“Preaching Ascension” by Ken Burton

Paper doves symbolizing peace hang from the ceiling under a mural at the Church of the Most Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Lviv, Ukraine. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 29, 2022

Today is Ascension Sunday, a Sunday on which we celebrate the traditional Feast of Ascension. That actually falls on the fortieth day after Easter, which is always a Thursday, but since getting the faithful together for a worship service on a weekday has become something of a challenge, the celebration of Ascension is postponed to the following Sunday. The truth is that in recent years, here at Seekers, Celebration Circle has chosen to skip it entirely and instead work with the Sunday in question as simply the Seventh after Easter, an option provided by the lectionary. This is because even Christians who struggle to see the Bible as a fully historical account often have trouble with this image of Jesus saying a final good-bye to his disciples and ascending into heaven riding on a cloud. One view is that, given the assumption of the three-tiered universe, with heaven above, hell below and earth in between, it was necessary to find a way to get Jesus back into heaven. He had, so this story goes, returned to earth when he was resurrected, but was also destined to spend eternity “sitting at the right hand” of God in heaven, hence the need for the ascension story.  From this perspective, letting this traditional Christian feast go by with little or no attention was probably a good idea!

         This year, however, I asked fellow members Celebration Circle to include the Ascension lections and said that I would preach that Sunday, so here I am.

Let me be clear from the start that I am not going to attempt to make sense of the Ascension story as historical narrative. The anonymous author that we call “Luke” included the Ascension story both in his “first book” or “earlier account” at the very end of his narrative of “everything Jesus had done and taught.” This is the text with we call “The Gospel According to Luke.” The story also serves as at the beginning of our author’s second report, known to us as “The Acts of the Apostles”.  We have heard both passages read this morning. The Ascension story thus stands at the point of transition between the life of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian Church. That beginning happened at Pentecost. Luke’s account of Pentecost immediately follows the Ascension story. Jacqie Wallen will have more to say about that next Sunday. For now I want to note the pivotal place of Ascension in Luke’s two-volume narrative, marking the end of the narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings and the beginning of the story of the Church. I will further suggest that there may be more to it than Jesus floating away on a cloud.

         First, an acknowledgement. In what follows, I have relied heavily on the work of the late Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, particularly his book entitled Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. Noting each of my specific references to Spong’s work would make this sermon much too cumbersome, so I fully acknowledge it here and now with gratitude because this book made what you are hearing this morning possible.

Central to finding nourishment for the spirit in Luke’s story of Jesus Ascension is seeing its connection to another ascension narrative. This is the story in the second chapter of II Kings of the ascension of the prophet Elijah. Here I am going to quote at some length Bishop Spong’s retelling of that story.

At the end of Elijah’s life…he took his single disciple, Elisha, and they journeyed together into the wilderness to have a rendezvous with God. On this journey they talked about Elijah’s imminent departure and Elisha’s succession to the role of the “prophet of Israel.” When they reached their destination, they began what would prove to be their final conversation. Elisha opened it by making a request of [Elijah]. “Master, if I am to be your successor, may I make a final request of you?” Elijah responded by saying: “What is it, my son? Speak on.” So Elisha continued: “If I am to do the work you have asked me to do, I need to be endowed with a double portion of your spirit!” To this request, Elijah responded: “I do not know that I have the power to grant you that, but if you see me ascending into the sky, then you will know that your request has been granted by God.” At that moment, according to this magnificent Jewish story, a magical, fiery chariot, drawn by magical, fiery horses, appeared out of the sky and swooped down to the ground, coming to a halt at exactly the spot where Elijah and Elisha were talking. It was as if this were a regular stop on this heavenly chariot’s bus route! Without so much as a fare-thee-well, Elijah stepped immediately into that chariot to begin his ascension into heaven, perhaps waving his hand in farewell. Even the ancients, however, knew that some kind of propulsion was required to transcend the forces of gravity, about which they knew almost nothing, but which they accepted as a fact of life. So the text says that God created a whirlwind that came roaring behind the fiery chariot. Pulled by the magical horses, this chariot bearing Elijah was thus propelled into the sky and to heaven by a whirlwind. Elisha, standing on the earth below, we are told, watched in wonder. He cried out: “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” The most important detail in this story was that Elisha, seeing the ascension of his master, knew that his request had been granted: He would be endowed with a double portion of Elijah’s powerful, unique and yet still human spirit. It was and is a lovely story. The people of the Middle East were second to none as storytellers. Luke saw Jesus as the new Elijah, but one whom he believed had become far more filled with the presence of God than had been the first Elijah. So Luke magnified this story. The new Elijah did not need the help of a magical chariot drawn by fiery horses. He did not need the heaven-sent whirlwind. As one who was God-sent and God-filled, he would return to God on his own.

         Well. A marvelous story, indeed, particularly in Spong’s retelling. His comment about Jesus as the new Elijah needs some elaboration. He suggests that “all three of [the synoptic] gospels were originally created . . . to provide Jesus stories for the seasons and Sabbath’s of the synagogue’s liturgical year.” Connecting stories about Jesus with the well-known and much love highlights of the Jewish year was an important vehicle of evangelism for the early church. Spong goes so far as to suggest that “the pattern of following the synagogue’s liturgical year served as the organizing principle of [Matthew, Mark, and Luke], so we find in each the appropriate Jesus stories for Sukkoth, Dedication and even the minor festivals of the Ninth of Ab and Purim.”  Other examples, and there are many, include the crucifixion story as told against the backdrop of the Passover and the healing miracle stories “told first as part of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which the goodness of health overcomes the evil of physical distress. Being made physically whole was a sign that the kingdom of God was breaking in and that the messiah was at hand.” There is much more that could be said about this fascinating way of understanding New Testament accounts that lack scientific credibility, but this background is intended to support the important connection I am making, following Spong, between the story of Jesus’ Ascension in Luke and Acts and the II Kings account of Elijah’s ascension. This link is just one more example of how, in Spong’s words, “stories in the Hebrew scriptures were simply lifted out of the ancient texts, magnified, and wrapped around Jesus of Nazareth.” [Repeat]

            It is the magnifying that is important here. One aspect of this magnification is that, in the Jesus story, he did not need a fiery chariot and a whirlwind in order to ascend. When he was ready to do go, he simply rose up into the heavens, standing on the improbable base of a cloud.  But a more important magnification aspect is what was left behind. Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, had asked Elijah for “a double portion of your spirit” in order to carry on Elijah’s prophetic work. Elijah had replied that if his ascension was visible to his disciple, then the request would be granted. Elisha did bear witness to the event, and he was empowered to carry on the work that his master had begun. In our story, Jesus final words to the gathered apostles were “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The story of how the Apostles received that power is Pentecost. The rest of the book of Acts, along with most of the rest of the New Testament, is about the witnessing that did indeed take place “to the ends of the earth,” including in times and places that could not even be imagined when these words were written. Blair Monie writing in Progressive Christian notes that “so the ending is also the beginning. The rapture of Jesus is, like Pentecost, a birthing of a very worldly church, which is called not to simply stand there, looking up, but to get about the work that Jesus began. The Spirit-empowered church is to be the continuing presence of the Christ in the world.”

Now at this point, or perhaps before now, you might well ask, “Ken, with hundreds being killed and thousands displaced daily by a new land war in central Europe and nineteen elementary school children, along with two of their teachers, killed just this past week by a gunman in Texas, isn’t there something more to be said from the Seekers pulpit than talk about Jesus trip to heaven on a cloud, however that might be understood?” And, yes, we do indeed live in times that are more ominous, more threatening, than most of us are comfortable admitting. But I would suggest that properly understood this Ascension story is deserving of a place in our annual liturgical cycle because it is directly relevant to our current situation.

         So the message of Ascension is not new: it is the spirit-empowered church as Christ’s continuing presence in a broken and suffering world. What gives it freshness and new power is the context of the world today. What does it mean to be a spirit-empowered church, to be the spiritual heirs of the Ascension story, in a nation where school children are slaughtered in their classroom, and where political differences are elevated to the status of faith? What does it mean to be that church in a world where war has again flared on the European continent and the homes of millions are threatened by catastrophic climate change? While there are historical precedents that may be helpful, the moment in which we live is unique and thus presents us as followers of Jesus today with unique challenges. How are we to respond?

         There is, of course, much that Seekers as a community and each of us individually is already doing. This is not the time for that recitation. My question rather is this: Just as we have together come to a new and richer understanding of Ascension, is there a new and fuller response to our

shattered and suffering world to be found there? As we meditate on Jesus’ promise of the empowering Spirit and the story of its appearance at Pentecost, can we find there a new way of understanding how we can be his disciples in today’s world? [Repeat] I do not have an answer to this question, but I believe that Seekers Church, because of our structure, our resources, our location and the depth and strength of our commitment, may be positioned to provide leadership in this new and deeply challenging situation.

         I am well aware that this is not a good way to conclude a sermon, to leave us all suspended in the face of large questions which, at least for now, lack answers. But our story is helpful here as well, because as Jesus ascended, his disciples were left wondering what to do next. The descent of the Spirit was promised but had not yet occurred. They were perplexed and unsure of their next moves, just as many of us are now.  And like them we pray that the Spirit descends on us to offer hints of direction and next steps as we strive to live faithfully in our deeply troubling world. May it be so. Amen.

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