Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 21, 2023

Posted by on Sun, May 21, 2023 in Easter, Sermons

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 21, 2023

You’ve heard me refer to crosses like ours (without a Christ figure on them) as a Resurrection Cross, meaning we acknowledge Jesus crucified, died, and resurrected. So, what would an Ascension Cross look like? In Acts Luke tells of Jesus ascending right in front of the disciples, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” We can imagine ourselves standing there and looking up as he went, yet the vacant space left behind is not much of a symbol.

One monastic church I’ve been in has a cross with a crucifix on one side and an empty or ‘Resurrection cross’ on the other. The whole rather large cross can be rotated so that the figure of Jesus faces the worshipping body gathered in the pews, or the resident monastics who gather on the other side of the altar. One regular member complained something like, “you can’t really tell if he’s dying up there or has risen up off of it; how do people know which it’s really supposed to be?” To me the answer could only be, Christ is both! 

As if that weren’t versatile enough, one of the brothers told me the figure was not nailed or even screwed onto to the cross, but rather held in place by strong magnets so that the crucified Christ could be removed entirely, which they do during Lent. He said once when re-attaching the figure they discovered if they tried to place it on the wrong side the magnetic field made it feel as if Jesus was pushing away from the cross! We joked that it was the risen Lord attempting to ascend.

So, what would an Ascension symbol look like? Scripture isn’t forthcoming here, except for an occasional painting or sculpture of the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds there’s not much to work with. When they asked Jesus if this was when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, and he said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.” They asked ‘when’ and instead he tells them a ‘what’ that isn’t the one they asked about, but for which they will soon be equipped for — it must have sounded baffling to them. Then Jesus ascended and their gaze followed his ascent. Two men in white robes (we assume angels) asked them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Wouldn’t we all? And yet here they are, again being redirected, this time with an answerless question.

Their eyes followed Jesus and kept watching as if hoping he’d come back and explain it all, hoping he’d return so they could again have him at their center and follow him. The two figures in white are helping them to come to the answer themselves; looking up won’t do you any good, it’s time to look ahead, to see each other and recognize the Christ within, to look forward so they can carry out what Jesus charged them to do.

Staring up at what is suddenly unexpectedly empty space is understandable. The resurrected Jesus was with them in conversation one moment and ascending away the next. In a short time the disciples have been through fear, turmoil, loss, grief, disbelief of resurrection and then resurrection joy, awe, confusion, solace at his powerful presence with them, and now loss of their beloved Jesus, yet again. Looking up to the heavens perplexed about his disappearance is understandable, but it won’t help answer any questions or give them direction. Their center has lifted up as if away, and now their eyes adjust and they will come to feel it within themselves just as Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Jesus ascending and the Spirit coming is a new way of God with us and in us. They may not know it yet, but in the ascension they will experience a shift from following him to being an embodiment of him and of his way to life eternal. 

After this they returned to Jerusalem together and “went to the room upstairs where they were staying” along with the women among them and Jesus’ brothers, and they all devoted themselves to prayer. They drew together to share in their common gift of having loved and followed him. Now they wait and pray that what Jesus said will make sense or come about somehow. Perhaps some among them wondered if they would really know if it did, or how they could now be his disciples without him. And who or what was the power of the Spirit he said would come?

Mother Ann and I were recently talking about the phenomenon of people who aspire to become “Influencers.” Before it was ‘a thing’ I could name people who had influenced me, yet looking at the list of top 10 last night—I didn’t know any of them. (Yes, it’s cozy living under my rock.) An influencer is “a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.” I’d add to that definition that an influencer could be one seeking to lead people to their way of thinking. So, does Jesus fit?

Cristiano Ronaldo (who I have no idea of) is currently the most-followed individual on Facebook, with over 162 million followers. Shakira (whom I do know of) is currently the most-followed woman on Facebook, with over 122 million followers. Sounds impressive until we learn that Facebook is now the way people communicate with their grandparents. Apparently, an influencer also needs to keep on top of which social media is most —influential. Essentially people choose to go to platforms where they can avail themselves of what an influencer says is the next great thing, and again I think about Jesus. The ultimate influencer even before social media, so how do we feel his impact in our own age? By carrying it on and sharing it.

The Ascension was how Jesus prevented himself from being the only influencer of his message. The gospel could not go out to all the world with Jesus still physically present there. Without ascending he would continue to be the most important teacher, healer, and leader, and the movement would be tethered to a particular place. He left those closest to him to take up that work, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are recipients of Christ’s message because he led others to take it up, and they did. With the gospel geographically decentralized, spread far and wide, the message of what the world can be is still carried. They embodied the glory of this change in the dwelling place of God. 

They spread the word and others took it up, each generation and culture and people finding their lives — more than ‘influenced’ — but actually transformed. Jesus still doesn’t want to be “the influencer” in current parlance; that guy looking to up his social media ‘followers.’ He wants us to be speakers of truth, witnesses to what one becomes through him.  So, whom do we follow? Even if one chose to ‘unfollow’ him the Spirit isn’t going away. Jesus said they will receive the power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and will be present with us always.

Christ ascending in a cloud meant he was exalted and in the presence of God in glory. Heaven as God’s dwelling place ‘up there’ in heaven or in the clouds is a helpful metaphor which comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. Their term for God’s dwelling place or presence in the world was Shekhinah. And it reminds us of the ongoing image of God’s presence in clouds. (No, not that ‘Cloud’!) The real ever-changing, no two ever alike, beautiful clouds. Recall some stories with me;

The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way,…

When Moses told Aaron to speak to the the hungry complaining Israelites, …the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. Manna came soon after.

Moses would go up into the cloud-covered mountain, “and on the seventh day God called to Moses out of the cloud.”

At the end of Exodus “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Moses and the people were not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Our hearts draw towards God’s love as if magnetized once we respond to love’s presence. The ascension invited us all under heaven’s holy cloud to know Christ as eternally present and live in the Spirit’s power. Like magnets will repel and push away from each other if turned around, when we turn only towards ourselves and no one else, only inward instead of outward, we are pushing away from God’s grace and love. In turning our hearts to love and serve and bear witness to the gospel, the attraction becomes powerful — divinely irresistible. The magnet settles in finding it’s steel. As St. Augustine said, “My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you, Lord.”  Amen.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 10:30 AM on Wed., May. 21, 2025.