The Ascension: a holy and joyful Mystery

7 Easter 2011-6-5

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Today we at St. Paul’s have a Sunday morning packed with significance.

We will Celebrate the passage to manhood of Matthew Robinson, Liam Mora, and Johnny Dye in the Rite 13 ceremony later this morning, recommitting ourselves to support them and their parents in their journey.

We recognize graduating seniors from high school and college.

We are inviting you to participate with us under the direction of our Discernment Task Force in seeking the will of God for St. Paul’s with respect to our witness for the power and love of Jesus Christ in our community of Bellingham and beyond.

All this is happening in today’s liturgy, in which we celebrate a holy and glorious mystery; the Ascension of Jesus to heaven.

This mystery is displayed in our Ascension stained glass window in the south transept, a description of which is in today's bulletin.

We won't appreciate this mystery if we dwell on the seeming impossibility of the scene just laid out for us in Scripture and in this window. We are modern people and we know people don’t just go ascending bodily into the clouds, don’t we? Or do we? What I'm hearing about physical reality these days makes we wonder! I don't really know: I wasn't there.

This is one of those Scipture stories that some modern people simply scoff at. But if we join them we miss the opportunity for Scripture to read our lives and deeply challenge us about who we are, where our allegiance lies, and how we live. The Ascension of Jesus so challenges us while giving us great hope.

However we look at the miraculous element of this story, I hope we do entertain in our holy imagination what it means.

What the Ascension means to me is that Jesus’ compassion and self-giving love reigns wherever ultimate decisions are made about the universe and its inhabitants. The writer of Acts of the Apostles wants us to know this.

The Ascension is a powerful sign of the mystery told us in John’s Gospel, in which Jesus in his prayer acknowledges the gift given him by God of “authority ...to give eternal life….”

We know from looking at Jesus what eternal life is. It is to live humbly and gratefully with the gift and miracle of life, and to live not for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again. It is to live for our Creator and for all other beings whom our Creator gives us as companions in this marvelous universe and world. Eternal life is the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who lived in Jesus and animated him.

I went to see the film “I Am” at the Pickford this week. Hollywood comedic movie director Tom Shadyac tells the story of his post-concussion syndrome; a terrible night of serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and long suffering before recovery. The result was an awakening to the gift and miracle of life; the kind of experience Richard Rohr has called “a falling upward.”

Shadyac, when he recovered sufficiently, set off on a quest will a small film crew to find answers to two questions: “What’s wrong with our world, and what can we do about it?”

I had to wait to the end of the movie to know why the title: “I Am”. Shadyac explains.

G.K. Chesterton recounts in his book “Orthodoxy” his response to a request of the Times of London for several authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton wrote a short response in the form of a two-word letter:

Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.

That is the point of Shadyac's story, and why he chose “I am” as the title. He realized that he himself was what was wrong with the world, and that he was being called to live into being what's right with the world.

The Ascension of Jesus poses a similar question to me this week. “What’s right with the world?” Jesus is what’s right with the world, and furthermore, he reigns, and he gives the gift of eternal life.

The powers we fear don’t reign. Al Qaeda doesn’t reign. The powers of greed institutionalized in the financial sector don’t reign. The power of corrupt and self-glorifying celebrity does not reign. The daily ubiquity of media-generated outrage and sensationalism does not reign. These powers eventually fall under their own weight of pretension, to be replaced by others.

None of the earthly powers we may embrace ultimately reign either, including the British Empire or the United States of America. The United States lasts as long as it can be great in pursuing its best ideals, which were shaped at least in part by Christian faith.

The mystery of the Ascension tells us that the simple compassion of Jesus reigns, and fills all things, and is found everywhere, and will last. The simple compassion of Jesus sits in judgment in heavenly places over our human stupidity and failure, and does so compassionately but firmly.

Scripture speaks of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God”, and what this means is that the kind of power God employs in the world is the kind of gracious power we see in Jesus.

No Muslim must fear the reign of Jesus, or no Buddhist, despite what Jesus supposed followers do to turn his reign into Christian triumphalism. Jesus reigns with a justice and compassion that is far beyond the faltering imagination of we his followers.

The Ascension reminds us that we must embrace the reign of Jesus in all his compassion, or face the consequences. The Ascension calls us to pay attention.

Those disciples who saw glorious mystery stood looking gape-jawed into the skies for a long time after they saw Jesus ascend. The angelic visitors had to draw their attention earthward and to the the expectation that God would reveal the next step to them.

Why do you stand looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

The disciples, reminded that they had been commissioned to bear witness to Jesus, rejoined their community and awaited in prayer what God would reveal.

In our own time, I find myself looking this way and that with many distractions, when the most important thing is God’s call in my life. God's call is known in the eternal life displayed in Jesus' compassionate life. This is the life “that really is life”, as Scripture says elsewhere.

Eternal life is our calling whether graduating and seeking the next step, or discerning what God wants St. Paul’s to be doing in our neighborhood and town, or supporting Matthew, Liam, and Johnny and their parents as they become men.

The Ascension tells us that Jesus represents all that is right with the world, and that God means to set the world right according to the pattern of Jesus' compassionate reign.

And as Tom Shadyac’s movie affirms, I'm what's wrong with the world, and that I'm called and equipped to become what's right with the world.

image: The Ascension of Our Lord, Russian icon from the Malo-Kirillov Monastery, Novgorod School, 1543 by Novgorod School, (16th century). Museum of Art, Novgorod.