Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This was one of the first prayers that I learned as a child from my Nana. And not without reason. It sounds good, in that it makes good use of parallel structure and rhyme. It acknowledges the distance between God and the prayer that sociologists claim marks all human prayer. And it can be customized, or at least mine could, by adding the imperative “bless” at the end of the prayer and then listing those who needed blessing.
But it’s also a deeply disturbing prayer. In the first place, it introduces children to the possibility of dying in the night. The prayer reveals a startling division of the human being. The prayer does not ask God to protect the body against death, but instead confesses a desire only for the protection of the soul. The implied confession of the prayer is that the soul is what is essentially human, what really matters.
Children’s prayers, however, are not the sole offenders when it comes to this strange phenomenon of splitting the human being into body and soul and then ignoring the body. Perhaps, like me, you once invited Jesus to “live in your heart.” There are infinite variations on the so-called sinner’s prayer, but they are all focused on the inner life by the metaphor of the “heart.”
The celebration of Ascension Day (which was this past Thurs) comes ten days before the Day of Pentecost. It is an important day and, theologically speaking, it is essential for understanding both the presence and the absence of Jesus. It certainly gives us a promise.
It is the combination of Luke 24 and Acts 1 that most intrigues me. In both passages, the evangelist emphasizes that Jesus is doing something as he departs—he is blessing them—and Jesus promises that he will return in the same way that he left. This may be a surprise for those who think of Jesus’ return as a fearful moment. Here the promise is one of blessing.
Much of “the world” wants to smack folks down and make them afraid. Sometimes out of cruelty, sometimes out of hurt. Sometimes people push others down to exalt themselves.
Many systems, institutions, and bureaucracies survive by drawing energy and dignity out of the people they are supposed to serve. There is plenty of pain in almost every news story, so when we gather to worship we need to hear good news—promise, gift, blessing. We need something, someone, to raise us up.
So on this Ascension, more than ever, we need to hear that there is someone at the right hand of God who knows our names and understands our lives. We do not want to hear about how we are supposed to save ourselves, or save the world, or climb our own ladder to heaven. We want to live in the hope that Jesus will come to us, exactly because we remain here waiting with God and for God. The angels said in Acts, “Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is a promise. The one who will consummate history is a person who knows us. Jesus promised to come to us. There is forgiveness with him. He returns with his wounds still visible. He “gets it”. Wait for him.
So what to do while we wait? It is not the over-busyness of production and consumption that we need, it is the busyness of waiting in hope, welcoming the animating, humanizing Spirit, watching the Gospel happen all around us, and celebrating everything God accomplishes in and through us. Waiting for, and working with, the Spirit of God. Remember Jesus saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).
There are a couple of things that emerge for me today in our gospel today.
One theme is Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus does a lot of teaching in his post-resurrection appearances. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…”
This scene is a continuation of his interaction with Cleopas and another disciple on the walk to Emmaus. This portion of the Gospel occurs immediately after that walk and his subsequent appearance to the disciples when he joins them in eating a piece of fish. Teaching and eating: that’s what the post-resurrection Jesus does. No doubt eating the fish is in part to demonstrate that he is not merely a ghost, but there is also a Eucharistic element to it, too.
Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr writes that the core work of all spirituality is to “have three spaces opened up within us, all at the same time: our opinionated [mind], our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.” Jesus’ intention is to “open their minds” and that the heart and the body are freed as well—if not in this encounter, then in the entire movement of events after the resurrection and up to the day of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As Cleopas recalls, “[Weren’t our] “hearts burning within us?”
We might need that same teaching: to have our minds opened to Jesus’ Jewish roots. And certainly in a success-obsessed and consumer-driven America, we need our minds opened to Jesus’ teachings that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In what other ways do our minds need opening to Jesus’ teaching?
A third theme is letting God be God so we can be fully human.
Jesus was carried into heaven. This isn’t an action that Jesus does to himself. Rather, it was something that God did to him and for him. And yet he is not a completely passive participant. He withdrew from them. It is this combination of action and surrender that I believe Jesus wants from us. It is essentially what Jesus invites the disciples to do.
They are to stay and wait to be clothed with power of the Holy Spirit. Power that is not something inside of us, like super willpower. It is something outside of us that works on us in such a way that it transforms us.
It is often difficult for me to do my part and only my part and to let God do God’s part. And yet, Jesus is being lifted into heaven at the same moment that he is blessing the disciples. He chose to leave it to them. The same ones who were capable in one breath of inspired declarations of faith and in the next breath bumbling it so badly that Jesus calls one of them Satan.
Jesus chose to trust his mission to these disciples—just as he chooses us: This church that is capable of great acts of faith in one moment and then bumbling it badly in the next. Jesus trusts us with his mission.
It’s two thousand years later and we haven’t destroyed the church yet. And we won’t. Because God is God and we are not. We are trusted with a part of the mission but it is God who gives us God’s blessing and power from on high. It is enough for us to bless God in return through the way we live our lives.
I want to close by referring to the prayer I began with this morning. Now most theologians agree that prayer is a window to a person’s theology. When one addresses God, the language is of the utmost importance. No one wants to flub it before the Almighty, so each word is chosen with care and reveals volumes about an individual’s theology. What I see revealed in these prayers is this: a startling disregard for, even denial of, en-fleshed human experiences in favor of the “essential self” contained within the soul. We did not originate this heresy, but we as Americans are the most pernicious preachers of it that I know.
It would be ironic to claim that this is only an intellectual or theological problem. It is not. Rather, this insidious denial of human flesh manifests itself in flesh. It denies, marginalizes, and kills human bodies. “Colorblindness” is a good example of this phenomenon. An individual pretends not to “see race,” opting instead to see the “essential humanness.” But colorblindness fundamentally denies the embodied experiences of people of color and attempts to force them into a “post-racial America” that the slain bodies of black teenagers fundamentally invalidates.
Or consider short-term missionaries who venture to some distant corner of the world and expend tremendous effort evangelizing the souls of “the lost” all the while “the lost” continue to starve. Because the soul is all that matters, right?
We are called to follow that pattern. Just as we one day hope to mimic Jesus’ ascension, so must we also mimic his earthly life, which will certainly take a toll on our bodies as it did on his. In many ways, the Ascension of our Lord is a challenge, the passing of the torch from the master to the students and the beginning of the era of the church. The blessing Jesus gives the eleven disciples is our blessing as well, and it is a blessing we will surely need on the road ahead.
Our bodies will no doubt experience pain as we raise voices and signs to protest legislation that disenfranchises the sick or permits weapons of death in places of peace. Our arms will certainly grow weary as we embrace refugees. Perhaps our bodies will even bear the scars of resisting violence in our neighborhoods. Certainly our fingers will be caked with mud as we work to bring food to areas where human beings consume more chemicals than they do plants. Our bodies will bear the justice of God, and the Kingdom will come.
And as much as Jesus’ ascension represents a challenge to those who would follow him, it is an amazing comfort as well.
The Ascension is good news for human bodies because it means that a human body is already glorified and in heaven, and that Jesus Christ–who is that body–is profoundly aware of what it means to be human. As the author of Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” More than that, though, Jesus’ ascension means that bodies are good. And if Jesus’ body is good, ours must also be; and if our bodies are good, then no one ever again has the ability to shame us because of our bodies.
- Perhaps you’ve been excluded from your community because your body is black, or you’ve been kept from expressing your deepest sense of vocation because your body is female.
- Maybe your body has recently become disabled, or has been for a long time, and someone is trying to tell you that you’re not useful, that because you cannot complete a certain mechanical task you are somehow less than human.
- Or maybe you’ve been told that you cannot sanctify your commitment to your partner because you both inhabit queer bodies.
Whichever portion of your embodied reality has been used to keep you from God, the Ascension of a specific, marginalized, disabled, Jewish body into heaven means that the experiences of en-fleshed humans matter. Your experiences have value. Your body is good, and it is the means by which God’s Kingdom comes. Let us no longer pray only for our souls but let us love our bodies. Let us revel in the fact that God has chosen flesh, real, fragile, warm, hairy human flesh to reveal the character of God and accomplish reconciliation in the world.