Ben Varnum, a first year student at the Div School, preached this (his first sermon!) at our Ascension Day Eucharist at Bond Chapel:
Sermon preached by Ben Varnum
I’d like to begin this Feast of the Ascension sermon by talking about Christmas. It is the other end of the story, after all – the Ascension is how Jesus of Nazareth leaves this world as the Christ, and Christmas is how he entered it. Christ was born in Bethlehem, coming to Earth as a baby in a manger. Today, that event is dressed up in all kinds of cultural festivities. There is a major retail season, and there are gifts to celebrate the beloved people in your life. There are childrens’ pageants with fussing parents and charmed congregations. There are watered-down sermons to appeal to the people that swell the pews, and there are twice-a-year Christians who swell the pews to hear them. My own family traditions include a 12-fish Lithuanian meal and midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but they also include opening one present after midnight mass – usually after staying up into the wee hours with everyone wrapping last-minute gifts to family members.
It’s a wild and wonderful time, it’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” and it’s a strange mix of parts – our anniversary for Christ’s birth has become both an Advent-long cultural celebration of “goodwill towards humanity” and a time of intense anxieties to fulfill our personal duties to social obligations and our private duties to enjoy and understand the season. It is a time of year where we have decked not only the halls, but the entire season with celebrations both strange and wonderful. It is as if the season is trying to make up for the fact that God among us comes as a naked baby, lying in a manger in a stable behind an inn where those who got in early for the census sleep in beds. A pregnant woman, ready to give birth, is given space to sleep in a stable, and we celebrate her naked son, the Son of God, coming into our world and our lives, dressing the time around his birth with both our pleasure and our frustrations of Decembers spent both frantically trying to get everything just right and enjoying a space that is “right enough.”
Today is not Christmas. If Christmas is a season dressed in all the festivities and radio carols and outdoor lighting we can manage, the Ascension stands brilliantly nude, with Christ at its center, robed in glory. Jesus Christ stands resurrected among human beings, and in our sight he returns to heaven in glory. This event doesn’t need us to clothe our baby God, naked in Bethlehem. This is a Christ that is clothed and terrifying: beyond death, resurrected into full glory and divinity, and “coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
We do not have the youth of our parishes dress up as resurrected Jesus in an Ascension pageant.
The event is naked and terrifying because it is as complicated and confusing as it is stark and simple. Our readings for today tell us a plain sort of story. There is not the irony of God coming to Earth as a baby or God hanging on the cross suffering from violent wounds. This is not a complicated parable, where we have to determine why it would be so bad for us to keep some of our riches instead of selling them all and giving the profit to the poor before following Jesus. Instead, today Christ ascends to heaven in glory. This is how things should be; it is not an ironic moment.
What is terrifying about the Ascension is that for as simple as the story is, we do not know what it is really supposed to mean. It is the ending of the time Jesus of Nazareth spent on the Earth. But it is also at least two beginnings: the beginning of Christ’s reign in heaven and the beginning of the ministry of the apostles – the beginning of the church. It might even be a middle: the middle of the story of Christ; the Word through whom all things were created, who came down from heaven to be crucified for our sins, and who will come again to judge us. In this version, the Ascension is merely the end of Christ’s stop-off in human existence on the way to an eschatological last day when the living and the dead will be judged.
Two of these versions are particularly troubling for us. The Ascension points to an endtime: we affirm that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again – specifically, in the Nicene Creed, “in glory to judge the living and the dead.” But this is a time when Christ will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left, and the goats will be burned in unquenchable fire. And we are thousands of miles and thousands of years from the times when communities expected to see Christ coming any day, with a winnowing fork to toss everyone into divine winds of justice, that the wheat might be separated out and gathered into the barn, while the chaff gets burned with unquenchable fire. It’s a scary image of the Jesus who told Simon Peter to sheathe his sword in Gethsemane, and it isn’t one that we spend a lot of time talking about today.
The other troubling version of the Ascension story is when we take it as the beginning of the church on Earth. For this group, the Ascension is a swift kick into adulthood. Jesus is not here anymore to explain everything, to take care of everything. The church must figure out how to pay its own insurance, undertake a career, and start a family. Jesus is no longer the resurrected temple among us, and although we hear that he will return in the same way in which we saw him go, we don’t know when that is, and we don’t know what to do until then.
One of my favorite responses to the question of what to do while we’re waiting is: “Look busy.” A piece of me has always wanted to reply to that, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets cast into the unquenchable fire.”
When I get past that piece of myself, though, I’m not sure this isn’t exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. I think the reason we don’t celebrate the Ascension the same way we celebrate Christmas or Easter is not that it falls on a Thursday. I think it’s that the Ascension points right at us and reminds us that we are a church in a world that Christ visited, and then left. Not his teaching and not God the Holy Spirit, but Jesus Christ did Ascend from the Earth to heaven. We are a church that is left behind, and we are an advent people – a waiting people.
We need to look busy to God (and God knows when we’re faking it). God doesn’t need it, we do. The Ascension is the church’s journey to adulthood, and I think the reason we haven’t dressed it up as a Christmas or an Easter is that it is the moment in the liturgical year when we cannot sit at the foot of Christ’s teachings or walk with Christ through his journey on Earth from birth to death to resurrection.
We’re in a world where the living Christ is perhaps primarily present in our own ability to live into Christ’s teachings, and that means we have to be theological grown-ups.
Now, anyone who’s grown up in their life can tell you that this doesn’t mean you have to quit having fun. It doesn’t mean you have to quit celebrating. But this is a scary moment when we have to see if we can do Christ’s work, and it’s a BIG work, and it’s a CHALLENGING work. And we might fail. And we might not do it. And we might kill ourselves trying and we might look ridiculous, and today is the day in our liturgical calendar when we have to stand before Christ robed in glory leaving us with this work and hear from our readings not a lesson about how we can love our neighbors, and not a story about how Jesus snuck out of the temple when they tried to arrest him, and not a miracle that fed people or gave them wine for celebration. Today we hear Christ leaving us, and we hear that Christ will come again. This Christ, clothed in righteousness, beyond the human being that once walked with us, now revealed, who will judge us on the last day. It is a moment so powerful in its nakedness, because Christ is so clothed, that it is hardly a wonder that we don’t add our own trappings, and that we have trouble coming to terms with it.
But this is what our adult church needs to make its celebration. We have seen Christ in glory ascend to heaven, and we await his coming in glory. We are a Christian church, and we have the teachings of Christ and his example to guide us into our adult life doing God’s work in the world. God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – this is our task as well as our prayer. As an advent people, waiting in this season not for Christ’s birth but Christ’s return, we really ought to “look busy” to anyone watching . . . and God is. When Christ returns in glory, let us have spent our time looking busy with God’s work in the world.
Please join me in a spirit of prayer.
May we stand before Christ today, not to be judged but to hear. As we watch Christ rise into heaven, may we reflect on your will for the Earth. May we consider, each of us, to what ministries we are called in the adult church, being forever your children. May we not despair in this moment when we behold Christ ascending both into his glory and your heaven and also away from the Earth, and may we find Christ’s presence still among us in Christ’s teachings in scripture and in the love by which we shall be known as Christians.
In the name of Christ Ascended we pray. Amen.