Luke 24:44 -- 53
The Logical Conclusion
For several years I had the privilege of serving a congregation in upstate New York. There were many wonderful faithful people who are part of that congregation. Before I arrived the membership had decided to build a columbarium. Unlike many churches which create niches inside the church for burial this group of people decided to create a rather elaborate and visually attractive outdoor columbarium. The church was blessed with land. It was a fairly narrow plot that extended a great distance from Main Street down to a river that ran behind the church. One needed to go through a great long woods to get to the river as the total amount of property the church held was about 14 acres. The entrance to the columbarium was in the back of the parking lot. A walkway was created that extended about 50 yards and was wide enough for two people to walk together. At the end of the walkway a wall was constructed actually two walls one on either side of the walkway. The highest point of each wall was approximately 6 feet and the wall's gently sloped downward to the ground about 40 feet in both directions. Each marker on the wall corresponded with a plot in the ground. The columbarium was very lovely but difficult to use in the midst of the Western New York winters.
There were a few apple trees back behind the wall near where the plots in the ground were designated for people's ashes to be placed. The columbarium attracted much wildlife which was always lovely to look upon. There was one particular autumn burial service that I found myself quite annoyed at the messiness of the apples scattered on the ground. Some of them had rotted and were slippery if stepped upon and I felt they were in the way. Somehow I felt within me at that time that the placing of the ashes in the ground ought to be done in a cleaner setting. I mentioned this to one of the worship leaders who was assisting me at the service and she wisely said to me, "life can be messy sometimes." How right she was -- how right she is! Having an Apple free columbarium, having a sanitized place of burial would not have dulled the grief that those who were participating in the service felt. In fact the messiness of life that was bothering me may have ministered to others. Like the life that we were committing to the ground those apples had also been committed to their resting place. The whole setting actually proved to be a graphic straightforward and somewhat simple proclamation of the messiness of life and death.
The Christian gospel is much the same. The Gospel loses its power when it becomes too theoretical and spiritual; the Gospel loses its power when it becomes sanitized. The Gospel must always be tied to a body, to a story, and thus we are gathered on this Ascension Day to celebrate the embarrassingly graphic story of the Ascension -- Jesus body withdrawing, floating up and away.
There may be many among us who have a very difficult time when we think of the Ascension. There was a religion professor at Harvard who said that he might possibly be able to accept the idea of Jesus physical resurrection if it hadn't been for the ascension because he reasoned how could a physical body just goes straight up into space like that without going into orbit. One of his students decided at that point to become skeptical of academic religious classes. He is not the only one who shares that view there are others whom I would describe as liberal literalists who have shared his opinion, in fact one of the more published Bishops of the Episcopal Church shares this view.
What their comments showed was their narrow and limited minds’ ability to grasp the mystery of the incarnation. The fact is none of us will likely be able to grasp the fullness of the mystery of the incarnation yet we may grasp that the incarnation is always messy and unmanageable and a scandal to our refined sophisticated theological systems because it is always tied to a body, Jesus body and to our own bodies. Affirming and celebrating the Ascension is affirming that God gets fully involved in our flesh and blood existence, that he fully and mysteriously united himself to our flesh in the womb of Mary, that Jesus was not just God in a human being suit or a human being charged with the Spirit of God, but fully God and fully human; that this God -- man really suffered, bled, died, was cold and stiff and buried; that he was resurrected in the flesh: flesh changed and transformed, walking through doors, strangely appearing and disappearing, not always easily recognized, yet flesh nonetheless, eating fish, cooking breakfast, reaching out hand and side to be touched. St. Augustine once put it this way: "his bones were real bones; his sinews were real sinews; his wounds were real wounds. Whatever was touched was real; whatever was perceived was true. Man was touched; God was perceived. Flesh was touched; wisdom was perceived. Weakness was touched; power was perceived."
The Ascension is the logical conclusion to the incarnation. The incarnate Jesus didn't somehow split apart and the spirit return to the father, and the flesh to the earth. All of Jesus was welcomed into the grace and presence and nature of his father in Heaven and somehow, mind boggling to our limited understanding, our flesh, human flesh, eyes, ears, hands, side, are represented in the very Triune Godhead.
As we reflect upon our Lord's incarnation, we may become overwhelmed as we recognize that the very flesh that is ours has been made holy and has been raised to the glory of heaven by the ascension of our Lord. This flesh that constitutes our bodies was and still today is in a mysterious way, the very flesh that our Lord Jesus Christ himself wore. No other creature can claim this privilege. This is why the Angels bow down before us and serve us; the ascension of human flesh into heaven brought the greatest wound of all to Satan's pride. Of all the creatures and of all creation it is only this flesh that we bear that has been taken up into the Godhead.
The joyful hope of the Ascension is that we shall also be taken up, that our bodies, too, will be transformed and raised and united to the father in the body of his son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the glorious inheritance to which we have been called in hope and in the meantime we have the promise that Christ truly abides with us here and now. We belong to God -- not in some mystical, spiritual sense, but in our down to earth eating and drinking, our touching and loving, our smelling and hearing. Our hands and feet, heads and bodies are redeemed and they belong to God. May we delight in the tangibleness of God's love coming to us through the gifts of Jesus body and blood as we receive his presence in bread and wine around his alter. And may we also delight in the tangibleness of loving embraces when we share the peace of God with one another, for we are the body of Christ, and as surely as he comes to us in bread and wine, he also comes to us in the warm bodies gathered in this place to praise him and to worship him.
Let us pray:
Holy, ascended Lord, you who sit in glory at the right hand of the father, you who come to us in the humble elements of bread and wine, you who touch us in the lives and hearts of our sisters and brothers, come now and fill us again with your very self as you have promised, that when you come again as the Angels foretold, we would be a holy people prepared to dance and delight with you forever and ever. Amen