Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday Sermon

June 5, 2011

Ascension Sunday

How does one explain the Ascension of Jesus Christ?
Nikita Khrushchev once ridiculed Christianity by remarking humorously that his cosmonauts, on their journeys around the Earth, had never reported seeing Jesus passing by. His remark may well cause some unease in the most thoughtful modern Christians. What is left of our proclamation of the Ascension of Christ if we refuse to take literally the archaic cosmological picture against which Jesus is described as moving from an Earth down here to heaven up there?
In fact, popular cosmological pictures, archaic or modern, have less to do with displaying scientific data about the universe than with bringing out assumptions about the nature of life within it. Atheists are very quick to make light of Christian beliefs. Atheists are very quick to make light of any belief in any intelligent design deity. I find it so sad that some of these people do not realize what they are refusing to understand. There are too many miracles in this world to be that close minded.
In the accounts of the Ascension of Christ we hear from the Acts of the Apostles employ bits and pieces of a cosmological picture which views these matters in a very different way. We should not assume that the authors of our New Testament writings were necessarily unaware that the Earth was round or that heaven and earth were not so simply up there and down here as they seem to suggest. Nonetheless, it was a picture which would have been familiar to any reader of Jewish apocalyptic writing, the book of Daniel for instance, or a passage from the prophet Ezekiel.
In the picture that is read from many of these writings, the universe is certainly awesome. But we are far from aliens in it. It is the work of God, God's glorious throne room. It is run according to God's mysterious purposes, which must finally control the destiny of all of us. If we are alone and afraid within it, that is because his purposes are different from ours. We want to live for ourselves, to promote our own concerns even when they clash with those of God or our neighbors. We want to run as much as we can of the universe on our own terms, however impossible that may be. Sometimes I wonder if this is not why atheists don't want to believe in God; because they will not be able to feel in control.
God is in control, however. Jesus was God incarnate. God came down to be man with us. God could not get our attention the way he wanted our attention, so he came down to be with us; to live like us except for sin. Some questioned why would God do this. Someone questioned why would God need to do this. We are not only not privy to those answers, but neither are we meant to understand the design of God. We are called simply to believe in faith that God does exist; that God is working in the world. God is working in the world as he sees fit in his own mysterious way. That doesn't mean that he does not exist. It simply means he is in control and will not just exist as we think he should. Our impure thoughts cannot possibly fathom his pure thoughts.
Man did not evolve from plants to what we are now, as some scientists would have us believe. Is there some evolution involved in the creation process God used? Most assuredly there is - just not as a scientist is able to explain. God came as man; a man named Jesus. This man Jesus came that we might have life. He came to catch our attention, and that he did. He came and he ministered to our psyche, our souls, and our bodies. He was condemned, just as some today condemn him, and he was tortured and put on a cross to die. And died he did, all because he was trying to bring hope to his people. But, his dying did not stop his plan; it assured it.
Three days later we see Jesus again. This time in a bit more glorious form. Then he stays with his apostles both male and female and all his followers. He stays that they may believe. He stays that they may have the proof that their doubts need. Then he ascends into heaven.
It is against the background provided by this picture that our readings set the suffering and death of Jesus at our hands, and his being raised again to life with God. The picture is in the background, and actually only the useful bits and pieces of it remain. Jesus, dead and risen, is in the foreground for all to see. What the disciples have been witnessing these last weeks is the actual, visible event of God's reaching out to reconcile the whole creation, to save it from the confusion it has brought on itself, to bring it back together in the new life of Jesus Christ. There is no question anymore about the mysterious purposes of the one who sits on the heavenly throne. They are clear now. If the death we tried to use to stop them will not work, no power can do so. No disbelief; no physical harm; nothing.
This feast, then, has to do not with speculations about the universe we do not know, but with God's involvement with the human life we know only too well. With the conflict of human wills, personal, social, national, seemingly even cosmic, this threatened to overwhelm it. It has to do with that, and with our confidence in the ultimate triumph of the new human life which God is bringing into existence in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Just a few short weeks back, we were entertaining the idea that the world was going to end as we know it. The preacher stated that he had mathematically figured it out when God was going to end the world. Not only did Jesus say that only the Father in heaven knows when this will take place; but today we read in the Acts of the Apostles that the believers gathered together and asked Jesus: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus again tells them that it is not for them to know the time or the season that the Father in heaven has established by virtue of his authority. Jesus says these things and is taken up in a cloud.
We cannot help noticing how the disciples are portrayed in the accounts of the ascension we have heard. As is often the case in the Gospels, they are unaware of the real purposes of God unfolding before them. Despite all they have witnessed these last weeks, they still ask the risen Christ will you at this time restore dominion to Israel. They want to know that now that he has been restored miraculously to the human scene, if he will not finally get down to doing what the Messiah is expected to do, for instance redressing the balances between Israel and the nations. The disciples have little notion of the scope of God's plans for human reconciliation, or of the role of Christ in their being brought to fulfillment. They have to be prodded back to Jerusalem to await the gift of the Holy Spirit which will make them bearers of a message they do not yet understand.
We Christians are, unfortunately, more likely to see ourselves Mirrored in the disciples as portrayed here than in the disciples as we will encounter them again in the accounts of Pentecost next Sunday. Despite the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, we secretly tend to think that the death and resurrection of Christ has something to do with the success of our side in the conflict of human wills which still dominates our lives, personal, social, national, most of the time.
We must, on this Ascension Sunday, as well as any other day, pray for the renewal of the Holy Spirit to enable us to see more, far more, absolutely more than that in the work of reconciliation to which we have been called as members of the body of the risen Christ in the world. Christ ascended into heaven to once again become God. Christ ascended into heaven to become God so that we may know him in faith and trust in him with our lives. But, of course, Jesus was already God and did not really need to “become God”, but our feeble brains and faith needed to feel or sense the sensation.
Yes, God could've probably found a far easier way to get our attention. However he chose this way. As Jesus once told his disciples, when we see Jesus we've seen the Father. When we have seen the Father we have seen God. Jesus-God ascended is with us always.
God love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.