21 May 2009

Viri Galilaei - The Ascension of Our Lord

The Ascension of our Lord
Viri Galilaei

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

    Introit: Ye men of Galilee, why wonder you, looking up to heaven? alleluia. He shall so come as you have seen Him going up into heaven, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. -- (Ps.44. 2). O clap your hands, all ye nations; shout unto God, with the voice of exultation.

“He came singing love,
and He lived singing love
He died…singing love
He arose in silence
For the love to go on, we must make it our song
You and I be the singers!”

So begins a song from the New Zealand Hymnal. What was promised is removed for a time, so it can be more fully given.

This moment in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, is fascinating.

So much has happened. We have now walked through the story of His life, death, and resurrection. Now, with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, so much more is promised – but not yet fully given.

Jesus’ last words in The Gospel According to Matthew restate the promise, “Remember: I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Yet, before we receive this gift in its fullness, we will pass through a time when it feels as if we’ve been left to our own devices. What is there to be learned in that time?

In our collect for this feast day of the Ascension, we recite that “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”

We may have thought that Jesus came just for some of us, to redeem only a portion of God’s creation. Those who first followed Jesus and were blessed to be personally reconciled with the Risen Lord, face to face, and who returned to rejoin the fold – they probably believed that at first.

But in this magnificent mystery of Jesus’ Ascension, the glory shared so far with but a few radiates out to fill every corner of creation – including those places we had presumed were irredeemable.

The Ascension is essentially a festival of the future. By it, we see that the life we receive by faith has a destiny, and that destiny includes far more than we have yet asked or imagined.

We are called to move with God in the power of the Spirit as it is being given, to move outside our usual circle to seek and serve God’s presence and life in every corner of creation. This will be for us both a struggle and a delight.

Of course, we need to believe we share this calling and give ourselves to be lifted up by Christ and with Christ, allowing God to forgive and heal us, to send us forth empowered, just as Jesus was sent into the world. With Jesus, we are to be incarnate in daily life, to speak truth to power, to extend a healing touch to those from whom others would flee, and to be ready to take up the cross we are given daily. We are to follow Jesus, even through death, into new life.

Are we ready to embrace so full a calling for ourselves?

There is a wonderful mystery play from the Middle Ages about the Ascension. It is said that after Jesus was lifted up from the earth and was ascending to heaven, the two men dressed in white follow after, straining to catch up with Him. These angels cry out: “Jesus! Jesus! Wait for us!”

Jesus turns to greet them, and as they continue to ascend together, says: “Yes, my friends! Well done!”

One of the angels replies: “That is what we should say to you, dear Lord, for you have done all that has been asked of you! But what will happen next? Isn’t there more to be done?”

Jesus answers: “Well, of course! There is always more to be done! But weren’t you paying attention down there? Didn’t you hear me give them what they will come to call ‘the Great Commission’? Now they will go forth and baptize all people into my continuing life and work, reconciling the whole world to myself!”

The two angels look at one another somewhat hesitantly, and then look back at Jesus. One of them cautiously says: “Well, certainly we heard all that. But haven’t you been paying attention to them? Do you really think you can count on that lot?”

“He’s right, you know,” the other angel says. “Honestly, what’s your back-up plan? What will you do if those you have left behind don’t continue your work?”

Jesus pauses for a moment and then says, simply, “There is no back-up plan.”

There is no back-up plan because the grace set free by the Resurrection, the Ascension, and ultimately the gift of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to affect God’s plan of salvation. The abiding question is whether and how we will choose to join in that work. Will we participate fully in the mending of creation, or will we choose to stand back and watch from a comfortable distance? And what a tragedy that would be, a choice to refuse the invitation to be fully alive.

It is a gift of love, this calling we have received to be as Jesus was and do as Jesus did, as members of Christ’s body. By baptism, we are embraced and challenged to receive the love God offers us in Jesus, and then to move out to share that love unconditionally.

We can choose not to move with God as the life of God radiates out to fill all of creation. We can choose to turn inward and cling to what we have previously recognized as signs of God’s presence among us. Or we can turn in our circles of faith and face outward, rejoicing to recognize and celebrate where God is present and active, even with many who will continue to serve God’s purpose while totally unaware of it.

There is a word in this for each of us personally. Most of us gravitate toward a limited circle of acquaintances, a comfort zone, to which we stay near. So much of our life energy goes into maintaining the borders of that comfort zone, and keeping close to that safe place. And that is a shame. For we know in our hearts that when fully alive, we will find ourselves stepping out of that circle again and again, to discover the Reign of God in ever new ways.

There is a word in this for us as a church and as congregations as well. In these most challenging and difficult times, with great change underway in our finances, our culture, and our global relationships, most will try to keep steering church life back to our personal comfort zones, to hold on dearly to church life as we’ve always known it. But the Risen and Ascended Lord, who is filling all things, beckons us to step out of our comfort zone and discover new ways to celebrate life and love, and to share boldly in the work of reconciling the whole world to God.

All of creation is being filled with the life and healing power of God. When we remember this, it changes how we experience everything. For then we will have confidence that whatever we are called to endure now will lead us in God’s time and in God’s way to be raised and lifted up with Jesus to draw the whole world into deeper companionship with God and one another in Christ.

This truly is grace.

A wonderful prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book, is born of this very moment in our salvation history:
    it is night.
    The night is for stillness.
    Let us be still in the presence of God.
    It is night after a long day.
    What has been done has been done;
    what has not been done has not been done;
    let it be.
    The night is dark.
    Let our fears of the darkness of the world
    and of our own lives rest in you.
    The night is quiet.
    Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
    all dear to us, and all who have no peace.
    The night heralds the dawn.
    Let us look expectantly to a new day.
    new joys,
    new possibilities.
    In your name we pray.

Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan. E-Mail: steve.kelsey@juno.com.