It Matters More Than You Think
In New Orleans, the week before Mardi Gras, an ad would be on TV showing Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco in a normal hum drum sort of way. The caption at the bottom of the screen said simply (Tuesday( and the name of the city. The last picture in the ad was of New Orleans in all of the madness of Mardi Gras. This was the coming Tuesday in New Orleans while the rest of the United States was going about it(s ho-hum life. This is how you should picture today. Today, Ascension, is an ordinary, boring Thursday all around the world, but not in the Church. In the Church it is a time for choirs, for trumpets, for celebration, for hallelujahs to high heaven. Today is a high holy festival of the Church worthy of food and drink, of parties and laughter. But these are all but absent. Most churches don(t mark this day. Even we who do, might not think it is any big deal. That(s because we(re probably not a minority.
Don(t misunderstand. This sermon is not about race relations. This sermon isn(t about prejudice. I am only using such things to try and make real the remarkable event of the Ascension so that you might see that there is cause for unrestrained celebration on this day.
When Jesus ascended into heaven after His resurrection, He took us with Him. When I say (us,( I mean our human nature. It(s as an Ascension hymn sings, (Thou hast raised our human nature/ On the clouds to God(s right hand;/ There we sit in heavenly places,/ There with Thee in glory stand./ Jesus reigns, adored by angels;/ Man with God is on the throne./ Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension/ We by faith behold our own.(
Imagine how African Americans felt when Jackie Robinson broke the so called (color barrier( in professional baseball in 1947. He was the first black person to play Major League Baseball. It wasn(t just him running round the bases. It wasn(t just him playing the field. It wasn(t just him who was voted the Most Valuable Player in the league in 1949. All African Americans saw themselves doing these things. Even though they lived in a segregated America they saw themselves with Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball. I am not asking you to think about how Jackie felt. Think about how the black Americans watching Jackie felt. They are interviewed from time to time, and they say it changed everything. How they viewed life, what they wanted to do in life, what they thought they could do with their life. They saw themselves where Jackie Robinson was.
Those in Christ are to see themselves, their flesh and blood, their human nature, where Jesus now is. This is radical. This is what all human reason says is impossible.. Plutarch, a Greek writer who lived about the time of St. Paul said, (We must not, therefore, contrary to nature, send the bodies...of good men to heaven; but we must really believe that according to the divine nature and law, their virtue and their souls are translated out of them.( Cicero, a Roman philosopher who lived right before Christ, said, (Nature would not permit a body of earth to exist anywhere except on earth.)
Just as people use to say it was contrary to nature, reason, and the law for a black man to play professional baseball with white men, so all of nature, all of reason, says a human body can(t go to heaven. O a soul can, but not a flesh and blood body. However, everything has changed now that Jesus has taken our human nature with Him into heaven. Just as black men belonged in baseball after Jackie, so men belong in heaven after Jesus. Just as all black people could picture themselves standing where Jackie stood, so all people can regard themselves as standing where Jesus does right now. Jesus( ascension shows this human body so confined to earth, so attached to dust and dirt can really go to heaven
(He opened doors,( that(s what many people, black and white, say about Jackie Robinson. He just didn(t take black people onto the baseball field, but he opened the door for black people in a variety of fields. He opened doors for African Americans in the military, in Hollywood, in government, and business too. Black people all over America began to dream of what doors they could walk through.
That(s how the ascension of Jesus is suppose to be in the Church. That(s why this is to be a day of celebration, of joy, of praising, thanking, praying and dreaming. Jesus has opened the door for human nature to go to heaven, and not just human nature but sinful, fallen, human nature. There are 2 miracles going on today. One is that human nature now sits where God had only sat before. Two, that sinful human nature can walk through the door of heaven and doors in heaven that only holy people could. If you look inside yourself, listen to your conscience, you will find you have always been a sinner and still are one. You aren(t perfect. At no moment in the day have you been free from sins of thought, word, or deed. These testify to you that you can(t go to heaven. The Ascension of Jesus testifies that you can.
When Jesus walked this earth, He did so bearing your sins. When Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, He suffered for your sins. When Jesus was crucified, He was crucified for your sins. When Jesus rose from the dead, He left behind your sins having successfully and completely paid for them. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He ascended without your sins. In Jesus, as you are by Holy Baptism. In Jesus, as you are by Holy Absolution. In Jesus, and Jesus in you, as is the case in Holy Communion, your sinfulness and sins are covered. Though your conscience tells you that you still think sinful things, that your actions are not free of sins, that your words are not free of sins, attached to Jesus, covered by Jesus( righteousness, you can go where He goes. You can walk around heaven like you own the place.
Though many black people never thought they would be able to walk through certain doors, Jackie Robinson opened doors that once were shut to them. Jesus in His ascension testifies to us that no door in heaven is closed to sinners, not even the door to the throne room of God. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that Jesus is like our access code to the grace of God. He is the PIN number you have to punch in to reach the grace of God. Hebrews 4 says that because of Jesus we can draw near with confidence to the throne of God(s grace that we may find mercy to help in time of need. Imagine a black sharecropper(s son listening to a baseball game in 1949 hearing how Jackie Robinson did this or that. He starts to dream of walking through doors he never had imagined he could. That(s how you and I can be. Sinners though we are, we can picture ourselves walking through heaven(s gate and right through the doors to God(s throne room. Because of Jesus, we won(t find wrath or judgement there but mercy, acceptance, and help.
Another thing you will hear people say when asked what difference Jackie Robinson made, is that things were never the same afterward. He opened doors that never could be shut again. Yes, something changed forever for black people when Jackie Robinson ran out on to the field in 1947. If you were a black person, you knew that; you felt that; you took comfort in that. Because most of us are not a minority, we can(t imagine how they must have felt, but we should try. We should try to place ourselves in their shoes, so that we might experience how radical of a change, how permanent of a change it was for them when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. We should try to do this because that is how radical and permanent the change is for us Christians now that Christ has ascended into heaven.
We celebrate a radical change, a permanent change today. Doors have been opened to sinners that no one can shut. Just as that son of a black sharecropper could look at his life today and tomorrow as being radically changed, so you in Jesus can look at your life today and tomorrow as being radically different. See how all of life, sickness and health, poverty and wealth, family and friends is different now that Jesus ascended into heaven as your forerunner.
I have to change illustrations for a moment. You all know that in July 1969 man first landed on the moon. The most dangerous part of the mission was not landing on it but taking off again. If the landing vehicle failed to take off, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would (close down communications,( and as a world grieved, the doomed astronauts would starve to death. President Nixon had William Safire right a speech just in case that happened. In that speech, Safire had Nixon saying this paragraph, (Every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.(
Next time there is a full moon think of how you would be looking at it differently if two astronauts were forever up there. As soon as our kids were old enough, we would have pointed at it and said, (There are two astronauts up there who never were able to come home.( The moon would somehow, in some sense be more human than it is now. There really would be a man on the moon. Well, that is how heaven is now since the Ascension. We can point our children to the skies and say, (In heaven, there is a Man, your Lord Jesus. Heaven is more human now. Heaven understands what it means to be human. Heaven knows our sorrows, our struggles, our fears and hopes.( Just as Major League Baseball never looked at African Americans the same way again after Jackie Robinson, and they knew that, so you and I can know that heaven never looks at human beings the same way again after Jesus took our human nature into it.
Because Major League Baseball looked differently at black people because of Jackie Robinson, black people looked at professional baseball differently. Likewise, because heaven looks differently upon human beings with the Man/God Jesus Christ reigning over it, so we can never look at heaven the same way again. St. Bernard said in the 12th century, ((How can I ever become sad or mournful or discouraged? After all, my flesh and blood sits in heaven above. I expect He will not be my enemy.((
Heaven can(t any longer be dark, glowering, or threatening to us. The One who went to the cross for our sins, reigns there. If even on the cross, He didn(t turn against us, I don(t expect He will now in heaven. If Christ Jesus was willing to die for us, I expect that He is willing to live for us. If Christ Jesus was willing to be a servant for us, I expect He is more than willing to be a king for us.
Heaven can(t any longer be dark, glowering, threatening or far away to us. Heaven is as close to us as Jesus, and Jesus is as close to us as water is to the skin in Holy Baptism. Jesus is as close to us as forgiving words are to our ear drums in Holy Absolution. The Body and Blood of Jesus are as close to us as the Bread and Wine we eat are to our bodies in Communion. Just as professional baseball got closer to the black community through Jackie Robinson and his playing, so heaven gets closer to human sinners through Jesus and His ascension. Break out the food and drink it(s time to party! Break out the Bread and Wine, it(s time for Jesus, and therefore, heaven to get closer! Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ascension (5-24-01) Acts 1: 1-11