03 May 2008

Beam up Jesus, Scotty: Sermon for Easter Season/Ascension

The following was a sermon I wrote for an English service at our parish in May 2008. Needless to say, there was a lot of suppressed chortling and WTF looks, which is just the way I like it. :-)

Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11)

The Easter season has, for the untrained yet modern eye, a lot of odd things going on. On Good Friday we have a rabbi being falsely accused and executed for saying we should be nice to each other. Then he comes back from the dead. Then, as we heard at the last English service, he does a vanishing act after walking along with some of his disciples – he breaks some bread and »poof!«. And now today we have Jesus doing his very own forerunner of »Beam me up, Scotty«.

Now I’m not going to remotely suggest that Jesus Christ went up to some Starship Enterprise waiting on him. But that’s what the text of the first reading sounds like at first glance: Jesus is »taken up into Heaven«, as if Jesus is up there in the stars and galaxies swirling above us, doing warp eight. Maybe the two guys in white are the landing party. As for us, we even use the word »heavens« as if the sky – or outer space – is indeed where Jesus went when he left his disciples.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel make it sound like that as well: He’s returning to the Father, going to Heaven, leaving the world. Live long and prosper.

The name of this particular season doesn’t help: Ascension Day. Christ »ascends« into heaven. The German word is even worse, Himmelfahrt, as if Christ gets into a car or spaceship and – zoom! – off he goes.

That’s not really what is happening, so I’ll stop weirding you out with that. I’ll weird you out with something else: Merry Christmas!

You may not see any Christmas trees or greenery, and the weather sure doesn’t look like a White Christmas outside, but today we celebrate Christmas – or more exactly, the fulfillment of Christmas. You see, Christmas is when God became incarnate. He walked the Earth as one of us. That says a lot about God and a lot about us.

To paraphrase from a sermon I once read, let’s say we heard that there was a cat that had died and then came back from the dead by God’s power, and used that power to do great things to help other cats. We’d know two things: One, that cat was pretty special, and two, God thinks cats are worth saving, because after all, He sent a cat to help kitties all over the place.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t a cat or a dog or a fish or a cow, but a human being. God sent His son to be with us and to show us the Way. He cares about us: as the Bible says, »for God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son«. Not only that, but because God became human, God knows what it’s like to be human. When we suffer, or go through rough times, it’s reassuring to know that God isn’t just putting us all through this, He went through it Himself, even death. God loves us very much and knows just how we feel.

So on Ascension, this Christmas incarnation stuff comes full circle: Jesus returns to His Father, and the cycle is complete. Not unlike the spinning of a galaxy coming full circle. Life is a series of cycles, of things coming to fruition. Ascension is the completion of such a cycle, just as our own lives are smaller cycles inside far greater ones.

Ascension is thus a reminder: First and foremost of God’s love and transcending power. But also of ourselves and our need to keep moving, to keep growing, to keep learning, as Time’s Arrow pulls us on and on along life’s path. What kind of a path, though?

The path of Ascension is not about is physical laws or literal senses of direction. Christ did not take a celestial elevator and certainly did not get beamed up. To think in such terms of »where is Heaven« is to fundamentally misunderstand the whole story of salvation. We can’t fly to Heaven any more than Jesus could.

There are, however, yet again hints of a journey in Jesus’ words, of travel. Over and over again, Jesus uses motion and travel to express what He is about. »I am the Way and the Truth and the Life«. Indeed the Christian Church itself in the early days was simply called »The Way«.

So Ascension is a story of progress, of growth, of achieving higher states of being. Not in a literal sense, as if taller people are closer to God than shorter ones. Rather, we reach a higher spiritual plane, of traveling higher and higher within ourselves to discover more about us. The more we explore and improve ourselves and shine light within the darkest recesses of our minds, the more we see and learn, the closer we get to God. Most importantly, we pass on the knowledge and insight that we find on to the next generation, and the cycle begins anew. Each of us has been given the power to ascend, to get ever closer to Truth.

Today’s archaic-sounding liturgy is also a reminder of that journey. Ancient people went before us, and we follow in their footsteps. As an old Anglican once said – Sir Isaac Newton – we stand on the shoulders of giants. As we recite the same prayers our forebears did, we remind ourselves of the Way of Christ. By looking backwards, we also force ourselves to look ever forwards. We learn.

Thus the Church is The Way. As we sit here together, sharing Communion with one another, teaching and learning from one another as well as from the wisdom handed down to us over the generations, we walk on Christ’s Way – a path that leads ever upwards, higher and higher, until we can reach the proverbial stars. Amen.

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