Disappearing Feet: A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension

Originally preached in 2010.

Albrecht Dürer, The Ascension, from the Small Passion, Nuremberg 1511

Disappearing Feet: A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension

May 13, 2010

I’ve been thinking about the Ascension these past few weeks in preparation for tonight’s Evensong. I keep reflecting on the oddness of the doctrine of the ascension. It may the aspect of the church’s teaching about Jesus Christ with which we have most difficulty in the twenty-first century. It’s not that the Incarnation or Jesus’ death and resurrection are easy to accept. Rather, I think it’s because both Christmas and Easter have enough cultural significance and liturgical drama that we are able to lay aside most of our doubts and questions, at least most of the time.

Not so with the Ascension. It is a doctrine and a feast that goes unnoticed by the wider culture, and largely unnoticed by Christians as well. So when we come together to celebrate it, we’ve got no crutches of nostalgia or tradition with which to protect ourselves. We are forced to confront it head on.

And that’s the problem. The ascension seems to require a whole lot of cultural baggage that we just don’t carry with us anymore. The very word, ascension, implies the traditional ancient understanding of the universe as a three-tiered structure with hell somewhere beneath our feet and heaven up there beyond the clouds. And that’s something none of us can really take seriously anymore, not since the rise of science, astronomy, and space exploration.

In fact, I hope you chuckled as you glanced at the Durer woodcut that is reproduced on tonight’s service bulletin. It does rather remind one of the blast-off of a rocket. That, combined with the fact that we see Jesus’ toes may lead the less reverent of us to laugh.

The physics of ascension isn’t the only problem. There’s another one, a theological one. For if Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven, how is it that we can still claim to experience his presence among us, his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist? That may not be a big issue for you or me, but it was at the heart of the Eucharistic conflicts during the Protestant Reformation. In fact, some of the reformers argued that because Jesus Christ had bodily ascended and now sat at the right hand of the Father, the body of Christ could not be present in the Eucharistic bread.

So we moderns, or post-moderns, if you will, have a great deal of trouble with the doctrine of the ascension. To find meaning in it in the twenty-first century seems almost impossible. But before dismissing it altogether, let’s look a little more closely at how the gospels deal with it.

The first observation to make is that only two gospels, Matthew and Luke describe the scene of the ascension with Jesus’ disciples gathered around him, looking upward as he leaves earth. Mark, typically, doesn’t say anything about it, but then Mark doesn’t describe the resurrection either.

As is often the case, John is the most interesting. He uses language of ascent throughout his gospel, but it’s often not clear whether he is referring to the cross (“being lifted up”) the resurrection, or the ascension. And because he refers to the cross repeatedly as Christ’s glorification, there’s a sense in which crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are all the same for him.

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples again and again, both before and after his crucifixion, that he will be leaving them. That message is hard for them to hear. Their difficulty of imagining life without the presence of Christ comes out in that poignant resurrection scene when Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Christ in the garden. She falls to his feet and he warns her, “Don’t touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It’s as if he were telling her, “Don’t hang on to me. Don’t hold me down!”

Something of the same comes out in Luke’s account of the ascension in Acts 1. Luke says that Jesus was lifted up and “a cloud took him out of their sight.” But the disciples continued to gaze up toward heaven, until two angels suddenly appeared and asked them why they were still looking up.

The Ascension is not primarily about the physics or chemistry or astronomy of Jesus Christ’s departure from earth. Rather, it concerns the mystery of Christ’s presence and absence among us. We proclaim Christ’s presence among us. We proclaim his presence in the sacraments. We assert that we are the body of Christ; many of us believe that in the face of the hungry, homeless, and naked, we see the face of Jesus.

But yet, Jesus Christ is not here among us. Each time we recite the creed, we proclaim our faith that Christ has ascended to heaven.  We assert that his physical body, though raised, is no longer present with us. If he is present among us, it is in a very different way than he was present among his disciples, whatever we say to the contrary. We cannot touch and feel him; his physical body is not here, no matter what we say.

That is why the gospels, all of them, struggle with the ascension. The gospel writers struggle to convey to their readers what sort of body Christ’s resurrected body was and they also struggle to make us, their readers understand that in spite of the absence of that body, Christ is among us. Thus, Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples, just before he departs from them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That’s why we struggle, in the twenty-first century, with the doctrine of the ascension. We know we do not have the benefit of Jesus Christ’s physical presence among us—most of us would scoff at any claims to the contrary. Many of us would ridicule any beliefs that traces of that presence  are here now, traces like the Shroud of Turin. Instead, our experience teaches us that Christ is present here; present in the hearts of the faithful, in the body gathered, in the bread and wine, and yes, in the faces of the hungry and homeless.

In fact, so obvious is that presence to us, that we cannot imagine what the ascension might mean. We chuckle at images of Jesus’ feet sticking through the clouds, and balk at picturing him actually seated on a throne in majesty, in heaven. Therein lies the meaning of it for us today.

It’s easy for us to claim Jesus is present to us. The words flow easily off of our lips, and onto our mission statements and into our sermons. Because of that, it’s very easy for Christianity, especially mainline liberal or progressive Christianity, to degenerate into social service agencies or political action groups. It’s also easy for us to end up celebrating ourselves and all the good things we do in the name of Christ.

The ascension won’t let us do that. It reminds us that the presence of Christ among us is not all the Christ there is, that whatever our experience of Christ here and now, whatever the church’s experience of Christ and embodiment of Christ over the centuries, that there is something about him that eludes our grasp. The ascension compels us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our neighbor, to seek the transcendent, the traces of the divine, that elude our grasp, elude our sight, and elude our understanding. Amen.

A Sermon of three cities: Madison, Philippi, the New Jerusalem (6 Easter, 2019)

We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stories pronouncing Madison one of the best places to live in the country. Most of us love it here—the restaurants, the entertainment possibilities, the lakes, UW. That Madison is a popular place to live is evidenced by the ongoing construction boom. I was on the near east side, what is now called the Capitol East neighborhood this week. I hadn’t really noticed everything that’s happened there recently. There’s the Sylvee, a new hotel, more apartment complexes. The difference driving down E. Washington today from ten years ago is remarkable. Continue reading

It might be a vision from God, it might be your stomach growling: A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2019

Today marks the end of the program year for our Christian Formation program. It’s a custom here at Grace that on this day we recognize all those who have worked in our Christian formation program as teachers and as volunteers and to invite the children and youth in the program to participate in our service by serving as ushers, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. Things are always a bit chaotic on this day, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We experience the full breadth and depth of our congregation—its diversity in ages. And we see concretely how our Christian formation program has grown over the last decade. This year we added a second class during the 10:00 service to accommodate that growth, and next year, we anticipate dividing the older group that meets at 9 into separate classes for middle and high schoolers. Much of the success of the program is due to the energy, passion, and creativity of Pat Werk, and also to all those volunteers whom we will recognize later in the service.

That’s all a sign of growth and change at Grace. While we might welcome such growth, it’s also important to recognize that growth brings with it some challenges. We may not know or recognize everyone who worships with us on Sunday mornings; the presence of children in our services can also make things a little more chaotic, and not just on this Sunday morning. And we are struggling with space. As we consider splitting the youth into two classes, finding space for the second class to meet will require some flexibility and creative thinking.

In the book of Acts, we read the story of the spread of the gospel and the growth in numbers of the followers of Jesus in the first years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells us a story full of drama and excitement but he also records some of the conflict that such growth involved. We see some of that conflict here, in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you respected, someone in authority told you to do something you had never done before, something that went against everything you had been taught, would have challenged your very sense of identity, who you were, how you understood yourself, your deepest values? Can you imagine that? How would you respond?

That’s just what happened to Peter. He was staying with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and as he waited for lunch, he had a vision that unsettled him and challenged his very sense of self. A cloth comes down, on it are all sorts of unclean animals. A voice calls to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter refuses. The same thing happens three times, and just as the vision comes to an end, messengers sent by Cornelius knock at the door. Peter and some others go with them. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household, the Holy Spirit comes down on those present, and Peter baptizes them.

We hear the second version of that story, as Peter retells it to the gathered community in Jerusalem after his return from Caesarea. It wasn’t a simple update from Peter to the home office. There was grave concern about what had happened while he was traveling:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, they weren’t bothered that Peter had preached to Gentiles or that he had baptized them. What concerned them was that he had eaten with them. Peter had visited Cornelius, stayed with him for several days, and had eaten at his table. From Luke’s perspective, this all would have been offensive to observant Jews.

Let me take a moment to unpack this. It’s crucial to compare the New Testament accounts with what we know from other sources and in this case, Luke is mis-stating the nature of Jewish practice in the first century. Certainly, observant Jews maintained strict dietary laws—eating only those foods that were clean by biblical standards. That’s what was at stake in the vision Peter had. But the notion that as Luke records a bit earlier (Acts 10:28) “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” is wrong. In 1stcentury Palestine, it would have been impossible for Jews not to have had contact with Gentiles. So Luke is depicting Judaism in negative terms here, and also caricaturing the position of Peter’s critics.

Now certainly there were important issues at stake. We will see the conflict again next week as we hear the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and the so-called Jerusalem council. The question whether Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised and to follow Jewish dietary laws was an important one. From the perspective of 21stcentury Americans, it’s hard to understand what was at stake, and to take seriously the concerns around circumcision. We know how the story ended.

But given the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, we must recognize when new testament texts and their authors present Judaism in negative light and provide cover for contemporary anti-semitism. This is one of those places. It’s obvious to us that circumcision and Jewish dietary laws no longer apply and we regard those who wanted to maintain them misguided. They were in a very different place. The relationship between the Jesus movement and Judaism was not defined. The emergence of two religions—Judaism and Christianity—was not at all an obvious development.

But there are other lessons for us here. We should think carefully about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the ways in which our sacred texts and Christian history have led to persecution, anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust.

We often look at the story of Acts, the spread of the Gospel, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the resistance to that from certain parties and interpret our own experiences and the life of the 21stcentury church in light of that narrative. How many times have people said when change is happening in the church, that the Holy Spirit is moving or doing a new thing? When the question is asked that way, the speaker always is advocating that change is good, that the innovation is a faithful adaptation of our faith to new realities.

I’m not so sure. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy that I’ve always found helpful here. The text is addressing the rise of false prophets and raises the question of how to distinguish true from false prophecy. Well, the answer that’s offered isn’t particularly reassuring—basically the advice is to wait and see whether the prophecy comes true. In other words, you can’t really distinguish true and false prophecy until after the fact.

Our congregation is experiencing change. The Episcopal Church is experiencing change, Christianity in America and worldwide is experiencing change. We may be uncomfortable with some of those changes; we may welcome them but as faithful Christians our ultimate task is to discern the work of the spirit, to listen to scripture and tradition, to pay attention to voices on all sides of an issue, and seek God’s wisdom and will in the midst of it, recognizing that our perspective might not be correct in the long run.

And the vision we receive, the voice that tells us, “Get up, kill and eat” may be heaven. It may also be our stomachs growling.





The Disciple named Tabitha: A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2019

When I was a boy, one Wednesday a month, my mother would drop me off at my grandfather’s house to spend the day while she took my grandmother and my sisters to the church to what was called “Sewing.” The women of the church gathered together to work on quilts, comforters, and other sewing projects that would be donated to relief sales or sent to people in need—after natural disasters, for example. I’m not sure when or if the custom ended, if it died out like so many other customs did with our changing culture. Continue reading