Ascension Day: The Departed?
By: The Rev. Ann Dieterle
“Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension…”
In my tradition, these words are included in one of our Eucharistic prayers, and the Nicene Creed makes reference to Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. I confess that while I recall his death and resurrection frequently, I don’t often recall his ascension, as this prayer invites me to do.
My primary image of an ‘ascension’ occurs in an episode of “The Simpsons.” The family is outside having a barbecue and is surprised by a flying saucer. One by one they are lifted via beam of light into the alien craft, until they get to Homer. The patriarch, having eaten one too many hamburgers, actually drags the beam of light and UFO down until the determined aliens employ a second beam.
Somehow I don’t think that’s what Luke was thinking about as he was writing down the last words of his Gospel—although flying into the sky in a beam of light might come close to what it looks like in our imaginations. It’s similar to some artwork on the subject.
There are several themes that emerge in this text, and a preacher might choose to deal with each of them briefly or select one theme and go into greater depth.
One theme is Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus does a lot of teaching in his post-resurrection appearances. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” This scene is a continuation of his interaction with Cleopas and another disciple on the walk to Emmaus. This portion of the Gospel occurs immediately after that walk and his subsequent appearance to the disciples when he joins them in eating a piece of fish. Teaching and eating: that’s what the post-resurrection Jesus does. No doubt eating the fish is in part to demonstrate that he is not merely a ghost, but there is also a Eucharistic element to it, too.
Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr writes that the core work of all spirituality (and, he emphasizes, it is work) is to “have three spaces opened up within us, all at the same time: our opinionated [mind], our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.” Jesus’ intention is to “open their minds” and, one imagines, that the heart and the body are freed as well—if not in this encounter, then in the entire movement of events after the resurrection and up to the day of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As Cleopas recalls, “[Weren’t our] “hearts burning within us?”
We might need that same teaching: to have our minds opened to Jesus’ Jewish roots. And certainly in a success-obsessed and consumer-driven America, we need our minds opened to Jesus’ teachings that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In what other ways do our minds need opening to Jesus’ teaching?
A second theme is Luke’s version of the great commission.
In addition to “opening their minds” to the Scriptures and the Messiah’s proper role in salvation history, Jesus also appears to the disciples to give them a commission. “Proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Be witnesses of these things.” It is expansive in its scope: go to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. In a climate of increasing Islamophobia, it is worth noting that this is an inclusive statement. The Gentiles, previously considered ‘others’ by the nation of Israel are to be included in this invitation to repentance and forgiveness of sins. The NRSV translates the Greek phrase epi toe ho-no-mati’ as ‘in my name.’ I’ve heard this expression used in an exclusionary way. In other words, if you haven’t engaged in repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, you are probably going to hell. In college, I was strongly encouraged to say a very specific prayer in order to secure my salvation. It had to be word perfect too, which seemed strange for a God of grace and mercy. “Upon my authority” is another possibility and seems more appropriate within the context of a commissioning. A question this raises for me is: how can we talk about our faith in Jesus without demonizing other religions?
The word translated as “forgiveness” can also be translated as “deliverance from captivity.” It is tempting to see salvation as a solely personal matter. “Make Jesus forget my personal moral failings so that I can go to heaven after I die.” What about what’s going on in the here and now? What about systems of injustice? Surely Jesus cares about this too. Deliverance from captivity includes both freedom from personal sin and liberation from systemic injustice.
A third theme is letting God be God so we can be fully human.
Jesus was carried into heaven. This isn’t an action that Jesus does to himself. Rather, it was something that God did to him and for him. And yet he is not a completely passive participant. He withdrew from them. It is this combination of action and surrender that I believe Jesus wants from us. It is essentially what Jesus invites the disciples to do. They are to stay and wait to be clothed with power from on high. Power, from the Greek word du-na-mis, from which we get our word for dynamite. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is the type of power we can expect to receive from the Holy Spirit. It is not something inside of us, like super willpower. It is something outside of us that works on us in such a way that it transforms us.
It is often difficult for me to do my part and only my part and to let God do God’s part. Garrison Keillor said that the Easter season is the time when Christians ask themselves two questions: “Do I really believe all this stuff? And if so, why do I live this way?” It’s easy to speak the words and pray the prayers, and then go live as functional atheists.
And yet, Jesus is being lifted into heaven at the same moment that he is blessing the disciples. He chose to leave it to them. The same ones who were capable in one breath of inspired declarations of faith and in the next breath bumbling it so badly that Jesus calls one of them Satan. Jesus chose to trust his mission to these disciples—just as he chooses us: This church that is capable of great acts of faith in one moment and then bumbling it badly in the next. Jesus trusts us with his mission.
It’s two thousand years later and we haven’t destroyed the church yet. And we won’t. Because God is God and we are not. We are trusted with a part of the mission but it is God who gives us God’s blessing and power from on high. It is enough for us to bless God in return through the way we live our lives.
 “Eucharistic Prayer A,” 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer
 “Treehouse of Horror,” Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 3.
The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a beautiful small town nestled in between the Brushy and Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born on Long Island (be sure to stress the “g”) but grew up in Florida. Since going to Sewanee for seminary she’s lived in Virginia twice and the Chicago area, so she is a little bit southerner and a little bit yankee. She is a lover of the outdoors, baseball, reading, and cooking. Her dog Gordon is cuter than your pet.