Let us review a bare outline of the life of Jesus: God becomes incarnate in Jesus. He gathers disciples and teaches and performs signs and wonders that show us who God is. Jesus dies a horrible shameful death. Jesus rises. Jesus appears to his disciples in many mysterious ways, entering locked rooms, manifesting himself in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus, cooking a breakfast of fish over a crackling fire at the edge of the sea of Tiberias. And then Jesus ascends into heaven, promising to return one day and to send the Spirit to fill his disciples in the interim. What an interesting form of closure, if we can call it that, for the Resurrection narrative.
He doesn’t just stop appearing to them. Jesus doesn’t fade away. He tells them specifically that he is going to the right hand of the Father, and will be sending them his Spirit. There is an emphasis, a strange, puzzling, awkward emphasis, on his departure. Jesus has never had the need to leave this way before, in the days after the Resurrection. He has just disappeared when he wants to. Luke 24:30-31: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.” I don’t know where he was after the Resurrection when he wasn’t appearing to the disciples, do you? I’m not even sure what I mean by that question. The scriptures don’t bring it up. It’s not a scriptural question. But this particular departure, this Ascension, is somehow different than those ones were. It’s embarrassingly explicit. They have to see him leave, in his resurrected flesh, going to a physical place, I guess, that is heaven, Up There.
And so we are left today having to wonder why we are being asked to take note of this explicit departure from the disciples. We are in fact left to try to celebrate this departure, in all its awkward physicality. The church asks us to gather and celebrate it, as we did so gloriously on Ascension Thursday. And then the readings return us to that same moment again today, on this seventh Sunday of Easter. There is no turning away from the strangeness of this moment. The church won’t allow that. We can’t just miss Ascension Thursday and somehow excise its challenging awkwardness from our lives of faith. The Ascension comes back, presents itself again, claims its place in our awareness. Pay attention, our tradition tells us. Pay attention to this departure.
And I have to say, it won’t do for us to give Jesus’s ascension some kind of begrudging acknowledgment. There is no “tolerating” the Ascension as a charming bit of Christian lore. There is no half-measure for us here. We belong to a faith that insists that Jesus had to be lifted up into the sky. And we are challenged to greet that fact with true joy. Not bemusement.
Can we do this? Can we be twenty-first century Philadelphians who rejoice that our Lord has ascended into heaven? I think we can, despite what we like to think of as our immense sophistication and worldliness. And in fact, since the truth we celebrate this morning is so literally over the top, let me go over the top myself, and make a radical claim: celebrating the Ascension is the most modern thing we can do.
This, my friends, is the feast (or more properly the Sunday after the feast) of the absolute limit of our understanding. This morning marks the limit of our ability to make Jesus into something familiar. The story has gone off the rails. It’s the end of our ability to normalize God. It’s the end of our ability to keep Jesus within the confines of our own imaginations. This is the Glory of the Lord, from before all time, and this Lord cannot be close to us without also being profoundly strange to us.
That means that the Ascension is also the end of our ability to make God over in our own image. And there is great hope in that. Accepting the Ascension means accepting that we cannot exploit God for our own purposes and our own theories. God will not be available to confirm our good sense or our social acceptability or our fitness for promotion. God is strange. Jesus is immensely, wonderfully, kindly, strange, and we too are strange for loving him, believing that he loves us first. We are wonderfully strange. Let it sink in. We are socially irredeemable. Our gathering here this morning to hear these scriptures and then to eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus, our being filled with the Spirit, makes us frankly bizarre.
And so, drawn by the grace of God, our gathering here this morning makes us free. It makes us open to mystery that is beyond what we think mystery is. Open to life beyond the horizon. It’s a sign of our God-given fearlessness as followers of Jesus. Let him go! Alleluia! Or as we used to say in California, “Shine on you crazy diamond.”
Let Jesus ascend. Let him fly up there, into the clouds. Let God go up with a mighty noise and a famous pair of sandals dangling from the clouds. Rejoice in his freedom. Let him elude our grasp. Be grateful that he eludes our grasp. Let him go beyond anything you can imagine: free, wild, untamed, so beautiful. Our creator and redeemer. So close to us, so entirely within us and for us, that we are free to love him with open hands as perhaps we can love nothing and no one else. No grasping. No fear at this moment. Just now, caught up in love, we are free in the image of our God.
This is the freedom we need to be able to love this wild, untamed world. Nothing else will do. Look around you. God’s creation, God’s people—it’s not what we would have expected, is it? The story of our lives together takes turns we cannot fathom. The world is perpetually resistant to being made over into something we can grasp. This God with the dangling sandals is the God we need to be able to love the world in its 2017 edition. This is the source of love for us, of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control: the fruits of the Spirit that Jesus will send. Learning to rejoice in this God means learning to love the world and participate in it and work for healing and forgiveness without demanding that the world conform to our expectations. This is how forgiveness becomes real for us.
Every person you know needs this kind of love. Your children, your parents, your coworkers. You yourself require it. We all do. Human history needs to be held with open hands, with a kind of confidence and audacity that can only come from a God whose love is beyond our understanding. Pay attention. Pay attention to this departure. Don’t shrug it off! Know that because of this departure, Jesus is very close to you, and you are very close to the world for which he gave his life. It is a strange privilege to stand here, gazing up into heaven, wondering. May we never take this privilege in vain.
Preached by Mtr. Nora Johnson
May 28, 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia