Ascension Day Sermon (transferred) 2021

Who among us – mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend – has not spent time deeply engaged with a young child in a game of “peek-a-boo?”

You know that game, where you are before a young child and you either hide behind your hands or their favorite blanket, and then pop out and say “peek-a-boo,” only to have the young child erupt in laugher and glee upon what to them is your surprise return. Similarly, who has had to scramble to pick up a dropped toy or blanket to quickly halt a glass-shattering squeal from a child who thought that because they could no longer see their toy or blanket that it was gone forever, only to be delighted and overcome with joy when magically it appeared once again before them.

I did my undergraduate studies in music and psychology, and I was fortunate to work with an amazing early childhood development psychologist as her research assistant.  Early childhood development psychologists, mostly informed by the work of Jean Piaget, tell us that the surprise the child experiences each time we re-appear or bring back a missing object after only a moment’s absence, is because the child has not yet developed what is called “object permanence.”   In other words, the child must learn or grow into the knowledge that just because we can no longer see someone, or something, it does not mean that it/they no longer exist.  The ball that rolled behind the sofa still exists.  When we hide behind our hands or leave the room, we still exist and have not vanished into thin air. 

Each year as the Season of Easter winds down and draws to a close, with our remembrance of Ascension Day and next week Pentecost Sunday, I feel almost as though we have been listening to series of stories about a group of disciples that, in a tongue-in-cheek manner of speaking, have yet to develop a sense of object permanence when it comes to the risen Christ in their midst.

Now in fairness to the early followers of “The Way,” we have had some two thousand years to try to grapple with the resurrection and to discern the impact on our lives as followers of the Risen Christ.  Those who lived in 1st-century AD Jerusalem, however, did not have this luxury. Although the concept of resurrection does find its way into later Hebrew scripture and writings, those of a Greco-Roman background were at a loss to understand or accept the resurrection as possible – not to mention the ongoing debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees when it came to the possibility of resurrection of the dead.

With this as a backdrop, we come to our scripture for today,  both the end of the Day of Resurrection and the Gospel of Luke. By all accounts, it was quite a day.  It began early in the morning with a question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The women remembered his promise and ran to tell the disciples, but, alas, they did not believe and thought it was an “idle tale.”  Later in the day, as two followers were “getting out of Dodge,” they met a stranger, and the man asked them about the conversation they were having as they made their way.  Their response to the stranger is one of my favourite lines in all of scripture: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  In other words, “Have you been ‘under a rock’?” The journey then takes a very interesting turn, and the stranger opens not only scripture but their hearts and minds as well.  In the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened, and they saw the stranger for who he truly was, the Risen Christ.  Peek-a-boo!

Later that day, as the two were gathered with the others, and while they were recounting the details of their encounter with the Risen Christ, Jesus stood among them, “but they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit.”   Now he had told them what was going to happen, the women had told them what had happened, and the two had just seen him and told them, yet they were still in disbelief and fear.

After meal number two, he once again opened for them all that was said about him in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms.  Then their eyes and their hearts were open, and they knew him. “Then He led them out as far as Bethany.” (Bethany, some say, Jesus considered his home. It was the home of Martha and Mary; we know it was the place where Jesus raised Lazarus, his friend, from the tomb; and it was also the place Jesus chose to spend the night before he entered Jerusalem for the final time before his death.) “Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands, he blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”

Just like that he was gone again! Or was he?  There appears to be some discrepancy about the timing of the Ascension.  In Mark it seems to be on the Day of Resurrection, and in Luke it is clearly on the day of Resurrection, yet in the Acts of the Apostles, which some suggest is by the same author or community as Luke, we are told that the ascension took place after forty days. In the Gospel of John, the post-Resurrection accounts are spread out over many days and end not with Jesus ascending but with a question of Love, “Peter do you love me?” and more signs and wonders that if written down could ever be contained in all of the books ever to be written. In Matthew, Jesus’ last words take the form of a promise: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

While the concept of resurrection might have been a point of contention in that early community, ascension stories were fairly well known and accepted in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish imaginations.  For the Romans, apotheosis signified the deification of an important person, such as an emperor.  In the Jewish tradition, it was sign of divine approval.  

Given the cosmology of the day – that is, that the earth was separated from heaven by a great dome and that heaven was above the earth on the other side of the dome – there was nowhere for Him to go but “up.”  Current theologians and biblical scholars suggest that the advent of modern science and the development of the telescope tend to debunk this understanding and leave us with yet another conundrum!  If he did not go “up,” then where did he go?  Peek-a-boo!!

Zachary Hayes, who was my professor of Christology, and a world-class theologian, said that trying to understand the resurrection and the ascension in terms of their historical accuracy is not the point or significance of either event.  There was no one at the tomb with a video camera, or there that Ascension Day with and I-phone.  What was significant is that the early community experienced Jesus risen, alive and in their midst; and furthermore, the passion with which they told their stories of his appearing to them was most likely the single most significant cause for the early spread of the message of Christianity: that our God is not a God of the dead but of the living and lives with us still – yes, even until the end of time. 

This is a dangerous take on both Resurrection and Ascension for us today.  If Jesus is risen, and is still with us, accompanying us on our journey and longing to be with us, inextricably bound up in our daily existence, then who knows where next we will find him?  What conversation along the way, what stranger welcomed to our table, what hand offering us food? 

Dangerous and sad the opportunities missed when the stranger is not fully known because of the colour of their skin or place of their birth and is left stranded at our border or, worse yet, turned away.  Dangerous and sad when every six seconds a woman somewhere is engaged in a conversation not of love and support, not a conversation revealing the presence of the Risen Christ, but one of abuse and violence, sexual, physical or emotional.   Dangerous and sad when now, one in four children in this, one of the richest nations on earth, goes to bed hungry.  Dangerous and sad when wealthy nations boast the resources to halt the devastating spread and deathly effects of a pandemic, while our sisters and brothers in poorer nations are struggling to breath and fighting for life. 

A professor of homiletics once said that we as preachers are called to proclaim the “Good News.”  On this Ascension Day, the good news is that these dangerous and sad memories do not have to be the end of the story.  This place is filled with the presence of the Risen Christ.  We are filled with the presence of the Risen Christ, and as we come out of these dark days and start to breath freely once again, we remember that promise of the Advocate, and the breath that fills us is the Spirit of God, calling and strengthening us to seek and act for Justice, to live fully alive in the Spirit, and to embrace fully the ‘object permanence” of the Risen Christ, knowing that even though we may not see Him, He is still here.  Peek-a-boo!!!