Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Ascension Thoughts

I wrote this for my congregation, on May 29, 2014, the Feast of the Ascension. May 29th this year was the 40th day of Easter, the day when Luke recounts Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven (twice, actually, in Luke 24:50-51, then again in Acts 1:1-11). The Ascension is always a Thursday (since Easter Day is always a Sunday), and rarely celebrated outside of the most liturgical protestant churches, regardless of their tradition. Sometimes, we do celebrate the Ascension of Christ the Sunday following the day, but that’s about it. For United Methodists, this is somewhat ironic, as the worship book John Wesley sent to America in 1784 included texts for only 3 days aside from Sundays—Christmas Day, Good Friday, and the Ascension.

Wesley was right that we need the Ascension (not just because the Risen Christ should, reasonably, still be walking around with us otherwise), but because Advent (the return of the King) is impossible without it! As usual, we have a powerful hymn from Charles Wesley we often sing for Ascension, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” in our Hymnal. The first stanza is familiar enough:
Hail the day that sees Him rise, Alleluia!
To His throne above the skies, Alleluia!
Christ, awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
Reascends His native heaven, Alleluia!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.    Revelation 21:1-2 NRSV
However, as is often the case, Charles wrote more than we’ve kept (it’s actually a rather long hymn). Toward the end, he references the end-goal of the Ascension:
Ever upward let us move, Alleluia!
Wafted on the wings of love, Alleluia!
Looking when our Lord shall come, Alleluia!
Longing, gasping after home, Alleluia!
There we shall with Thee remain, Alleluia!
Partners of Thy endless reign, Alleluia!
There Thy face unclouded see, Alleluia!
Find our heaven of heavens in Thee, Alleluia!
There it is—in sections of the hymn we don’t sing, a clear reference to the joining of Heaven and Earth! “Looking when our Lord shall come, Alleluia!” followed by that wonderful image of the renewed Heavens and Earth that rings of the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” from Revelation 21 (NRSV), the final answer to the prayer “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Bishop N. T. Wright, in a Sunday after Ascension sermon to the Diocese of Durham (England) from 2007 put it this way:
When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered. 
The whole sermon is worth looking up and reading. Our hope isn’t going to heaven when we die, but beyond that, of heaven and earth made one. What that means is, what we do now isn’t just about living well enough to “get to heaven,” but instead to live and work to make this more like the King is on the throne already—because he is! After all, that’s what the Ascension means—Jesus is Lord of all creation, and reigns from the heavenly throne so that his presence can be felt in all things. So the work we do to fight cancer, to feed the hungry, to care for the earth, to end malaria… all of it is of eternal significance, because as Charles Wesley put it when our Lord shall come “There we shall with Thee remain, partners of Thy endless reign, there Thy face unclouded see, find our heaven of heavens in Thee.”