The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In all my ministry, I have never preached a sermon about the Ascension. Part of the reason is that it is a very odd story. I mean we just don’t see people being lifted up into the sky, and if you want to call that a mystery, that’s fine; if you want to call it a metaphor or a literary device, that’s fine. In terms of my own faith journey, it isn’t a terribly important story, but it has certainly received a lot of attention when it comes to art. And the artists didn’t have a lot to go on…you just heard it: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
This fourteenth-century image by Giotto is in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, near Venice. Giotto and his assistants covered the inside of this amazing place with frescoes that many art historians say helped bring in the Renaissance in Italy. Obviously, Jesus is at the center of the image with little angelic beings that look as if they are encouraging, as if to say, “Go! Go! It’s that way!” And below Jesus are the two “men in white robes” mentioned in the text, each pointing upward. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is in characteristic blue on the center-left of the bottom register, with the rest of the crowd.
Rubens’s Ascension puts the viewpoint from underneath Jesus, again putting Jesus in the center of the scene. No crowd is shown, just two cherubs, and the viewer is part of those gathered and looking upward. The reds in Jesus’ robe and the yellow light pouring forth from the clouds tells you what is really important.
And even into the 20th century, Salavador Dalí shows Jesus being taken up into a heaven that looks almost like the center of a sunflower with the dove of the Holy Spirit facing him and a distinctly feminine onlooker, who I take to be the feminine face of God the Creator. Jesus is at the center and the crowd and the men in white robes are absent.
But the imagery hadn’t always been focused just on Jesus.
In this 13th century manuscript, the focus is on the disciples…the only part you see of Jesus is his feet.
I love this early manuscript image that shows not only Jesus’ nail-punctured feet, but even the footprints he left behind. And the crowd is looking up wondering.
But my favorite, in terms of what it says about the story from Acts, is a late 19th century painting by James Tissot.
It doesn’t even show Jesus’ feet. It’s all about the light permeating everyone in the painting, which in this case is the two men in white robes and the crowd. Look at the crowd and what they are doing…do they look like they have their “act” together? They look confused, mortified, wondering what they would do next! But the light is still among them.
I don’t think the story of the ascension is primarily about Jesus. You see, it comes at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, and Jesus needs to finish his curtain-call after the resurrection and take his place. And that leaves the crowd of followers. And it leaves us.
Imagine yourself for a moment as one of Jesus’ early followers, and you’ve walked with him through the triumph of Palm Sunday’s entrance into Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. What must they have thought after the crucifixion? The Jewish renewal movement he started was now doomed to fail, and the kingdom of God he proclaimed was nothing more than a pipe dream.
And then he came back, rose from the dead and was seen by his followers. They must have been so amazed and gleeful that he was back among them. But then it happened again: Jesus was gone. Or was he? Can’t you just imagine the disciples saying, “Well, now what?! We’re supposed to carry the news to Judea, Samaria, and the whole world! This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!”
If you are like me, perhaps you’ve caught yourself at some time over the past three months saying, “Well, now what?! The church building is closed and we have to learn to livestream and handle Zoom meetings…This isn’t what we signed up for! This is a whole new thing…it’s all different…it’s not what we were expecting!” And we all know that this pandemic is nothing as earth-shaking as the disappearance of Jesus.
Have you ever thought what the first disciples were up against? Has it occurred to you that it was a miracle that this ragtag group of Jewish heretics started a movement that would grow into the largest religion on the planet? There are about 2.4 billion Christians in the world today.
What are we up against? A deadly virus without a cure that continues to spread around the globe. A president who is more concerned about how he looks than about the lives of US citizens. An economy that is at best volatile. Job losses surpassed only by the Great Depression. And closer to home, having to be church in the world, instead of being church together in this building.
If you only have one theological take-away from the pandemic let it be this: the church is not the building. The church is you and me and all of us together being the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Christ in the world. It is you bringing groceries to elders and also having the grace to receive the gift of help. It is you supporting people with food and housing insecurity, immigrants, and those working on the border. It is you paying your whole pledge early so that we avoid cash flow problems. It is you supporting our beloved camp at La Foret, which has birthed more UCC ministers than anyplace I know. And as one of our elders of beloved memory, Bob Calkins, used to tell me: “Hal, it’s all about love.”
You are the love and the light, my friends, and I am so grateful that you are a part of the mission and ministry of Plymouth. You are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. It’s hard being apart, and it won’t be forever. It’s not about the building…it’s about God’s love and the love we share. And love continues…. Christ’s light continues.
Part of the mystery of the growth of the church is contained in the light in Tissot’s painting. Amid the bedlam of humanity doing its best, and oftentimes failing, there is love and there is light. Keep shining bright, my friends!
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Images: public domain
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.