Sermon for Ascension of the Lord, Thursday, May 21 2020, 7:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 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 objective history—the very fact that the same author tells the same story in two different ways suggests this.
But what this story is trying to manage is a very real experience with which the disciples must have struggled; 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 least 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, the undeniable gone.
Maybe we do not imagine it in quite the same way now, when our technology allows us to see, to travel, upwards into that air, when space can be mapped, its dimensions partly measured. The undeniable gone, the absolute away, may need different images now. But it is the same thing we ourselves struggle with—the absence, the lack, the experience of God as utterly elsewhere. We are given stories of a God who came to a human place, in human flesh, but it is long ago now, and far away, and here we are, in a complicated city, in a world in the midst of a global pandemic, isolated from our church building and from each other, unable to receive the bread and wine which have been for us the presence of Christ among us.
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, but in this change is somehow even more present; that God is not in any single place, but is now in all places, like the air which surrounds us, the oxygen in our lungs and our blood, the sky which is the sky of all the earth together.
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. We are responsible to this physical world, which we have hurt so deeply; we have no life without it—we must never let any imagery lead us away from that truth. For the Word to go up is also for the Word to go in, to go down, to fill all places, every cell of every created thing, to demand our loyalty to both air and mud.
And as we learn absence now, so we must learn this loyalty to the mysterious presence which is hidden in our moments. To the God who left the specific place of the incarnation in order to be incarnate, not in a generalized nowhere, but in each specific place. Who will come to us in whatever our condition allows, will be our breath and the blood in our veins, the petals falling from the dogwood trees on the street, the weeds at the edge of the pavement, the bread which is baked for us by human hands, the voice which travels on the strange air of data to reach us.
The ascended Christ has become both the grace which surrounds us, which sustains us like air, and the unseen force of gravity itself. And 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 from 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, dangerous 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 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.
There is prayer and praise to be offered, now and always, in whatever forms we may. We can’t gather in the temple, exactly, but we can gather in this odd virtual space, and we can light our candles at home, can sing, can read, can meditate and pray. It does not yield obvious results, but it may be slowly changing us, moment by moment, in a Godward direction, and in that movement also changing the world around us.
There is the work of waiting, of maintaining the distance of love, there is the unremarkable and all-important work of handwashing. There is sewing and cooking, there are telephone calls and grocery deliveries, there is caring for children, planting herbs and vegetables, all the world’s essential and so often disregarded tasks. There is still the work of beauty, the work of creating art, even as we try to discover new ways for beauty to be shared. For some, there is still the direct work of feeding, tending, offering medical care. There is the work of care expressed in advocacy, the tedious relentless pestering of our public officials to make all the decisions with the most vulnerable at the forefront of their minds, the reminding of everyone, at every level, to act with patience and compassion, even as we try to learn and model that patience and compassion ourselves.
In this city where we have ended up, the city where, for at least now, we must stay—in this troubled city, there is work to be done. We must come down from the mountain, and make a start.