EASTER VII — May 28, 2006
Grace Church, Utica
Life is busy with entrances and exits. People come go; they arrive and they depart; people are born and people die. In most societies both the time of birth as well as the time of death are marked with rites and ceremonies. Births and deaths are registered because they affect other people and have public importance. New arrivals are greeted and fussed over; new departures are prayed for and mourned.
When people depart this life, we no longer have direct contact with them. If they were close friends or loved ones, we mourn their loss. This was where the disciples found themselves following the crucifixion of Jesus; it’s why they felt so shattered and forsaken. His death was a literal hell for them because it seemed to give them a future without hope. But then death did not have the final word. Their faith was renewed and their hope reborn when they experienced the Lord’s resurrected presence. That renewal was important because those appearances would last only a short time. Eventually Jesus would return to the Father, the God from whom he had come. Ascension Day marks that time of the Lord’s return.
When we consider the Lord’s Ascension, the first thing we need to be clear about is that this is something that has to do with God. It is not about gravity, or the physical location of heaven, or any of that. It is about God. In fact, even though it comes toward the end of the Easter season, the meaning and significance of the Ascension is more closely aligned with Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation--- the Christian belief that in the person of Jesus, God assumed human flesh and lived among us. At the Ascension it all comes full circle. To use the words of the Creed, the one who ‘for us and our salvation came down from heaven,’ now returns to his place of honor with the Father.
At Christmas everything that is divine became fully human in the person of Jesus. At the Ascension, everything that is human, became, for all eternity, a part of the divine--- a part of who God is. You see, it was not the spirit of Jesus, or the essence of Jesus, it wasn’t the invisible part or the idea of Jesus, that ascended to the Father. It was the resurrected body of Jesus: a body that the disciples had touched, a body that ate and drank with them, a real, physical, but gloriously restored body, bearing the marks of nails and a spear. This is what ascended, and what is, now and forever, a living, participating part of God. In fact, we can say as a matter of faith that the Ascension changed who God is.
It is important to really take to heart what the Ascension says about being human. Sometimes we’re uncertain about the value of our humanity and what it means to be human. We’re sometimes unsure about our bodies, about our human passions and inclinations. We don’t like to accept our limitations, or the fact that someday we’re going to die. We don’t know what to make of the pain we go through in our interpersonal relationships, or the struggles, joys, and setbacks that always seem to be a part of our search for God. We are often baffled by the power that our feelings and emotions seem to have over us. All of these parts of being human, and so many others, we frequently treat as less than holy, as somehow separated from our spiritual and religious lives.
Taken together, the Incarnation and the Ascension remind us that being human is a good thing. It is an important thing, a wonderful and yes, even a holy thing to be a human being. It’s so important and wonderful and holy that God did it. Even more, the fullness of God now includes that humanity. The experience, the reality, and the stuff of being a person is so valuable that it became a permanent part of God's life.
This is not to say that everything about us or everything we human beings do is wonderful and holy. But it is very clear that in the eyes of God it is a wonderful and holy thing to be a human being. This is one reason we should treat ourselves, and each other, with care and with respect. The Ascension, the fact that God has brought into himself one who is fully human, stands as a reminder that human beings are sacred, and must not be taken lightly or abused.
The Ascension also means that God knows what it’s like to be a person in a very different way than God knows what it’s like to be anything else in creation. God knows what it is like to be a human being because God remembers--- and I don’t know any better way to express it. God remembers.
When we approach God, when we try to share our lives with God, it is important for us to know that we are dealing with one who knows and who remembers what human life is like, one who knows and remembers in a very personal way. God remembers what it’s like to hurt and to laugh, to pray and to hunger, to be lost and afraid, to celebrate and to mourn; God remembers what it’s like to live and what it’s like to die. God knows this in the only way that really matters as far as relationship is concerned. God knows because God has been there.
So we can approach God with both confidence and joy. When we turn toward God, we are not only dealing with the Creator of the universe and the ruler of all time and of eternity; we are also drawing near to the one who lived our life and shared our fate. We are coming near to one who knows us and who cares.
There’s an ancient story about God’s original problem: where to place his most precious possession--- his own image. He called three wise counselors, to listen to their suggestions. The first advised God to put his image on the top of the highest mountain on earth; but God declined. The second proposed that God should put his image in the depths of the deepest sea; but again God declined. The third suggested the far side of the moon; but God smiled to himself and said that even there human beings could reach it. Then God came to his own idea: “I will place my image where people will never think of
looking. I will put it into their hearts. There, it will never be discovered.”
The image of God, the light of God, is in the place where we rarely look: in our own heart. God’s presence is within us, not as a hiding place, but that we might discover him in the closest possible place. And so it was that St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “He withdrew from our eyes that we might return to our own heart to find him.”
You don’t need to search the heavens to find God. God’s presence and God’s kingdom are as close as your own breath. Indeed as Jesus told us himself, God’s presence and God’s kingdom are within you.
© James M. Jensen