Harrowing Of Hell
May 17, 2015

Ascension Sunday

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

This sermon was preached at the 5 pm service on Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015. It was not recorded.

All of this past week, I have had a few lines from John’s gospel running through my head. Remember the verses, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

We heard these lines in the gospel reading two weeks ago and they have been on my mind because we seem to have a number of people in our community dealing with either the recent deaths of loved ones, or facing end of life decisions in caregiving.

That transition from life to death is fraught with so much emotion and fear and yet a good death, a peaceful death, when you see it, is truly a thing of grace and dignity where God is very present. Several years ago this month, my family was in Michigan when Joel’s grandmother died. Grandma Mae hung on long enough to see us and to meet her great-granddaughter. She just beamed when she heard the baby’s laughter. The next day, while visiting with her daughter, and recalling fond memories of long ago family camping trips she simply said, “goodbye,” closed her eyes, and died.

If only we could all move so gracefully from life into death. Grandma Mae was a woman of deep and abiding faith. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared or anxious,       just that she was able to let go when the time was right. Those lines from John keep coming to me because we heard them recently and because we often hear them at funerals. Grandma Mae wasn’t afraid because she knew Jesus had gone ahead and prepared a place for her.

Jesus came, lived among us, died, was resurrected, returned, and ultimately (as we remember today) ascended to heaven in order to prepare a place for us – that where he is, there we may be also.

And the piece of the story we examine today is the ascension, the mystical uplifting of the resurrected Christ into heaven. Upon this very act, Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. The two readings we heard, from Luke and from Acts are the only places in the New Testament, besides the appendix to Mark, in which the ascension is explicitly described. This glorious event is alluded to in Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Ephesians, and it is briefly hinted at in the gospel of John, but it is here at the end of the Lukan gospel and again at the beginning of its sequel, the book of Acts, that we see this heavenly mystery described.

In Acts, a cloud and two men in white robes aid Jesus in his ascension. It says, “as the disciples were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (1:9-10).

The account in the gospel of Luke reads, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (24:51). The biblical descriptions of this event are brief and relatively one-sided, appearing only in Luke-Acts. However, the brevity doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of this theological concept in Christianity.

We recall and profess faith in the ascension every time we gather for worship. In the Nicene Creed, we pray, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father.”

And in Eucharistic prayers A and D, we pray: “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.”

What I am getting at is that the ascension is as central to our faith as the crucifixion and the resurrection, even though Holy Scripture, theological writings, and our attention are heavily focused on the crucifixion and resurrection, not the ascension.

But the ascension is the guarantee of Christian destiny. It means that God’s promise is realized in the pouring out of the Spirit by the risen/ascended Christ. Through the ascension, we have received the Holy Spirit and are now witnesses to Christ. The theme of the entire book of Acts is summed up in chapter one, verse eight, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus says this to his apostles and he says this to us, just before he ascends into heaven. These are his parting words.

As one theologian puts it, the ascension, “serves as a critical hinge point in sacred history, connecting the earthly ministry of Jesus to his presence through the spirit in the life of the Christian community” (Weissenbuehler, Wayne. Interpretation 46 Ja 1992 p. 61-65).

Jesus’ relationship to the mission of the Kingdom of God was forever changed in that moment when he was lifted up. Now, Jesus’ relationship to the Kingdom of God is through the Holy Spirit and through our witness as God’s people to the ends of the earth.

There is a lot of movement in this story. As Jesus is going up, he is blessing us. Jesus is transcending and the Holy Spirit is descending to dwell among us. As Jesus was preparing to ascend, he opened the minds of the disciples and they understood his teachings at long last.

And in the last action of the story, the newly enlightened disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were in the temples, continually blessing God.

The disciples’ minds were opened to truly understand Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is ascending and Jesus is blessing us. My assumption is that the disciples understood the next step. And if not, they would in short order when the Holy Spirit came down on Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. Jesus is preparing a place for us to go, but in the meantime, there is much for us to do here on earth.