Resurrection Hope

The Rev. Courtney Reid preaching on the 7th Sunday of Easter

If you read Suzanne’s Dear Friends letter on Friday, know that she took the words right out of my mouth when she wrote that Ascension, which we celebrate today, is a strange feast. It’s all kind of strange - this idea of Jesus being lifted up, disappearing into a cloud, carried up into heaven. Painters and iconographers, stained glass artists and filmmakers depicting this surreal scene in odd ways. Or what always comes to mind for me is the image of Mary Poppins opening her umbrella being lifted up by the wind and carried away to her next nanny job.

So what are we to make of this feast (which fell this past Thursday) that we transferred to today.  How does it inform our understanding of Jesus and the church.

I’d like to posit 4 ideas for our reflection.

1) When I saw Edward, our Director of Operations on Thursday, I whined about not having much of any idea where my sermon was going.  He asked if I had ever just winged it.  So I proclaimed in response that Jesus was born; he lived, he died, he rose, he ascended.  The end.  And in fact, this is the story of Jesus - who came from heaven, became human, and returned to heaven.  The Ascension is the completion of the circular story of his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  And Jesus' ascension moves him from chronos time, linear time set in a particular era and location to kairos time,  so that in this moment, in this place, we, too are witnesses to the Christ who was, who is, and who is yet to be,. Rowan Williams writes, “At Ascension, we see that just as God transcends our understanding of time- past, present and future- so too God transcends our understanding of space- up and down, here and there. There is no division between heaven and earth. God is, was, and ever shall be here. God is, was, and ever shall be one of us: from the beginning of time to its end.”

2) The Ascension, in a paradoxical way, reminds us to stay in the here and now.  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven,” the angelic messengers  in our reading from Acts today (we’ve seen these guys before)   tell the disciples. Don’t just stand here looking up. Look around.  Pay attention. Be here.  We can all get stuck there, right - looking up, longing for things to be different, wishing to be somewhere other than where we are. I imagine after all the joy and closeness after the resurrection, the disciples were likely confused that Jesus was gone again with no idea of when/if he might return.  (Jesus answers their question, “is this the time” with a firm “it’s not for you to know the time that father has set”)  But Jesus says, wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, wait in the city (not here on this hill), for after the Spirit has clothed you with power, than you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Be present here and now.
3) Jesus ascends bearing the marks and the memories of his earthly life. The scars and wounds from his brutal death, the sorrows of loss, the joys of friendship, the memories of meals and celebrations, the remembrance of betrayal and injustice.  Jesus fully knows the beauty and brokenness of the human condition.  And he gathers it all up unto himself. He bears it with us so that we might know his tender love and mercy, fully restoring us to right relationship with God.

4) When Jesus withdraws from his followers and ascends into heaven, he becomes present in another way—present on earth through our lives, present through and in us. Christ gives his body through the church. “God has made Jesus the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” says the letter to the Ephesians. 

After the ascension, we are called to be the body of Christ, the church in the here and now, bearing our own scars and memories, called to live into the hope to which he has called us.  To what hope has Jesus called us. 

In a time when hope feels in short supply, it is easy to despair, to turn our gaze upward waiting for some sign of what to do, to give up. Jesus has called us to a hope that is more powerful than despair, to a hope that is passionate, to a hope that, as lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson reminds us, impels us to stand up for justice when those around us tell us to sit down. 

Kelly Brown Douglas names that hope as resurrected hope in her book of the same name, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. Written in response to her young adult son’s text after the murder of George Floyd, “How do we really know that God cares when Black peoples are still getting killed? How long do we have to wait for the justice of God?” Douglas takes a broad look of how white supremacist ideology  has permeated the works of ancient European philosophers, the founders of this United States, and the ways in which our Civil War and the memorialization of that war have perpetrated injustice and the ongoing marginalization of Black lives. 

As she details this history, her anguish as a Black mother of a Black son who is trying to see where/if hope can be found is palpable. And she describes waking up one day and thinking I am a Christian, I am a priest, I must believe in hope.  And she finds what she calls resurrection hope in Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington DC, during the protests after George Floyd’s murder, finding herself amongst the most motley and diverse “crew of God’s sacred creation that <she> had seen come together in protest.” (Douglas, Kelly Brown, Resurrection Hope, p. 195), people advocating for a world that looked much more like God’s just future. “A future  where all people were living in the peace that was justice.”   

Douglas refuses to ascribe to any sort of saccharine optimism, no “let’s just all come together and get along” message.  While she names the hope that gives her strength to believe that the ongoing death and degradation of black bodies is not God’s plan for the world, she issues a clarion call, especially to those of us who are white, to forge a new social memory  in which we are freed from white supremacist ways of knowing, in which we dismantle the systems that perpetuate whiteness as the standard for justice, in which good, white Christians end our  legacy of silence by using our the privilege of our skin color to take bold stands for justice in the public square, where we cease calling for a false peace that elevates itself as a higher value than the agitation or disruption that can lead to justice.  On this day of the Ascension, we are called to remember:

1) That Jesus’s ascension breaks the bounds of time and space who is present with us now.

2) That Jesus’s ascension invites us to stay present to this time and to look around (not up) so that we might be the body of Christ in this place.

3) Jesus bearing the marks and memories of his earthly life at his ascension blesses the wounds we carry, the scars on our own bodies and reminds us that Jesus’s life on earth binds us indelibly to him.

4) And lastly, the hope to which Jesus has called us as the body of Christ, the church, is a powerful hope that demands courage and conviction, that does not allow despair to overtake it. 
May we all be witnesses and bearers to that resurrection hope.