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Ascend already

Welcome to the now-Annual Sermon Dump!  That lovely time of year when Megan reads back through her Google Drive and belatedly posts the sermons she gave over the summer, but did not post to her blog because she was otherwise at camp/running Missionpalooza/in the Middle East/un-flooding the church/something else.

You’d think that after 9 years of this, I would have figured out that summer is the reverse of a restful time of year for me, but it never fails–each year, I have great hopes that I will spend the warmer months sunning myself on a nearby patio with a drink in my hand.  Instead, I find myself screeching into September again, with a chill in the air, sleep deprivation in my mind, and again, no sermons on the blog.  It’s like a reverse miracle!  🙂

So we begin way back in May (!) with the Ascension.  Before you can say it, I KNOW THE ASCENSION IS NOT A MOVABLE FEAST.  DON’T @ ME.  However, our local practice is to recognize it in part on the Sunday, as well as on the actual day.  And I don’t plan on dying in that particular ditch.

I give you: Ascension!

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

May 28, 2017

Easter 7/post Ascension

Acts 1

 

The Ascension is one of the quirkiest biblical stories to appear in art.  Whereas with the Annunciation you usually get the same sorts of pictures–Mary, with an angel, and beatific light, the Nativity, Mary, Joseph, baby, animals.  With the Ascension, you just get a lot of really odd stuff.  

Salvador Dali has a painting of just the soles of Jesus’ feet.  That’s it.  Just the bottom of his feet in the center of a halo.  And lest you think that this is just Dali being a weirdo, Jesus’ feet is a prominent theme in Ascension paintings from the Renaissance, too.  There’s a popular German painting from the 16th century with Jesus’ feet at calves at the top, and a herd of confused disciples down below.  This was popular!  It was copied on to altar frontals and the like!  Other depictions have Jesus being hoisted up to heaven by a couple of burly angels.  Or soaring up with his arms upraised, like superman.  And also, the place where Christians think the Ascension happened, in Jerusalem, which is now a mosque because Muslims recognize the ascension too–has a set of footprints in a stone at the center.  Presumably left as Jesus lept from the earth.

In terms of sheer oddity, the ascension takes the cake, I think, just because it’s confusing on it’s face.  The resurrection is miraculous, but in a straightforward way.  Jesus was dead; now he’s not.  The ascension, however–what even?  Jesus basically becomes the Schrodinger’s cat of saviors. Is he here or not?  Well, yes! He is alive, we know that, and with us, yet not because we no longer see him, and it’s not the same as it was.  Except he’s still here.  No wonder everyone paints just the feet.  The feet are all we can get a hold of.

It’s also worth noting that the timing of the ascension is also not great.  The disciples are still reeling from the whole “Jesus was just crucified” thing, and they’re hiding in their rooms.  What they expect will happen is that Jesus, now resurrected, will use this new life of his to overthrow Rome, with its oppressive empire and injustice, reestablish a kingdom for Israel, and make everything okay again.  They have some high hopes.

As per usual, the disciples are wrong.  Poor little buddies.  Jesus informs them that it isn’t for them to know the times or the seasons the Lord has set.  So there goes that plan.

Instead, he leaves them.  Just whoosh–up into the sky.

The poor disciples are left standing there, staring at where he just was until some angels appear and ask them what their deal is.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

First off, that’s a misnomer.  We know from the next few verses that there were definitely women there too, so come on, angels.  Secondly, they were standing there because they were confused and a bit lost.  They had a plan, they had a leader that they depended on, and now…..now they were on their own.  Now they felt a bit lost and abandoned.

What were they supposed to do now that they were left to their own devices?

This is the first real test for the disciples in a way.  Up until now, they haven’t had to do a whole lot by themselves.  Now they’re on their own, and they have to decide what to do.

The Ascension marks the passing of the torch from Jesus to the disciples.  More even than the crucifixion–this is when the disciples take over the ministry of Jesus.  Now that Jesus has ascended to be with God, it is on the disciples to carry on Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching, and manifesting the kingdom.  

That’s a tall order for anyone, particularly for this bunch.  Particularly for the times in which they live.  It’s a hostile world out there.  The government doesn’t like them.  Their families don’t like them.  Jesus was, after all, just killed because he was disliked so very much.  So this is a lot.  The disciples aren’t superheroes–they are ordinary people, with ordinary doubts, fears, and failings.  

So when Jesus lifts off, it panics them.  The leader they depended on is gone.

But the ascension also gives the disciples a gift.  Because Jesus has left them, Jesus can be with them.  (Again, it’s like Schrodinger’s Cat.) But think of it this way–instead of being physically present eating breakfast beside Peter, now Jesus is just as present with Andrew while he’s preaching in Jerusalem, as he is present with James in Galilee.  Now, instead of being temporally or spatially bound, Jesus is everywhere.  Jesus is in all times.  

The ascension frees Christ to be present with all the apostles as they go to figure out what their mission is, and how they’re going to do it.  And it frees Christ to be with us, as we go out to figure out the same thing.  As the ascension marks the day when Christ left the disciples, it also marks when he became real to them in a new way, and propelled them to figure out how to be the church in a new way.

So each time Fr. Stan and I stand here and tell you to go out and be the body of Christ, (which is basically our St. Paul’s motto)–I know it can feel overwhelming.  There’s so much to do–so much in the world that needs addressing,  how on earth do we start?  So we end up like the disciples, dazed and confused, and staring up at the sky, hoping for some disappearing feet to guide us.

But Christ is as present with us today as he was with them that day on the mountain. Christ may not be physically present when we gather, but Christ is present with us each time we receive the Eucharist, each time we greet a loved one, each time we recognize the image of God in someone suffering.  

Christ is all around us, present just as powerfully.  We don’t need to stand staring at those disappearing feet.  We can feel emboldened to pick a task and go out into the world to live the good news.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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