What’s in a Name

Preached on 13 May 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Ascension Sunday

This morning, we celebrate the parish feast day, the Feast of the Ascension.  And today’s homily is going to be a bit different, it’s going to be interactive, so be ready to participate.

I’m always curious about why the founding congregation chooses a particular name for their new church.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of the stories.

When I started asking around here about the traditions and customs for celebrating your feast day, I heard varied, vague answers.  I heard stories that at one time you would have a dinner on the actual day, which is always a Thursday, but people don’t go out in the evenings or on weeknights anymore.  I got the impression that it was no big deal and that it was often overlooked.

Maybe it’s kind of like having your birthday fall on Christmas Eve – it gets lost in the bigger celebrations in late spring.  Or maybe it’s because we’re a little bit uncomfortable with this whole Jesus riding on a cloud up into the sky thing?  But, you know, it’s one of our central tenets; it’s stated in the Creeds, it’s in our sacred Scriptures.

So, this morning, let’s look a bit more closely at the Ascension of Jesus and what it means for the Church of the Ascension.  Since it’s our feast day, let’s celebrate the people and ministry of this community of faith.

Let’s start with the cloud thing.  We use metaphor to talk about God.  How else can we describe the indescribable, the mystery of the divine?  So, rising to heaven on a cloud was a way to tell others what they had experienced when there really are no words.

I suggest that the ascension is not about Jesus location in space, but rather about his location or status in his relationship with God the Father.  Jesus’ primary role, is to be with God.  And you know what?  That’s true of us, as well.  Our natural state is to be with God.

With that in mind, let’s look at what our readings have to say.  Did you notice that we heard the same story told by the same person two times and the details of the story changed a bit in each telling?  I wonder why that is? Perhaps he is trying to make a different point in each telling.

In the gospel reading, when we come into the story, it is still the day of the Resurrection or possibly the next day.  The two disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus have returned to Jerusalem to tell their story to the disciples.  Then Jesus suddenly shows up and proves to them that he’s not a ghost.

That’s where we started the reading this morning.  That has just happened.  Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures in light of the resurrection.  He tells them that they are to be witness and to preach the gospel to all nations after they have received “Power from on high.”

Then they go out to Bethany, Jesus blesses them and is carried up to heaven.  The disciples go back to Jerusalem to wait, in hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit, continually in the Temple praising God.

On the one hand, in the gospel story, the Ascension is the last act of Jesus’ work; it brings that part of the story to its conclusion.  Jesus came from God to live among us, reconciling people to God; he suffered, died and was buried; he was raised from death and he returned to God.

The empty tomb was not the end of the story.  Jesus’ ascension shows us that not only is there resurrection, that death doesn’t have the final say, but that resurrection is also not the end of the story.  Jesus’ ascension shows us that the path, our path, leads all the way back to God

On the other hand, the Ascension is not the end of Luke’s story.  The gospel ends with an ongoing action.  The disciples are continually in the Temple, praising God.  There is more to come.  They are waiting; God will lead them.

The gospel of Luke is centered on Jerusalem.  It begins in Jerusalem with the annunciation to Zechariah that his wife would have a son, John the Baptist.  And it ends in Jerusalem with the Passion and the post-resurrection events he recounts, all the way to the disciples waiting for the Spirit.

In the Acts, by contrast, the story begins in Jerusalem and then goes out to the rest of the world, ending in Rome.  Luke tells the story of the Ascension again in Acts.  This time, however, it occurs forty days after the resurrection.  During that time, Jesus is with them and gives them further instruction, telling them to stay in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit.

This time, Luke’s point is that the ascension of Jesus makes possible the coming of the Spirit and Jesus’ presence among all of us, everywhere, for all time.  It is to launch the church.

So, now we start the interactive part of the sermon.

What does the Ascension of Jesus mean to you?

Does anyone know the story of how the founders chose Ascension as the name for this congregation?

When you think about the last several months or even the last year,

  • what do you want to celebrate about this church, this congregation?
  • How have you seen God at work through this community?
  • How have you been touched by God through the people here?
  • For what are you grateful? [see next page for ex]

Truly I tell you, there is much to be thankful for here.  Jesus is among us.  The Holy Spirit is at work.
Thanks be to God.