The Ascension of Our Lord
Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11
The summer before I began my work here at Park Avenue, I had the chance to spend a few weeks at my parents’ home right outside of Nashville. And it was in those weeks that I discovered the one thing that I don’t like about New York: it’s really hard to see the stars here.
This was August of 2015, and on the 14th of that month, there was the wonderful confluence at which the peak of the Perseid meteor shower just so happened to be on the same night as a new moon, and the forecast for that evening was perfectly clear. So that night I grabbed a blanket and laid in the grass while staring up at the sky for about two hours. I cannot remember when I have seen the sky so clearly and so many shooting stars. The whole moment was frankly spiritual; I was filled with so much amazement and wonder, and I had that transcendent feeling in which, for a brief second, I knew that I was a part of something bigger than myself.
I was outside in Central Park a couple of nights ago, and when I looked up, I was incredibly disappointed to see the lights of Midtown and smog obscuring all but one or two bright stars. But nevertheless, there’s something that’s gripping about something so other worldly. To think about the potential of what is “out there.” It’s freeing, sometimes, to think about what it would be like to escape these bodies, to have the opportunity to get away from all of the mess around us now, away from our human limitations, and just float in the expanse of beauty and sheer awe.
It’s not a new feeling either. The Ancient Greeks in Plato and Aristotle reasoned that to be human was above all to be a spirit. Within the Enlightenment, Rene Descartes solidified this with his hallmark saying, “Cogito ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” Whereas the body can be maimed or destroyed, whereas physical reality is not but a shackle, the soul lives on and can never be divided. In praxis, this turned into a kind of hierarchical dualism. While the body was denigrated, it was the mind and soul that were elevated and truly thought to be divine. To be human was to sit and think, not to work, to love, or to live in community.
Our texts today bring us to the celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord, a time when we remember and commemorate Jesus’ ascension into heaven. If you caught on to the order of service today, you noticed that our scripture readings were backwards from how we normally read them. The Gospel lesson from Luke was read first, and the passage from Acts was read second. This wasn’t a slip up in the office but was instead a deliberate decision, for from what we can tell at this point from our knowledge of the biblical texts, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were likely two books or chapters within one cohesive work. The pivot point at which the work was eventually separated is exactly between our two readings today; we read the last verses Luke and followed them with the opening verses of Acts. And while there are notable differences between these two readings, Luke nevertheless thought that the event was so important to recount it twice.
The first few verses of our text from Acts summarizes all that the Gospel of Luke covered, as Luke notes that “in the first book…I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven,” recounting Christ’s death and resurrection, his speaking about the Kingdom of God, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. Now an important facet of the Gospel of Luke is its intense focus on the Kingdom of God. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus speak again and again about this Kingdom, telling parables and performing miracles that point to that reversal in which it is not Caesar but God that orders all of creation. The Kingdom, Luke notes, is a reversal of the way the world works, and for a people that had been subjugated by the Roman Empire, this would have been a message of hope and empowerment.
So it’s no wonder that, after all that has happened with Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, the disciples’ final question to him before his Ascension is, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” After all, there had been so much talk about the kingdom of God without any obvious signs of it that the disciples surely had to have been getting a little frustrated with the wait. But the response they receive at first glance seems to be a non-answer. Jesus replies that it’s not for them to know the time, but rather tells them that “you will receive power with the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then Jesus somehow defies gravity and is taken by a cloud out of their sight, disappearing forever.
Over at the Met, there’s a painting by the German artist Hans von Kulmbach. In this depiction, all we can see are the feet of Jesus as he is being raised to the heavens, and the disciples are all staring upwards with looks of confusion, astonishment, and complete awe. And as they’re standing there, scratching their heads with their mouths hanging open, two men in white robes suddenly show up beside them asking, “why do you stand looking up toward Heaven?”
There’s a pervasive notion we have that Heaven is somewhere up there. In the Hebrew texts, it seems that we are presented a picture of the cosmos that is in tiers. At the lowest level, we have Hell, where the Psalmist speaks about the depths of Sheol. On the middle level, straddling the line between Heaven and Hell, we have the earth. And somewhere up beyond the stratosphere, we have Heaven. And while our understandings now of the cosmos complicate this to some degree, it’s still a prevailing idea in our own comprehension of the world. We see the scenes in which angels playing harps are floating on clouds, looking down upon the earth. When we go to give God thanks in prayer, we turn our faces upwards towards the sky, as if we would be able to jump in a spacecraft and eventually find the heavenly gates. We get caught staring up at the sky during a meteor shower, dreaming of the better world that is somewhere up there beyond the distant galaxies. We pray for a miracle to come down to save us because we are convinced that we and the world are beyond being helped from anything down here.
Like the Greek dualism, we perceive that this physical realm is somehow lower than the spiritual, that the soul is more important than the body. We know that God is somewhere else; we know that everything in this world is evil and that the only way towards salvation is some kind of aesthetic life, forsaking our bodies and our well-being for our moral purity. We get so focused on what is possible up there, what life is like in heaven where we are finally free of these bodies that weigh us down, that we become what Johnny Cash sang about: “You’re shining your light and shine it you should; But you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good.”
Compare this, if you will, to what Jesus talked about so much in Luke about the Kingdom of God. We can begin with Mary’s Magnificat in chapter one, where she sings of her child that will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; the child that fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away. It’s the kingdom in which Jesus announces his mission in chapter four “to proclaim release to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s the Kingdom of God that belongs to the poor, the Kingdom that is incredibly hard for the rich to enter. It’s the kingdom that Jesus tells his twelves disciples to proclaim when they are first commissioned. As much as popular theology and our general “Christian” worldview might want to dispute it, we find Jesus talking again and again about how the Kingdom of God is not separate from our world now but is rather deeply tied to what is happening in this life. The Kingdom of God that Christ talks so much about is not some pie-in-the-sky, “I’ll Fly Away” perception of heaven. No, the reign of God, indeed heaven itself, is “within you” and in your midst. It’s what we proclaim when we pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” that heaven may manifest itself not separate from our lives but rather deeply in the trenches of what is around us right here and right now. As the Lutheran minister Luke Bouman notes,
In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present.
There is a terrible tendency, I think, to view the Ascension as the point at which we are left alone to simply wait until Christ comes again. We view the tragedies and injustices around us; we see the brokenness and death within our world, and all we do is pray, “Lord, come quickly,” and wait for that second coming.
Looking at our texts this morning, however, I think that we are deeply missing the meaning if this is what we are left with. Like I noted earlier, these are two separate stories about the same event. If we notice where they are placed and read the story closely, however, we’ll find that the Ascension is not only the end of Christ’s bodily presence and ministry within history. No, the Ascension is at the very same time a new beginning. It’s the Ascension that ends the story that we have of Jesus Christ; it’s the Ascension that opens the future of the body of Christ, the Church, to begin its own work within history. For Luke and Acts are one overarching story, and that is the story of Christ’s redemption of the world.
The Ascension is not explicitly talked about in the Gospel of Matthew, but what we do have in its place is something that we in the Church have come to call the Great Commission. As Jesus is on the mountaintop, perhaps in the moments before he is taken to heaven, we hear his final words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” In the Gospel of Luke, we can read, “You are witnesses of these things.” In the Book of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It’s in a way the passing of the baton, if you will. Christ has done his work and is now commissioning the disciples who have been tasked with continuing that work, serving as a living witness to what has happened, and finding those ways in which the Kingdom is breaking through into this world anew.
And we must not forget that the disciples are not doing this under their own power. Rather, they will be granted the very same power that sustained Jesus in his ministry, the Spirit that was upon Jesus to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. It’s this same Spirit that worked through Jesus to heal and perform miracles, the very same Spirit of resurrection. As Jesus’ physical body was no longer with the disciples, they were granted this Spirit that they may be the body of Christ for the world at large, no longer confined to one person but rather spread out to the ends of the earth. What we find in our story today is not as much the Ascension of Christ but rather the eruption of Christ into the entire world. The Kingdom of God did not disappear with Jesus in the Ascension; the Kingdom of God was manifested in the people of God so that it might continue to take root. And the people of God was tasked not as much with bringing people to heaven as much as it was to discover that heave was intruding into their midst, not bringing people to heaven as much as it was bringing heaven in their midst. And that Spirit of God is still calling us into its fold, to join in the world of our redemption and of the redemption of all of creation.
There is another painting of the Ascension by Salvador Dali that I think I like just a little bit better than Kulmbach’s. The image is of Jesus, and we view him from the bottom, much like the disciples would have seen the ascending Christ. But rather than going up into the sky, we see Jesus going in towards what is later discovered to be the nucleus of an atom. In 1950, following the devastating effects of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Dali had a dazzling vision of an atom. The atom, he came to recognize, was the key of the unifying spirit of all reality. Christ did not leave this world to some otherworldly heaven; rather, the divine become so engrained with reality that it permeates what Dali at the time knew as the building blocks of all creation. He’s not being pulled away from the world as in other paintings; he’s moving even more closely to it, connecting all that is and will be. And we do not see Christ’s face; we only see his dusty, bruised feet and his outstretched arms in a cruciformed shape. For Dali, it seems, the Ascension was not an escape from this world but rather a movement that seeks to order the world according to the cross.
We gather next week to remember Pentecost, where the Spirit rushes into that upper room to anoint and empower all of the early disciples to continue in Christ’s work. And as we prepare for that celebration, I feel compelled to ask all of us – perhaps I’m more compelled to ask myself – why are you looking up toward heaven?
Because, my friends, heaven is not up above us in the sky. Heaven is already around us. The Kingdom of God is in our midst even now, if only we have the vision to see it, the courage to proclaim it, and the grace to live into it.
Great God of Heaven, our victory won;
May we reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of our own heart; flesh of our own flesh, whatever befall,
Still be our vision, O ruler of all.
 Acts 1:6
 Acts 1:8
 Acts 1:11
 Johnny Cash. “No Earthly Good.” The Rambler. Columbia Records. 1977.
 Luke 1:52-53
 Luke 4:18-19
 Luke 6:20; 18:24
 Luke 9:2
 Luke 17:20-21
 Luke 11:2
 Luke Bouman, “More Questions Than Answers” on Göttinger Predigten im Internet, May 5, 2005. http://www.predigten.uni-goettingen.de/archiv-7/050505-6-e.html.
 Matthew 28:19-20
 Luke 24:48
 Acts 1:8