Sunday After Ascension 2019
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
Mark 16:9-20 and Luke 24:44-53
So how was your weekend?
Mine was… A little busy. And it’s still not done. I don’t know what crazy person thought it’d be a good idea to ask me to preach the day after ordination AND the mominging before going away for two weeks… Or who the even crazier person was who agreed to actually do it! But here I am, amidst packing and unpacking, getting ready and convincing my mom and dad that an uber driver is not going to rob and kill me between my house and the airport this evening.
But in the midst of all this, I realized I have a serious problem.
I have no overnight bag. No suitcase or small duffle bag for just an overnight trip.
I have this, a 30 liter backpack, that’s awesome for doing all sorts of adventure-y travel things… Like, backpacking through Europe or going on hike in the mtns. Fold or roll things up tightly and you can keep several days worth of stuff in here.
I also have this: which I have named Gargantua the Giant. It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside… Literally, because there’s a zip that makes it even bigger, and if I needed to, it even has backpack straps. For carrying it if rolling it becomes too
taxing. I managed to fit almost every stitch of clothing I own into this bag for moving back from the UK and moving to Samoa. In fact, I can fit so much into this bag that I can actually make it so overweight that the airlines won’t check it. I won’t tell you how I know that.
But I have nothing that just fits for a night or two… I either am tramping on trains or moving house.
And this makes some sense, because when I’ve travelled (I dare not say journey, if you remember!), it’s been either tramping or moving house. Short trips are not really my style. So it’s Gargantua or hipster.
In today’s readings we’re met with what appears to be a contradiction in what it is we’re supposed to be doing as Christians. Mark says ‘Go…’ Acts says… Stay. Mark predicts all sorts of miraculous things the Apostles would be able to do, empowered by the Holy Spirit as a testimony to the truth of the Gospel… casting out demons, speaking in tongues, picking up serpants with their hands, being untouched by poison, and healing the sick. Acts is much more sedate, promising simply the reception of the Holy Spirit.
What do we make of these two narratives, each one telling a different take on the same event. It’s tempting to favor one over the other, depending on our personal preferences… If we want to be people who speak in tongues and heal others, then we favor Mark… If we are more sedate, more… Anglican-y, maybe we favor Acts. I will note, however, that whatever our preferences, very few of us are willing to give that “pick up serpents by the hand” and “drink poison” part a go…
But I’d suggest that despite what we may initially thing, the two narratives are not necessarily that different. It’s very simple… One says Go, but go with this… The other says… Wait, then Go. In either case, the end state is simple, if we are to take the Gospel seriously… Believers are empowered to do great things for the Kingdom of God. What we carry with us is not necessarily things that will fit in a bag, whether big or small, overnight or long-term, but the awesome power of God to declare the Gospel.
We do ourselves a huge disfavor if we simply see the Ascension through the lens of a 21st century mind. Ever since de Rozier went up in that balloon in 1783, we have seen people go up, and come back down. Count Zeppelin, the Wright
Brothers, Chuck Yeagar, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride… They go up, then they come back down. The Voyager spacecraft are on their way to the Gilese and Sirius stars, having spent the last year in interstellar space, past our solar system, carrying a Golden Record with Chuck Berry, Blind Willy Johnson, Mozart and Stravinsky along for the ride. These are remarkable achievements, and are a kind of Gospel in their own right, but it can warp what the Gospels are saying about Jesus. When I was little and fascinated with space exploration, the image I carried in my mind was of Jesus getting into orbit, then God scooping him up into heaven just before re-entry.
But science in the 1st century was shaped more by the spiritual than the hard engineering of today. For them, and for most of human history, the universe was viewed not as an infinitely expanding vacuum, but as two discrete, but not separate, worlds. A spiritual and physical worlds that interacted with one another and were analogous to one another; what we saw here carried with it the analogy of the spiritual. So, for an astrologer like those who visit Jesus at his birth in Matthew, it was not the physical stars that were revealing the birth of Messiah, but the spiritual forces represented by those stars that were declaring the birth of the Son of God. A physician like St. Luke, the author of our Acts reading, would
know when to prepare his medicines on the basis of what the heavens were doing. So when Jesus, having descended from the heavens, incarnated as a human child, then ascending to the heavens, promising to return, we are not seeing him simply as going ‘up there’ or Jesus simply issuing a list of final orders before going away for a bit. What we are reading and teaching is a glimpse of the summation of all things, the end of all things, the resurrection Kingdom of God in its fullness. Jesus Christ, the Lord and master of both worlds, heaven and earth, who is no longer an analogy to be divined through the stars, but known and understood through relationship with physical, intimate experience: bread, wine, water, oil, touch.
The Gospel is relatively simple: Jesus is Lord. No one, no thing, no other is in charge. That death, as CS Lewis puts it, is working backwards. All of things things in Mark 16 are, to put it simply, the inversion of death. Of the destruction of the causes of torment and death, of the explosive unity of the catholic, universal faith in Christ, of wholeness and health out of sickness and un-ease. The power of Mark 16 is the power of death working backwards, of daring Satan to give it a go, to try to defeat Aslan on the battlefield, knowing full well what awaits the accuser at the
end, when the veil is tom and earth and heaven become one, resurrected, made new, bom again. We know who wins. And that is the Good News we live and share.
For now, though, we wait. We shape and live our lives according to the expectation that death is not the final word, that, in the words of that great philosopher Ian Malcolm, life, ah… Finds a way. That Jesus himself will be the way. And return to us, just as he left.