Fr. Tucker is the Rector of Christ Church, Bordentown, New Jersey.
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Fr. Warren, Fr. Wood, clergy, wardens, vestry, and people of the Church of the Advent, I bring you greetings from Christ Church Bordentown; our church cat, the Venerable Griffin P. Buttersnaps Tucker, Archdeacon of All Bordentown, sends his greeting to Simon. I also bring belated congratulations on the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. Five Super Bowl wins in the last fifteen years is remarkably impressive; the Patriots, I have to admit, is the best football team of this century and maybe ever. I can be this gracious because I come from the land of the NY Giants, the original deflator, so to speak, of Patriot dreams. Roger Goodell had suspended Tom Brady, he had tried to get in the way this past year, but Brady came roaring back, because, as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good man down.
Well, regardless, here we are together to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, one of the most important, if least understood, events in the life of Christ.
I’m still happy to say life of Christ, even after forty days of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. That’s because we, humanity, did everything we could to make sure Jesus was really, really dead. It wasn’t that long ago that we recounted the Lord’s Passion, wherein we killed the Lord of life. We beat Him, cursed Him, mocked and reviled Him, we literally nailed Him down. But, as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good man down. Nailed to that Cross, Jesus said “It is finished,” not “I am finished.”
Risen from the dead, Jesus appeared to His disciples; He opened their hearts to understand what had happened to Him and to them; He set them on a path to change the world, and He probably hung out with His poor mom. But He knew, and they likely knew, that He would be leaving them once again. Jesus gathered His disciples on the Mount, gave them their commission, and left for home.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus,” the angel said, “who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This might be the first recorded instance of someone being told to not be so heavenly minded that they’ll be no earthly good.
It was also probably pretty funny to the angel, watching these guys standing on a mountain, staring into the sky, looking for Jesus. Now, I don’t buy that whole “first-century cosmology” stuff, which reeks of modern self-regard and presumption; keep thy servant, O Lord, from presumptuous sins. Was there once a cosmology of hell beneath, sky above, God somewhere in the heavens? Sure, but our ancestors were not remarkably stupid; people who navigated the earth by the stars, built pyramids, drank from aqueducts, they are smarter than me, certainly, and the average 19th century German theologian would probably have lasted about three days in first century Palestine before dying of his own haughtiness. The disciples weren’t living in a Better Midler song; they knew God wasn’t watching us from a distance.
That being said, I don’t know what Jesus’ ascension looked like, but I doubt that it looked like He jet-packed it off the Mount of Olives. I doubt He used a pneumatic grappling hook, a ’la Batman, to rope His way up. I doubt He pulled the ‘evil magician’ move either, breaking a smoke bomb on the floor and flinging his cape and running off.
For the disciples, one moment Jesus was standing in front of them, and the next moment He was gone. He most likely didn’t sink into the ground, and so He must have gone up, and so they didn’t think to look anywhere else but up. And, of course, that’s exactly what He did; Jesus ascended to a higher place, His home, really – He went home to see His Dad. God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
In the meantime, the disciples, and so by extension, all of us, were given a mission. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses,” Jesus tells us, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
We fulfill that mission every time those doors are opened and the world is welcomed in, for this is none other than the house of God, those doors the gate of Heaven. We fulfill that mission every time we go out those doors with Christ in our hearts, His Name on our lips; when we right what’s wrong, when we give, when we forgive, we fulfill that mission.
Our actions matter, and the stakes are high. But the mission is rigged in our favor. In the Ascension of our Lord, Jesus has taken our humanity into the life of God; as Athansius said, Christ assumed Manhood into God, so that God and humanity may never again be estranged. Though Jesus has ascended out of our sight, “the new and undefeatable life of the risen Christ is present in us, so closely that we can truly call ourselves the body of Christ; He is present always in Spirit, in our neighbor, in the hungry and the thirsty, the naked and the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, in His Body and His Blood. In these ways, He will be with us forever, on earth as in heaven.
Should we look to heaven? Of course! Not even death could keep our good Man down, and He will return to us in the same way we saw Him go. But the action is in the mission, the commission, given to the disciples on that mount and to us at our baptism. The action is in being witness to Christ, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, here and to the ends of the earth.