just how balanced is your balance between creation and fall?
Our New Testament lessons are primary sources for the time, occasion, community and condition in and for which they were first written. They are secondary sources, at best, for what may have come before. Luke 24 shows us Luke, and his community, in joyful celebration of the mystery of the Lord’s ascent. At his ascent they do assent, perhaps following decades of loss, displacement, and martyrdom. Having lived through the long old time religion winter of most of the first century, and all its rigors, they acclaimed a faith in a high, divine goodness, through it all.
Others over time have done the same. At this time of year I always think of Churchill and Wesley.
These two Englishmen have something for us, this Ascension Day, June 1, 2014, after a long winter. Think of England in May 1940. Think of London in May 1738.
Winston Churchill knew something both of fall and of creation.
At the right moment, in May of 1940, Winston Churchill faced down the more polished, better heeled, more popular and more experienced old Britons of his newly formed war cabinet, and steadily led his country away from their desire to compromise with Adolf Hitler. With Belgium defeated, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With France cut in two, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With 400,000 men stranded at Dunkirk and escape virtually impossible, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With the whole German air force poised to incinerate England’s green and pleasant land, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. With Lord Halifax ready to seek terms, and Lord Chamberlain ready to let him, Churchill clung to a love of freedom. Re-read this summer John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940. He concludes: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War. In the end, America and Russian did. But in May 1940 Churchill (alone) was the one who did not lose it.” Ascension faith is about love of freedom. In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.
John Wesley knew something both of fall and of creation.
At midlife, one enchanting night in May of 1738, John Wesley heard something said in church that warmed his heart for good. He had been on Aldersgate street that Sunday evening, going to chapel service more from duty than from passion, when he heard a preacher read Romans 8 and also Martin Luther’s commentary on that passage. There is something so fragrant and so full about damp London in the springtime. As he left church, Wesley felt something new, a freeing love in the heart, which is the creation and work of the Holy Spirit, which blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it. Ascension faith is about freeing love. In his ascent we find the courage for our own assent.
There are for sure a lot of things wrong. But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right. Hear the good news. The gospel concludes with joy. You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks. “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck). As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our own look over Jordan, it is this joyful thanksgiving, which carries us.
The communion homily today is an altar call for you. And the path toward the communion rail is our own sawdust trail. I propose that you come to communion, ready to accept the gift of faith, to give assent in the hour of dominical ascent. So come, to experience freeing love. So come, to receive a love of freedom. So come, to give thanks for the freedom to love. Such is the gift of ascent upon this Lord’s day. So come, on the feast of the Lord’s ascent, ready and willing, joyful and happy to assent to a new life of faith, hope and love.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel