Uplifting: A Sermon in Three Parts Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Ascension Sunday, 2014 To discuss the biblical ascension narratives we have to explore quite a bit of back story. There is more going on that imagining someone levitating into the sky. So, to unpack and apply the lessons of the Ascension, we will explore the […]
Uplifting: A Sermon in Three Parts
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Ascension Sunday, 2014
To discuss the biblical ascension narratives we have to explore quite a bit of back story. There is more going on that imagining someone levitating into the sky. So, to unpack and apply the lessons of the Ascension, we will explore the stories in three segments today.
Part 1 – Ascension and Baptism as Defining Moments
For the Apostle Paul…Resurrection is the moment that Jesus becomes son of God (as Pharaohs and Caesars and Jewish Kings were).
In about the year 57 Paul wrote that Jesus “…through the spirit of holiness was appointed the son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord…” Rom 1.4
But Paul may not have distinguished between resurrection and ascension; what we call ascension may be how Paul understood resurrection. Bishop John Shelby Spong writes,
“…Resurrection and Ascension were for Paul two sides of the same coin. God…raised Jesus from death into the presence…of God. It was from the heavenly place into which Jesus had been elevated that the risen Christ was revealed to chosen witnesses, in Paul’s understanding.”
So, for Paul, resurrection, which may basically mean being raised to the eternal divine presence, or ascension, is the moment that Jesus becomes the Christ.
Paul says that Jesus was appointed son of God by means of his being raised into God’s presence after he was executed.
For Mark, Jesus is chosen, anointed, called God’s own at his baptism when the spirit descends on him.
For Matthew and Luke writing years later, Jesus is chosen, anointed, and considered a special child of God at his conception.
And at the end of the first century, John suggests that it is from the beginning of supposed linear time that Jesus, or the Cosmic Christ that pitches a tent among us as Jesus, was with, chosen by, and even part of God.
So ascension is one of a few ways that early followers of the Christ Way imagined Jesus being significant beyond his execution.
For Luke, Ascension is the way Jesus gets to the eternal spirit realm from which the spirit descends at Pentecost to enliven, raise up, and send out the hurting Jesus followers.
John imagines the spirit being breathed into the disciples by Jesus, but Luke imagines Jesus ascending to a cosmic realm and then sending the spirit into the church so that we, then, are the resurrected and returned body of Christ.
But the readings today also talk about baptism.
Jesus, you’ll remember, was an initiate of John’s by the apocalyptic preacher’s baptism of repentance (a purification or cleansing ritual, common in antiquity).
Luke in Acts suggests the spirit will be doing the baptizing…water may not be needed! But Matthew points out (3.15) that Jesus insists on being ritually immersed by John, “to fulfill righteousness.”
To be righteous, Jesus must undergo the purification ritual, which is especially important to apocalyptic teachers b/c if God (or some agent of God) is going to kick butt and take names, one certainly wants all of one’s ducks in a row! The baptism of repentance was part of the apocalyptic mindset.
Then in Matthew 28 we see Jesus telling the disciples to baptize everyone! Wash as many people clean as possible before the end of the age, which Matthew seems to believe is imminent: “I will be with you…to whom these words are spoken/written…you folk right here in the year 80…until the end of this age, which could be any minute.”
And his floating into the sky notwithstanding, there is also the claim that he isn’t really leaving and never will.
Ascension, then, isn’t about Jesus’ departure, but about his physical absence not ending his influence and importance (which is the comfort we all embrace when we lose loved ones).
Anyway, the apocalypse never occurred. So what can they do? Keep going! If angelic armies aren’t going to change the world for us, then we should get to work immersing the world in hope. God and wash away despair; lift up those who are weighed down with fear and disappointment.
Part 2 – Go far, go a little ways, or stay put?!
Acts 1…Do NOT leave Jerusalem
Matthew 28.10 – Tell my brothers to go to Galilee (not stay in Jerusalem, but go)…Ascension happens on a mountain in the country (not the city)
And PS, I’m with you to the end (v. 20).
Luke 24…two disciples on Road to Emmaus, near but not quite in Jerusalem
Luke 24.50…At Bethany Ascension happens
So, is Ascension the original meaning of Resurrection or are they two different events (or did they develop over time into two different events)?
Is Ascension a dramatic way of telling people to get to washing folk clean so they will be ready for the end of time?
Are they to stay in Jerusalem for this immanent big deal or are they to rush to Galilee (more than 60 miles away…and on foot, that’s a fer piece!)
Literalizing the text with the internal contradictions becomes more than problematic (and that’s before we factor in our exploration of outer space where no cosmic realm just above our skies has been discovered, or the simple law of gravity itself which precludes physical levitation).
So, for the story to be meaningful to us, it can’t be about Jesus flying up, up and away to return later.
Part 3 – So What, Now What?
So what is the point? To lift us up!
If one person one time defied the law of gravity, how would that help anyone? But if the story of being dramatically uplifted is meant to symbolize how our faith can lift us up and remind us to lift up one another, then it is a very important reminder; a useful instruction indeed.
Maya Angelou, who died just last week, offers some insights with her poem, “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise…
Just like moons and like suns,/With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,/Still I’ll rise…
Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops. Weakened by my soulful cries.
You may shoot me with your words,/You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,/But still, like air, I’ll rise.
In difficult times there is the power of hope to lift us up.
Imagining Jesus ascending to God, giving us marching orders or suggesting that we are never alone is a way of saying that no matter how down we are we can be lifted back up. We can choose hope and the healing it offers.
Ascension isn’t something that happened once in the first century; it’s something that happens over and over again when we choose to “lift our eyes to the hills” as Psalm 121 tells us, which btw, is a psalm of ascent!
Psalms of ascent were probably sung by pilgrims on the road that ascended toward Jerusalem, the city where Luke has Jesus’ ascension take place. It’s a symbol for rising above despair, of rising to a consciousness of optimism, joy and gratitude.
We are introducing into our worship experience today our own song of ascent…from the Tony Award winning musical Kinky Boots:
“If you hit the dust let me raise you up
If your bubble busts let me raise you up
If your glitter rusts let me raise you up and up!”
That, I believe, is what Ascension really means. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I allow hope to lift me up.
I share hope to lift up others.
And I affirm that the future has infinite possibilities.