To Fly: Ascension Day, May 24, 2020
The following are sermon notes from the gospel (Luke 24:44-53) for the feast, of Ascension celebrated on St. Aidan’s YouTube, May 24, 2020.
He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures... Just before Jesus took off, he told his disciples how his life had fulfilled the promises of scripture. He reminded them that scripture, told them that The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.
Those things had already happened, almost six weeks earlier. He said, you are witnesses to these things. In a sense he was telling them, “You stand at the apex of the scripture. All of biblical history has been building to this point.” The disciples’ awareness of the significance of Jesus’ words wasn’t just a “dawning”. It was like a lightning bolt.
In his brief career, Jesus had provided many stunning moments…. miraculous cures, feeding thousands of people, teaching them new ways of understanding familiar texts… like who is our neighbour… dealing with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and recently…rising from the dead.
His disciples had witnessed it all. But the gospels tell us, time and again, that they … and many others who heard Jesus’ words… didn’t fully understand what Jesus was telling them. This time it was different. The gospel says that Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures. They hadn’t fully processed what Jesus’ life meant at least until this moment. Jesus’ departing gift to them was a profoundly new and deeper understanding of his personal relationship to the work of God and the prophesies of scripture.
When I was at university, I had a friend whose gift was a magical ability with relationships.
He was interested in everyone he met. He asked about their experiences and hopes. He made each person feel that their lives were fascinating, important and capable of greatness. When people heard their lives reflected in his questions and comments, they felt valued and validated and they aspired to things that were greater than they had ever imagined for themselves. They felt their lives take flight.
I personally experienced the lift that this gave me and listened to him talk to others and watch their excitement at the potential he saw in them. He inspired everyone he met. Everyone I knew liked to be around him. More to the point, he changed people’s lives by the way he interpreted their stories.
I have frequently thought that Jesus had the same effect on the people he met. He made each person know that they were loved, worthy and significant.
When the gospel says that he opened their minds I imagine the disciples experienced the kind of excitement that came from my friend …suddenly understanding some shared experience in a new light and being able to relate it to many other parts of their own lives. Everything that they had heard and seen took on a new, larger and more relevant meaning.
Jesus’ words transformed the disciples’ hearts. They fed off Jesus’ energy and emotion as well as his meaning. Part of that meaning was that things were about to transition. Their role was going to change… from being spectators at these events to becoming participants. Witnessing would become their life. They would not only tell the story of Jesus, but they would act in the same way with the same Spirit of Love as Jesus did. By word and deed, they would show the world what Jesus had told them. Specifically, they would preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Repentance is a continuing theme in Luke’s whole gospel. When Levi held a banquet and Jesus was there the Pharisees asked him why he ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Jesus did not demand sackcloth and ashes when he forgave. He had said there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10) Repentance was about turning around and living life fully. (John 10:10) This is what Jesus intended.
For Jesus, repentance meant turning towards God, in joy and fulfillment of their lives.
The gospel continues, with the signature event for this day. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.
Jesus’ aerodynamics are intriguing. Did he fly, or did someone lift him up? His destination was also a mystery. Where, exactly, is heaven?
All of my life, I’ve been fascinated by a starry night and the skies. I read books on cosmology and looked at photos taken by the Hubble spacecraft. I’ve stood in awe at the beauty of the Milky Way on a cloud-free evening. Yet the Milky Way is only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies.
When I look up, I think of the miraculous creation of which I am only the tiniest part.
I consider that I am made of the stuff that originated in the big bang. This perspective on the vastness of space but also the fact that part of me was there 13.2 billion years ago is as startling and as incomprehensible as Jesus flying off.
I don’t wonder where Jesus is. I could never spot him in the cosmos with a Hubble or the new James Webb telescope.
Part of the story of Jesus’ life is that there are mysteries…things that we don’t yet understand in a scientific way…but that we nevertheless believe. Science and religion are not opposed. They are two aspects of the single, perfect act of knowing God that we have yet to fully achieve.
But this we do know that…after he departed the promised Spirit came and transformed the lives of his followers.
The Ascension is part of a continuous process from resurrection through understanding of scripture to being empowered by the Spirit. Its key element is not “Jesus’ flight” but the opening of his disciples’ minds and the call to witness to truth and love as Jesus had taught.
It is the same call that we hear today. We are to witness to Jesus as the point to which all creation bends. We are called to do so in our words and lives.
The words of the gospel remind us that our focus is to bear witness to Jesus’ life as the one, promised by God for generations and that he invites us to live to our full potential…and, yes, to fly…because that is what gives glory to God.