Feast of the Ascension , Year C, 2016 – Revelation 22:12-21; John 17:20-26
“Hail the day that sees him rise!” We are celebrating today the Ascension of the Lord. And this is both a joyful and a poignant thing. On the one hand, there is glory here. Look at the woodcut on the front of your bulletin: Jesus in the divine energy of his resurrected life rising above all things, his hands raised in blessing. The glory of the rising that began on Easter finding its completion in this rising to the throne of God as the disciples bow their heads in worship and in awe. There is glory here. And yet there is also something poignant. The disciples are, after all, down below. “Lifting up his hands,“ Luke says at the end of his Gospel, “he blessed them. And while he was blessing them he left them and was carried up into heaven.” He left them. And this raises the question, why. Why does Jesus leave? Why does the rising that begins at the resurrection find its necessary completion in Jesus’ rising into heaven?
It has to do, I want to suggest, with the beauty of the earth. It has to do with the beauty of the earth, and with its terror.
Has there been a weekend more bursting with the beauty of the earth than this one? As I walked to the church one morning earlier this week the buds were out—finally!; the birds were singing and the sun was shining and there were daffodils. A little boy came out of his house and hopped down the steps, saying “Come on, Daddy, come on! Come on Daddy!” as he skipped down the sidewalk and his Dad stumbled bleary-eyed out the door behind him, on the way to school. Such life! The perfection of the morning.
The day is beautiful in this world God has made to be good. The earth is beautiful. And yet it is also so often lost. We delight in the spring, and violence rains down upon undefended neighborhoods in Aleppo. The cameras show this ancient city reduced to rubble. Here a little boy skips to school. There the children sit in the school basement and the teachers try to teach while the building shakes from the bombs that are exploding over their heads.
And this is a terror and an offense. For God is the one who says, “Let there be!” Let there be light, let there be life, let there be fish in the sea and sparrows in the air and the fat robin.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
for skies of couple-colour like a brinded cow;
for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches wings…
God is the one who in the Word speaks the world into life—life and not death.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)…
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.
Praise him. (G.M. Hopkins, Pied Beauty)
God is the one who speaks the world into life. We are the ones who are capable of turning the world into a tomb.
“I don’t know, Catherine,” Mother Tiriz says. “I don’t know. What can we do?”
And she is right. She asks the question that haunts our hearts. What can we do? How shall we love this world God has made, how shall we rejoice in its beauty; how shall we guard and keep this life that is so precious, rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim, and all the little children. This world that God so loves is not yet the place of God’s reign, and it is by our own fault. Every week we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Every week we pray this and then we go about our business in the midst of a world at war. It is not our war…and yet it is. The problem is global. It is the soul that is awry, every individual soul that does not know how to do God’s will, that no longer hears in the inner ear the life-giving word of the Lord. It is every individual soul and all the souls together; it is a world willy-nilly—because often we wish and we do not wish the destruction that we wreak on ourselves and on each other—a world willy-nilly gone astray. It is a world turned away from the reign of God, a world wielding power without the Word, so that this world’s reign is a horror.
And it is precisely to this world that the Ascension speaks. Look again at the woodcut on the front of the bulletin. What do you see on Jesus’ feet? Jesus rises to the throne of God with nail-marks in his feet. Look at the shape of his rising. His body carries the shape of the cross. Jesus rises now into heaven as he rose first on the cross. Jesus rises into heaven with the world on his back, this world that is so lost. Jesus rises as the one who first came down—who came down here, where we are, in the beauty of the spring and in the evil that we do, pit and panic and fire. He was made for a little while lower than the angels, Hebrews says of Jesus, Jesus who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, through whom also God made the ages.
It is a great mystery. What is man that you should be mindful of him? the psalmist asks his God. Look at the harm people do. Look what we have done to the beauty of the earth and to the children. Look what we are still doing. We are mired in death. By rights we deserve the death that awaits us. And God is righteous.
And yet, he does not leave us alone. God’s righteousness, it turns out, cannot be separated from God’s love.
For God so loved the world: If we will not turn to him, he will come to us.
In Christ Jesus he comes to us where we are, in the joy of the spring and the agony of the bombs, in these bodies beautiful and broken. He comes to us in the body, so that in the body he might lift us up. This is the hope we know in the rising that happens at Easter and in the Ascension.
And it is a hope that begins on Good Friday. It is in the body that Christ has lived with us and died for us. All the harm of the world and its consequences he has suffered on his body. And in his body he has been raised. In his body he rises now, to the throne of God. This is the righteousness of God, not just that the world might see the glory of the God from whom it has turned away—and tremble–but that it might be healed. That as Christ has come down to us, we might rise with him. The Ascension is the end of the rising that begins not just at Easter but on the cross.
The leaving is necessary. It is the hope of the world. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says to his disciples in John’s Gospel. I go so that “where I am, you may be also”: where I am, drawn into the reign of God. Even we, weighed down by our persistent sin, our distance from God. Even this world, violent and beautiful. Jesus rises so that the world may rise with him, into the glory of God, into God’s peace.
“The glory which you have given me I have given to them,” Jesus says to his disciples in John’s Gospel. If the leaving is necessary, nevertheless Jesus does not leave us on this Ascension Day alone. He leaves us already, right here where we are, as we await our final rising, with a share in his glory. And the glory looks like peace. “That they may be one as we are one,” Jesus prays, “that they may be one: I in them and they in me, that they may be perfectly one.”
The glory of the church in the wake of Ascension Day is the unity of the church.
It is a peace that has the purpose of witness. That they may be one as we are one, so that the world may know that you loved them, just as you loved me. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the unity of the church. Jesus calls us to be the church at peace, so that we may tell all the peoples, the lost and suffering nations, how God has loved us. That they may be one as we are one, “so that the world may know that you sent me, and you loved them just as you loved me.”
Little children, let us love one another…as God has loved us.