Easter 6, Year C, May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5, John 14:23-29
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This Thursday is Ascension Day. Historically, it’s a very important Christian holiday. Here in America we’ve mostly forgotten about it, but in other places—Germany, for example—it’s still celebrated enough that they get the day off. Whether we remember it or not, it’s still part of our confession of faith. “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” The Creed gives a very bare-bones version of Jesus’ life: it doesn’t list any of his miracles, or any of his teachings, or any of his parables. He was born, he was crucified, he was raised, he ascended to heaven, he will come again. All the stuff that got left out, but the ascension was left in.
So, what is the ascension? Let’s take a look at the big picture here, what the end of Jesus’ time on Earth was like. Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, and spent the next forty days appearing to various of his followers. The women in the garden, Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus, Thomas in the upper room, Peter and the rest of the disciples on the beach for a fish fry. All the various stories—and there aren’t many of them, but they are all significant—of Jesus being with various people after he rose from the grave take place in a span of forty days. Then, after forty days, Jesus returned to heaven. The Bible stories describe this as Jesus literally rising up from the ground and flying up into the air. That may be why we don’t talk about the ascension much; it seems a little weird and magical and superstitious to modern science-minded people who know that while heaven exists it’s not a literal, physical kingdom sitting up there in the sky somewhere. Ten days after Jesus ascended—which makes it fifty days after he rose from the grave—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost and sent them out into the world. And, as Christians, we believe that Christ will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the dead will be raised, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and heaven will be part of earth.
Forty days after Easter is this Thursday, so that’s the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, when he went back to heaven after his resurrection. And I thought about using the readings for Ascension Day today, the passages where the Bible actually recounts Jesus’ return to the Father’s side, but then I read the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday and realized it does a better job of explaining why the ascension is important than the readings actually about the ascension itself do.
Today’s Gospel reading is part of the Farewell Discourses. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ long night of teaching during the Last Supper, all of the things he told his disciples in his last night with them before his death. Some of those teachings are instructions—the great command to love one another, for example—and some are explaining what’s going to happen and why, not only at his death but after it. Jesus tells them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.'”
Now, that’s all kind of complicated. But the thing is, when he talks about going away, he’s not just talking about his resurrection. When Jesus died, he only spent three days in the grave and then he rose again and came back. But forty days after he rose, he ascended, and fifty days after he rose, the Holy Spirit came. And the night before he died, Jesus spent a lot of time telling his disciples that it was important that he leave them, that he would send the Holy Spirit to them. And later in this speech, he tells them that it’s better for them if he goes, because then he can send the Holy Spirit.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life that I would have dearly loved to have Jesus’ physical presence with me. Times when I would have given anything for concrete, firm proof of God’s love for me, or times when I would have liked a simple, clear, direct statement from Jesus’ own mouth, so I would know exactly what God was trying to tell me without having to pray or discern or interpret anything. And I’m sure many of you would love that too. It’s great to have spiritual assurance; in a lot of ways, it would be even better to have physical, tangible, connection with God. The thing is, though, that when Jesus was physically present in human form, he could only be in one place at once. The Spirit, on the other hand, is like the wind. It can be everywhere at once. With everyone at once, not just one at a time. God can work on a much larger scale through the Holy Spirit than through the Son. So, yes, it is better for us to have the Spirit than if Jesus had stuck around in the flesh.
But as I was reading this passage, I wondered if it wasn’t also about something deeper. I thought about what it was that Jesus did when he died on the cross and rose again, I thought about the kingdom of God, and how Jesus always said it was near. I thought about how he’s coming again, to judge the living and the dead. I thought about how all the writers of the New Testament talk about how in Jesus, God was uniting us to Godself. I thought about how we become part of Christ, his body in the world. I thought about how we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptisms. I thought about how Jesus was so insistent that he had to ascend back to heaven, that it would be better for us if he did than if he stayed here on Earth. I visualized the course of his life and actions in my head. He started out in heaven, then he came to earth and was born, then he died and rose from the grave, then he ascended back into heaven, and he’s coming back one day, and then heaven and earth will be united, made one. And I realized that it looked like a needle and thread sewing two pieces of cloth together. If you’re sewing, you take two pieces of cloth. You push the needle down through both, and then up through both, and then down again. Through this process, the two pieces of fabric become one whole piece.
Isn’t that what Jesus does? He travels between heaven and earth, bringing the two together, and uniting them. The kingdom of God is near because Jesus is near, because Jesus brings the two together. God and humans are united because we connected with Christ in our baptisms, and the Son and the Father and the Spirit are one. In Christ, God was reconciling us to God’s self. In Christ, the world is redeemed and made new. In Christ, heaven and earth are close and will one day be united. If heaven and earth used to be separate, Jesus Christ is the thread bringing us together and making us one.