Preached at the Church of the Advent, Boston, Massachusetts, on the Feast of the Ascension
For a number of years it has been the brave habit of this exceptional parish to invite a guest to this pulpit on the occasion of the Feast of the Ascension. It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since I was first invited to be here, and I have been deeply grateful in my prayers for the rector’s cordial invitation, and for the opportunity to return.
For at least a little while I allowed myself the pleasant thought that being invited to return was a sign that I had done a reasonably good job back in May of 2003. But as today grew closer I realized that perhaps it was more likely the case that I was being given a second chance to get it right.
I’ve observed that it is not always, but often, Father Warren’s practice to invite to this place on this day preachers who are, to say it politely, from the more Protestant hues of the Christian rainbow. That would certainly be true of me, and I suppose there is a kind of agenda to it. Anyone would be honored to be invited to speak in the pulpit of the Church of the Advent, and so of course we answer eagerly and affirmatively. And then we have to go rushing off to the library to remind ourselves just what the Ascension was all about, and why we somehow missed it when we were plowing through Barth’s Church Dogmatics.
The result of this for you must be a little tiresome, because more often than not it probably ends up resulting in a sermon that is the theological equivalent of a five-paragraph essay on “Everything I learned about the Ascension since Monday.” No matter who gives it, it pretty much ends up being the same sermon.
And as I review my own work from so long ago, that is pretty much what I think I did. So on this occasion, with the benefit of some sustained reflection, I want to risk doing something else.
My old boss Peter Gomes used to say that the best thing about a pulpit, and especially this pulpit, is that it puts you ten feet above contradiction. But it’s exactly that usual difference between preacher and people that I want to give up this evening. Because I want to include myself in the audience to whom Saint Luke writes those opening lines of the Acts of the Apostles. I want to be counted among you as Theophili—the lovers of God.
Of course we don’t know just what Luke meant by that peculiar form of address. Theophilus is a given name in Greek, the equivalent of the Latin “Amadeus.” And there is a body of opinion among scholars that the evangelist Luke did indeed address his two-volume history to a specific person named Theophilus.
But there is an alternative view which I find more compelling; that Luke has in mind a far broader audience, any of us who aspire to be known as lovers of God. And so, O Theophili, that is the community I want to be a part of with you. Saint Luke is addressing all of us, together, with his account of these events.
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Having said that, I want you to notice something straight off. If you thought we repeated ourselves a little in the readings appointed for this evening, you’re right. Luke gives us an account of the Ascension not just once, but twice—once at the end of Volume I, and again at the beginning of Volume 2. It’s a little like beginning the sequel with the last five minutes of the first movie.
Because of the literary structure here involving two books linked by the story that closes one and opens the other, it’s extremely easy to overlook something that should be quite remarkable: It is not the birth of Jesus that Luke thinks is so important as to mention twice. None of the parables, none of the miracles, not the trial, not the death, not even the resurrection get mentioned twice by Luke.
It is only this event, the Ascension of our Lord, that merits two tellings in Luke’s writing. Protestant that I am, that holds me to account. What is so urgently important about the Ascension that Luke would treat it twice? What does it mean for our lives as disciples? What’s the point we’re meant to draw away from this? What if it’s meant to be a great deal more important than we have imagined?
Ten years ago, as a much younger man, I ended my efforts here by offering the thought that instead of being the Christmas Christians we Anglicans are usually thought of being, or Good Friday Christians like our Lutheran friends, or Pentecost Christians like our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we should all think of ourselves as Ascension Christians. It seemed like a good line at the time. But I can’t find in the text of that sermon much evidence that I had any idea what it might mean.
Now, I think I do. And that thought is inspired by this realization that alone among the signal events in the life of our Lord, Luke mentions this moment, the Ascension, twice.
• • •
After all, what is the Ascension? How shall we make sense of it?
There are scholars who hold the view that the story of the Ascension served a specific, instrumental purpose. After the Resurrection, a great many people were apparently popping up claiming to be the resurrected Jesus. Somehow a line had to be drawn under the story of Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances to the disciples. And so the Ascension came about as an answer to literary question: How do you kill off a character who won’t die?
Well, maybe. I think there’s more theological urgency here. And I now see the urgency as related to, and underscoring, a central theme of the gospel message we have, and we have to proclaim.
The essential point of the Ascension is that Jesus is not merely raised from the dead, but raised to heaven. The work begun in the Incarnation is ended in a last act of revelation—revealing the last piece of evidence about who Jesus is. There can be no doubting that Jesus is fully human; he suffered and died. But Jesus is not merely a human. He is not even merely a human who died and was restored to life by the God of life and love. Jesus is the God of life and love. The Ascension is the part of the story that sets the seal on the claim for the divine nature of Christ.
The story doesn’t begin here. It doesn’t even end here. Our faith is that the Ascension is the midpoint of a story we are still in the midst of. It is just possible that the place of the Ascension at the pivot of the story is meant to be an interpretive lens for what came before, and a hint for what is coming after.
Let’s start with the obvious. The ascension reveals Jesus as God. There is a reason Jesus goes up, not around or through. Jesus ascends because God is above us. Jesus is not just our maker, defender, redeemer and friend; Jesus is our Lord, our sovereign, our king.
That isn’t just prosaic. It’s a hard truth for us, creatures of this culture, to consider. It means that the Kingdom of Heaven that we proclaim and that we are called to build is not and shall not be a democracy. It will not General Convention, it will not diocesan convention, it will not the annual meeting, it won’t be a New England town meeting;. By the grace of God it will not be United States Congress.
We are deeply conditioned to associate dignity with democracy and equality. And for this world, for this dispensation before the end of the story comes, that is unquestionably the best we can do.
For now. But what we are meant to be working for, what we are praying for, what God is bringing in at the end of the story is a kingdom of which God is the final and eternal sovereign, and in which we are not citizens, but subjects—and heirs.
We enact that kingdom here in the form of liturgy. We acknowledge the absolute difference, the wholly otherness, of God. The liturgy is not merely a performance, it is preparation for the kingdom that is coming.
That is the future toward which the Ascension points us. What about now? What if we took the Ascension as seriously as Luke wants us to? How would we read the rest of the story he wrote through that lens?
We are in year C of the Lectionary Cycle, Luke’s year. And all year long, and for the coming season of Pentecost, we hear Luke’s version of the ministry of Jesus.
As you listen to these readings in church, pay attention to how often the vision Jesus is offering is one that levels the inequalities of this world. Remember that Luke’s account of the ministry begins with Jesus preaching in the temple—a story only Luke tells. Good news to the poor, liberty to the captives; today this has been fulfilled in your hearing. What follows isn’t reverence, but a riot.
But it happens again and again—Jesus offers a vision of the order of this world turned upside-down, with those on the bottom elevated to the top. Luke’s gospel is, in the simplest summary, a gospel of radical equality. It is one that lays the axe at the root of all of the structures, all of the hierarchies, all of the systems of privilege we build—economic, yes, but political, ethnic, racial, all of it. All of it.
Luke’s gospel is a constant reminder that our innate need always to be building hierarchies is exactly evidence of our fallenness. And the icing on the cake is the Ascension itself, exactly because it reveals the true structure of the Kingdom of God.
That is the message we have to proclaim here and now, all of us who are lovers of God. Here in this moment, in this time, when all around us the inequalities that divide us are growing—inequalities of wealth and health, of education and occupation, of hope itself.
Lovers of God, we are called to step into the midst of this moment and proclaim the radical equality in which God has made us. Some may be richer, some may be smarter, some may be more powerful or more beautiful or more famous or more popular, some may even occasionally occupy pulpits—but all of that is as nothing against the simple fact that each and every one of us, inside the church or out of it, stands in the dock as a sinner before a righteous judge, and for every one of us our only hope is a merciful God. We are equal because Christ is our king.
I began with a text, and you well might have wondered what happened to it. Well, now I hope you know.
This is the great hope Paul was talking about that we’ve been called to: through the work of the Cross, God means for us to be more united by our humanity than divided by our hierarchies.
Here, in the Ascension, is the glorious inheritance promised us; that in Jesus Christ we proclaim not just a teacher, not just a prophet, but the God of all creation as our king and lord.
And here is the greatness of the power offered to us, Lovers of God. It is nothing short of the power that enables us, working together, to rebuild this world into that Kingdom, one our Lord will recognize and possess at the end of the story as the kingdom of love and righteousness, of equality and humility, of which Christ only is the head. Amen.