Ascension Sunday – Year A
May 24 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 47:2-3;6-9
Ephesians 1:17-23 | Matthew 28
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Each year, except this year due to the Coronavirus, Deacon Sharon and I take a vacation. We leave Palm Springs for one to two weeks, go sightseeing, attend cultural and religious events, and then return to our home. In relation to those particular trips, our home is both our departure point and our final destination. Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, transferred from last Thursday to today, we celebrate the return of Jesus to God the Father. Jesus returned to the home from whence he came.
How is that so? Didn’t Jesus come into existence on Christmas Eve? No, not quite. Jesus existed long before his human birth. As we read in the first verse of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” Thus, scripture teaches us that Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, and that the Word of God existed before the creation of the universe. Thus today, Jesus returns to where He started. His point of departure and the final destination is the same.
Jesus, as a person of the Trinity, is of one substance with God, existing before the Universe began. God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are an inseparable unity. In becoming human, Jesus united humanity to divinity to share in the life of the Holy Trinity. The ministry of Jesus on earth among us was a microscopically tiny smidgen of time through which God exalted the dignity of humanity by coming among us as a flesh-and-blood, mortal human person. To paraphrase Saint Paul in Philippians, Jesus took on our nature, emptying himself into human form as a servant. In Jesus, God recognized humanity as God-worthy, showing humanity that our true nature is not from the dust of the earth, but in the heaven of the heavens.
Last week, Deacon Sharon preached on how Jesus prepared us for Pentecost by assuring us that the Holy Spirit will come to us to stand beside us as our advocate. In this Sunday’s First Reading, as Jesus was about to ascend to God, Jesus again reminded us of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told his disciples that the Holy Spirit will empower them and that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit as foretold by John the Baptist in the Gospel readings earlier this liturgical year.
The Holy Spirit, of course, is that which makes things happen for Christians. We speak of the “Holy and Life-Giving Spirit” as we pray, and we call down the Holy Spirit as we celebrate the Sacraments. This is particularly true in the Eucharist, wherein that portion of the Eucharistic Prayer called the Epiclesis, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit change ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Our non-Christian friends constantly badger us with the notion that for anyone to rise on a cloud upwards into somewhere called heaven is scientifically impossible. But like much of scripture, the story is an allegory, not a news report. The author of Acts used this metaphor to an audience whose orientation towards the world included a primitive scientific context in which the earth was the center of the Universe; that the sky was a star-studded dome over flat earth above which was Heaven; and below the earth’s surface was Hell. Thanks to Copernicus, we now know that the earth is a round globe revolving with other planets around the sun which is one of many billions of stars and that heaven and hell do not exist as physical places. Heaven and hell are now simply concepts to denote a state of being.
The Ascension of Jesus completes the cycle of salvation in which God became human. Jesus lived in three states of existence. First, he was among us as a human person, with all the same human traits and characteristics as we have. Second, on Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead, not as a physical body like he was previously when he walked the earth with humanity, but as a spiritual body. As Saint Paul tells us in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, the resurrection means a natural body became a spiritual body. Jesus remained in the form of his resurrected body for forty days, the same number of days as he fasted in the wilderness, the same number of days over which Moses received instructions on the law of the Old Covenant and the same number of days that the prophet Elijah journeyed towards the Mountain of God. Third, with the work of Jesus on earth having been fully completed, Jesus ascended into heaven. His resurrected spiritual body of Jesus enters a state of existence in a world beyond our world in his ultimate and final destination. The cloud into which Jesus ascended is a traditional symbol of God by which Jesus returned to the state of eternal divinity of God from whence he came. Jesus was always, and is now, one with God. In the Ascension, all that divided humanity from divinity ended.
When we approach the general subject area of final destinations, we enter the field of eschatology, a fancy word meaning, “last things.” Thus, celebrating the Ascension of Jesus is not recognizing whether or not Jesus in some form arose from the earth in a cloud, but his transition to his present eschatological state. We celebrate the Jesus of the present and future, not the Jesus of the past. The question we address today is, “Who is the ascended Jesus for us?” Or, “Who is Jesus for us now?”
Many religions have seen Jesus as a prophet of things to come, including Muslims, along with some Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God in much the same manner as a prophet declaring a divine vision. But was he referring to the Church as we know it today? Or was he speaking of God’s rule over the human heart? Or something else altogether?
In the views of nineteenth-century protestant theologians, Jesus was the harbinger of a Final Judgment, meaning punishment or annihilation for bad people and a reward in paradise for good people. This view is commonly known as apocalyptic eschatology and has a large following among traditional Christians, particularly our fundamentalist sisters and brothers. They think something called a “dispensation” yet to come, namely that the wrath of God will bring a Great Tribulation on humankind. The term, “Tribulation”, is intended to mean, according to our fundamentalist sisters and brothers, a moment in time when everyone will experience worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain, and suffering, affecting all of creation, after which there will be a judgment of the wicked people of the Earth when the Second Coming of Jesus occurs. For people who think this way, their destiny at the time of the so-called Final Judgment is what matters, not the present world.
However, contemporary progressive scholarship, which we follow here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, teaches that the present world does matter. We see Jesus as a purveyor of subversive wisdom, a creator of wise sayings meant to cope with the present age, not as preparation for an apocalyptic end to human existence. Rather than forecast the end of the present order, we see our relationship with Jesus as part of the ongoing flow of history. For us, salvation is more of an ongoing process than a discrete, dramatic, and sudden event existing solely in the future. For us, Jesus is part of God’s long-term plan to lovingly reveal creation to us so that we may one day be more like God and enjoy an everlasting relationship with God, a relationship made possible through the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The immortal, everlasting presence of the ascended Jesus is found in what he said and did while on earth among us, giving credence to the notion that we are saved not by the death of Jesus, but by his life. We take seriously the idea that Jesus is the Lord of life and as such the author of our salvation. So why did Jesus go through all that cross-and-passion stuff? Because Jesus loved humanity, and for Jesus, love is not just everything, but the only thing.
And why did Jesus love us so much? The answer to that question goes beyond Jesus just wanting us to have good lives. The reason is basic: all of humanity was created in God’s image. God’s image is imprinted on every human person. And I mean, all of humanity, all genders, all sexual orientations, all races, all nationalities, and any other distinction that should not differentiate us in God’s eyes or the eyes of others. All of us have the image of God embedded in ourselves from the moment we are born, and thus, all of us can share in the divine life of God.
As our Second Reading tells us today, we, the Church, are the Body of Christ with Jesus as its head. Biologists often refer to the limbs and organs of a living creature as its members. The Church is a living creature because it is made up of living creatures. The Church is an organism that lives and gives life. The Church breathes the Holy Spirit. The Church has a heart of love beating within it.
The Church nurtures humanity as a mother nurtures her children. An ancient metaphor refers to the church as a female person called Mother Church. But some people get this confused. They think that Mother Church is a particular human religious organization like a denomination. It is not. Although Roman Catholics often think of their particular organization as their mother, Mother Church is not a human organization, but a divine one. It is all the baptized, the entire people of God, notwithstanding anyone’s particular denominational loyalty, a loyalty that does not matter in God’s eyes.
A body is, by definition, alive. Jesus as the Lord of Life still lives among us in a heavenly and spiritual way. Jesus no longer has a distinct mortal body as we do. His Body has become the Church, a mother that nurtures all of us to achieve humanity’s ultimate destination, to be like God and to be with God as part of who God is. Salvation is not deliverance from a fate in Hell as a reward for being a good person, as some denominations teach. One’s good or bad acts do not directly affect one’s salvation in a transactional way, wherein merit with God is either built up or lost, but rather our good works assist the transformation of the person into becoming more like God. That’s what salvation is.
Salvation is becoming like God. We don’t strive to become Godself, but we strive to become a truly human person made in the image and likeness of God. Humankind is called to fulfill the created purpose of eternally growing in likeness to God, and in so doing, we become truly human. This process of growth involves cultivating the image of God within ourselves, exhibited through a true union of personal thought, word, and deed with the will of God. As Saint Maximus the confessor tells us,
“God and humanity are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to humanity through love for humankind, so much has humanity been able to deify itself to God through love.”
Love. That’s what God is. Love is the trait we should develop in becoming like God. Simply put, the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of John tells us, “God is love, and love is from God.” As St Gregory of Nyssa writes,
“God is love and the source of love. The creator of our nature has also imparted to us the character of love… If love is absent, all the elements of the image are deformed.”
What Jesus taught us, in the simplest terms, is to love. In the Farewell Discourses from which we have been reading during Eastertide, Jesus implores us to love one another as Jesus loved us. And that is what the Gospel of Jesus commands us to do, to love. When we love, we become like God. When we love, we move closer to who God is.
The myriad ways of loving God and our neighbor are set out in great detail in the life and work of Jesus set out in the Gospels. However, the concept is pretty simple. What Jesus told us to do can be summarized in the two Great Commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. And because your neighbor was created in God’s image, in loving your neighbor, you actualize your love for God. That is the essence of living the Gospel of Jesus. Your neighbor is every other person, particularly those in distress.
The Ascension marked the definitive end of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the commencement of the work of the Church. From his place at God’s right hand, the ascended Jesus carries on what he began on earth through his new body, the Church, that is, the community of all believers. Jesus teaches through the apostles and evangelists of the Church. Jesus ministers through its prophets and pastors. In and through the Church, Jesus continues to heal and to comfort; to forgive and to include.
The text of today’s Gospel, called “The Great Commission”, declares what the Church is supposed to do. We, the Church, as the spiritual heirs of the original followers of Jesus, are sent out to preach the Gospel unto the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations. I emphasize “all.” All means all. The Gospel is meant to dissolve all social and cultural boundaries meaning there is no room for any kind of discrimination, be it by race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other immutable characteristic.
The universality of the Great Commission has challenged believers from the time of its utterance to our very day. Different ages confront various aspects of it. The early Church experienced tension as it moved from an exclusively Jewish context into the Gentile world. Today’s Church continues to struggle with diversity as it strives to enfold the many cultures of humanity under the umbrellas of God’s love. We can see this in the many forms of liturgy that have evolved over the history of the church and continue to evolve. But even when we see ecclesiastical practices that make our blood boil, the Great Commission remains the same: Make disciples of all nations. Preach the Word. Baptize.
So how do we preach the Gospel? Not by just delivering homilies or speeches. We preach the Gospel by doing it. Think of the word “Gospel” as a verb as well as a noun. A quote attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi has him saying, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Whether or not he actually said exactly that is a subject for scholarly debate, but the best information available has Francis saying,
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching….and as for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”
What Saint Francis is saying is that what you do is more important than what you say. Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk. The walk we are to walk is the walk of love for God and neighbor. Remember the New Commandment of Jesus to love one another as Jesus loved us. All of that will help us in our journey to our goal to become like God and become one with God, who is our final destination. AMEN.