Ascension 2016

Sermon for Ascension, Sunday, May 8 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 1:1-11, 21-26; Ps 47; Eph 1:15-23; Lk 24.44-53

It’s a curious story, the Ascension. It’s told only by the writer of Luke/Acts, and even then, although scholars believe the two books were written by the same person, he tells it in two slightly different forms, both of which we just heard. The picture of Jesus flying bodily up into a heaven imagined as more or less equivalent to outer space, the disciples watching his feet disappearing into the clouds, is a picturesque way of speaking, a vivid metaphor, more than it is any attempt at journalistic reporting or objective history, but it is an evocative image which has a good deal of value. However, it’s also an image which can, if we read it too literally, take us in some problematic directions.

What this story is trying to deal with is an experience the disciples must have struggled with; that the resurrection appearances of Jesus, at some point, stopped happening. There were no more meetings on the road to Emmaus, no more breakfasts on the shore. There was no longer the possibility of encountering the risen Christ in that strange, personal, bodily way. That there would be no more resurrection appearances did not mean, does not mean, that there is no more presence. But that presence was no longer the presence of a single body, that one human body of Jesus, that crucified and risen body with its scars. To speak of this as an ascension, to picture it as a rising up, a departure into the apparent infinity of the sky, is to look at what was, at that time, the most definite kind of away; Jesus travels in the direction the disciples are least able to go, by the means most different from our daily lives.

Perhaps if Luke were writing now, he might not choose to have Jesus go upwards, not now that the sky, and the great cosmos beyond the atmosphere, are places we can go, or at least send our mechanical proxies; they are not an absolute away any more, not places of utter difference, but an expansion of the mappable physical universe. What the metaphor needs to tell us, strives to tell us, is that the presence of Jesus has moved into a state that is quite other, quite beyond our mapping, and in some ways beyond our knowing, and in this change is not any single place, but all places.

Still, the image of ascension has a persistent grasp on our imaginations, and there are reasons for this. Perhaps the most universal and inexorable force we experience in our lives is that unavoidable downward force of gravity. We dream of escaping that force, of soaring upwards, we tell fairy tales of flight. It is part of my family legend that I spent a good part of my childhood throwing myself from high places, determined to learn how to fly. I remember that; I remember, at some point, deciding that it was somehow about maintaining an absolute stillness within myself, a singular focus which would override that inevitable pull of the earth and allow me to float, weightless and free. But gravity, like mortality, continues unavoidable.

And so—and I will acknowledge that I owe this insight to Mother Andrea—when we try to imagine Christ’s divine life, that life which is not owed to death, which is free from our human mortality, free from our confinement in human constructions of time and space, we come up with the image of a life free from gravity, and we picture Jesus rising up from the earth and into the air, our childhood dreams made concrete. And we imagine, perhaps, that in becoming a part of that life we will be somehow freed from gravity ourselves, will rise weightless in the air. We may not imagine this quite literally, we may be a bit too sophisticated for that, or believe that we are — but it shapes, nevertheless, our thinking about what life in Christ means. When we imagine angels, when we imagine the life of the world to come, we almost always seem to imagine something like flying, something like weightlessness. And though there is truth in this, it is not the imagery of scripture. What we are shown in the Bible—what we heard last week, in fact — is the holy city coming down to the earth, the tree of life planted here. Our destiny is not to leave this place for an imaginary sky, but to inhabit an earth which is absolutely real and absolutely changed.

What we must not do—and the danger in the charming picture of Jesus sailing upwards — is read this as a story which tells us that the earth is to be abandoned, that Jesus has left this place of dirt and particularity. For gravity, though we may feel it that way, does not actually pull us down. Gravity is, fundamentally, the force, the connection, which any two bodies exert upon each other. The massive body of the earth pulls us, not down, but towards itself. Towards the earth which sustains us, draws us in and holds us. And we, smaller bodies that we are, we have our own specific gravity. We are drawn to one another, inevitably, inexorably, and it is from all these specific gravities that we acquire such weight and shape and meaning as we have. It is literally true, though on a tiny scale. On less literal levels, it is even more true. We are drawn to all the other bodies which inhabit our shared space, and they are drawn to us. Each human being is a demand upon on; each human being is an answer to our ow demand. We are impossibly intertwined with each other; we are always drawing and being drawn, by those we love, by those we hate, by those we pass in the street, by all those who need us. We are connected by webs of gravity and love, and we cannot escape it, any more than we can escape the drawing of the earth which compels our bodies, or the desire of God which compels our souls.

We live within this network of gravitational forces, we live within the network of obligations and desires and needs and gifts which flow from human love. And God does not pull us out of this network, God does not divide us from gravity. God enters the world of gravity and makes what could be dumb automatic force into meaningful life. The ascended Christ has become both the weightless grace which surrounds us, which sustains us like air, and the unseen force of gravity itself. Those childhood dreams of flying are not wrong. They are a natural way for human creatures to imagine freedom. And the free fall of love is as much like flight as it is like gravity—it is, in a way that only God’s unimaginable grace can contain, exactly like both. We fly and we fall, and it the same thing, and the shape of that movement is determined by gravity and grace acting, existing, as one. But for us, for most of our time, the place and the state we must inhabit are the weighted, compelling particulars of our given lives. “Stay in the city,” Jesus tells the disciples, preparing them for his departure. Stay, wait. Stay in this place where God has called you, this troubled city of Jerusalem. For it is here that things will begin to change.

It wasn’t an easy command. They were mostly not Jerusalem people, the disciples—most of them had come with Jesus from Galilee. Now they were alone in a place which was not home, was not safe or familiar, a place where they had witnessed the terrible violence of the crucifixion and the confusing astonishment of the resurrection, a place of imperial power and crushing poverty, of commerce and suffering, the noisy, crowded, complicated city where they didn’t belong. And here, in a place so much like any city, so much like this city, they were told to stay. Here they would be given a mission. From this place which they did not choose, they would be—whether they really wanted to be or not—part of creating a new world.

Ten days later, at Pentecost, they would be given a sudden amazing moment of participation in that world, the miracle of understanding across all our diversities of language and culture, the loud confusion of the city made suddenly and entirely meaningful, however briefly. But even here in this gap, in this time of loss, there is work to be done. As the wildfires devastate Fort MacMurray and the wind drives them towards the tar sands; as the children of war fight their way through the seas in hope of a safe country—we submit to the gravity of this burning world, we do what we can to love and care for the lost and the broken; and to look, as well, for our own responsibilities and choices, how far our own dependence on fossil fuels has created the conditions for the fire, how far all our small consolations and avoidances have damaged this earth and this city and the people we are called to love; to look for the grace we may need to begin to break free. In a burning world, we, like the disciples, must not stand staring up to heaven, but come down into the city and make a start.