Last Thursday was Ascension Day and it was interesting to hear from parishioners the various takes on that day. Fred said that when he told people at work that he was going to Church that night they were surprised because it was not Wednesday and when he said he was going because it was Ascension Day, it was crickets. No one knew what he was talking about. On the other hand Kelli told me that she has pen-pals in Europe and they treat it as a national holiday with banks and schools and businesses closed. While that is wonderful the sad part is that few go to Church, they just treat it as a day off.
So Ascension Day is treated like the redheaded stepchild. Everyone understands Christmas and Easter and many understand celebrating Pentecost, but what is Ascension Day about? Thankfully the Church gives us Ascension Sunday so that we can find out.
First the Ascension completed Jesus’ mission. Just as Easter gives us the rest of the story after Christmas, so the Ascension of Jesus gives us the rest of the story after Easter. God’s plan for Jesus was not only that He would be humbled, take on flesh and die for the sins of the world, but also that He would be raised from the dead as the first fruits of those who had fallen asleep. Then He would return to the Father, be exalted to God’s right hand and given a Name that is above every Name. It is not until the Ascension that the work of our salvation is completed. I will explain why in a moment but first I need to say a few words about the language we use to describe the Ascension of Jesus.
We need to understand that when the writers of the Scriptures are describing things that are not of this world, they use descriptions of this world that we can understand, but they give them to us as symbols. They use these symbols so that we can envision the truth but we are to understand what they are describing it is even better than that. When Yuri Gagarin, the Russian Cosmonaut returned from space in 1961, he said, “There is no God; I’ve been up there, and I didn’t see him.” Poor Yuri thought that when we speak of Jesus being in heaven that heaven is a place above the clouds. While heaven is indeed a reality, it is a not a place above the clouds that you can take a spaceship to. It is better than that. Jesus returned to the glorious presence of Almighty God. And when we speak of Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father we are not confessing that he is literally in a chair on the Gospel side of God. It is better than that. It is a symbol that He has been given all power and dominion.
But let me return to this idea of the Ascension completing our salvation. Under the Old Covenant, on the day of the Atonement, animals would be sacrificed and their blood would be captured. But the death of the animal was only part of the ritual. Next the High Priest would take the blood of the animals and enter into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood over the top of the altar. So to complete a sacrifice that was an atonement for the sins of the people there had to be both the shedding of blood AND the presentation of that blood to God. In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple not made by human hands and He did so as our High Priest. And what He brought to God was not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as atonement for our sins. Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” So Jesus fulfilled both the shedding of His blood AND the presentation of that sacrifice to God by the Ascension and that is why I say that that the Ascension completes our salvation.
A second reason that the Ascension of Jesus is so important for us is because He remains our High Priest in the heavenlies and as our High Priest he ever lives to make intercession for us. Having suffered and been tempted in every way that we suffer and are tempted, He knows exactly what we are going through and so He knows exactly how to pray for us. The Gospel lesson today is a portion of what is called The High Priestly prayer and in it we can get a glimpse of the kinds of things that Jesus is praying for us.
J.R. Miller, who was a famous 19th century Presbyterian pastor and author, tells of a time when as a youngster he quietly opened the door to his mother’s bedroom. As he did he saw her on here knees in prayer and he heard her mention his name. Without her noticing him, he quietly shut the door and went on about his business. But that image of his mother interceding for him remained with him the rest of his life. It was no doubt a key element of his going into ordained ministry. But what was particularly poignant for him was that she spoke his name in prayer. He wondered how many hundreds of times she must have done so in her private prayer closet and he grew strength from knowing that his mother prayed for him.
On this Mother’s Day I think all of us can relate to that story and give thanks for our godly mothers who not only gave us life and love but whose prayers have done for us more than we can even imagine.
After J.R. Miller’s mother died, he wrote these words. “When death came at length, and sealed those lips, the sorest sense of loss that I felt was the knowledge that no more would my mother be praying for me.” Actually that is where we as Anglicans would differ from the good pastor. We don’t believe that she quit praying for him any more than she quit loving him as she has moved from this life to the next. The only change is that she has moved on to a much better place to pray for him. But even if he could not accept this theology, J. R. Miller did not need to be too anxious because even if his mother failed to pray for him, Jesus is on the job, always and forever making intercession for him.
I find that a very powerful image that provides great comfort. It is so easy as the Prayer Book says, to be wearied by the changes and chances of this life. It can be a challenge at times to find a place of encouragement. The image of Jesus praying for us by name is that place. When you feel all alone; remember that Jesus is praying for you by name. When you are in sorrow, need, sickness, danger, or any other kind of adversity; remember Jesus is praying for you by name. Above all, on those days when you wonder if you will be faithful to the end of the race; remember that Jesus is praying for you by name. We may wonder at times if our prayers are getting through but we can never doubt that the Father is listening to the Son.
A third reason that the Feast of the Ascension is so important to the life of the Church is that it is only by His going away, that Jesus could then be present with us all. While on earth, Jesus was located in one place. So for the disciples to see Him and to witness His ascension they had to travel to meet Him on a specific mountain. But 10 days after Jesus’ ascension they received the promised Holy Spirit who now makes Christ present to all of His people at all times and in all places. Through the Holy Spirit He is present wherever two or three are gathered in His Name. Through the Holy Spirit He is present in the Sacrament upon the Altar. Through the Holy Spirit He is present in the hearts of His faithful people.
We tend to take that truth for granted as Christians but it is a unique privilege that is unknown to many people of other faiths. For example while Islam copied Christianity in giving Mohammed a kind of temporary ascension, but there is no promise that Mohammed will be with them in their daily lives to empower them to love God and to keep His commandments. Most of the world religions give precepts to live by or offer wisdom for life but it ends there. Some pagan religions even make it their goal to appease the gods and keep them AWAY so that they don’t do harm. But in Christianity we have the incredible promise of Jesus that He will be with us to the end of the ages and it is the ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit that makes that promise possible.
Fourth, the Ascension of Jesus changes our position before God. That is right I said OUR position before God. When Jesus, ascended on high, He took humanity with Him because He remains fully God and fully man. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Normally when someone leads a dual life it is not a good thing. They lead a dual life because they are hiding some big secret that could end up getting them on the Jerry Springer Show. But as Christians we are called to lead a holy version of a dual life. We are to live our lives in the here and now as coworkers with God on earth and at the same time understand that our citizenship is in heaven and our heart is to be where our home is. We prayed in today’s collect that the Holy Spirit would exalt us to that place where our Savior has gone before and yet we are to be good stewards while on this earth.
That being the case we should not get too attached to this world, or accept the world’s standards for our lives, or even have the same goals. The world says that he who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose His soul.” So seeing ourselves seated with Christ in heavenly places has an impact upon how we live our lives in the here and now in a very concrete way.
Lastly, the Ascension is the prelude for His coming again. The angels told the disciples that Jesus was going to return from heaven the same way that He went up into heaven. In another place Jesus said that He had to go away in order to prepare a place for us so that where He is we will be also. When He returns from heaven the same way that He went up to heaven it will be a great and terrible day. It will be a great day for all who have put their trust in Him. He will return to raise us from the dead giving us new and incorruptible bodies and bring us to a new heaven and a new earth. It will be a terrible day for those who have rejected Him and have been on the side of evil because they will be destroyed right along with the rest of God’s enemies.
Additionally this promise of the angels keeps us from being deceived by false messiahs. He who ascended into heaven will one day descend from heaven. So if a guy claims to be the Messiah and pulls up in a Buick, he ain’t it.
There is so much more that could be said about the Ascension but I hope you can see why this event is so central to the story of our salvation and why the Church has declared it to be one of the seven principle feasts of the year. Canon Greg, whose quite the card put on his Facebook page that he hoped we would have an uplifting Ascension Day. Knowing all the Jesus did for us by this day, we could have no other. Amen.