Luke 24: 36-53
May 5, 2019
Because my sermon research is nothing if not thorough—and random—I learned this week that you can buy alien abduction insurance. Such insurance will cover your medical bills—including mental health care—should you be taken aboard a UFO and then returned to earth or be impregnated by an alien. And it will pay survivor benefits if you are permanently kidnapped by non-humans or if you experience “death caused by aliens.”
The 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had alien abduction insurance in March of 1997 when they took fatal doses of phenobarbital in order to free themselves of their “vehicles”—their bodies—and board a UFO that was following the Halle-Bopp comet. The Heaven’s Gate deaths are tragic, and the reasoning behind them seems tragically ridiculous. A note on the group’s web site states: “We fully desire, expect, and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon.”
I’ve been listening to a podcast about the Heaven’s Gate cult, thinking how very strange and warped the group members’ beliefs were. Then I started looking at the scripture I’m supposed to preach this morning: “While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” The version in Acts, I think, has an even more dramatic flair: “When [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
The Ascension isn’t exactly UFOs. But it’s not too far off. If we’re honest, it’s a weird story. I mean, sure, Jesus performs miracles throughout the Gospels, but they’re mostly functional: some water into wine to keep the party going; multiplying loaves and fishes to feed the crowd; healing people’s bodies and spirits. This miracle . . . well, this is just showing off.
Which may be why Mennonites don’t seem to be much into the ascension. We don’t say the Nicene creed every week that proclaims Jesus “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” We don’t have fancy stained glass windows with Jesus glowing in the clouds. We don’t sing a lot of hymns about “King Jesus” rising in glory. I mean, Mennonites believe in the ascension; we don’t deny it. But it’s not something we talk about much. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it before.
It feels a little bit like talking about UFOs. The members of Heaven’s Gate were, in some way, trying to accomplish what Jesus accomplished in the ascension. The cult members wore arm patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” It was a “Beam me up, Scotty!” or “Beam me up, God!” kind of moment in both cases. People ascending to be with God in another, heavenly realm.
So there’s a similar atmosphere of the absurd to these two situations and a similar end goal in mind. But there is also a critical difference: the Heaven’s Gate community members believed that they had to disable their human “vehicles;” they had to kill their human bodies in order to participate in the “Next Level.” Whereas, with Jesus’ ascension, Jesus ascends in his entirety. His human body is somehow part of this glorious, divine, raising up.
And we should note, too, what has happened previously, just in the part of the story we have read this morning. That Jesus has shown his disciples his hands and feet—parts of his body that still bear the wounds from his crucifixion. This is not a perfect, perfected, unblemished body that is rising to heaven. This is Jesus in the flesh that has been broken and the blood that has been poured out. He has the nail wounds in his hands and his feet. His back bears the whip marks from his beating. And then he eats a piece of broiled fish. And all of that—the wounded hands, the marked back, the digesting fish—it all gets taken up to sit at the right hand of God.
Jesus does not abandon his “vehicle.” He takes it with him. Which is really, when you think of it, rather astounding.
God is incarnate—is enfleshed—in the person of Jesus—and not just in a nominal, superficial way. God carries this embodiedness through to the very end. Which means that those of us who are Christians must recognize the importance and the goodness of our humanity—our bodily humanity. As hymn writer Brian Wren writes: “Good is the flesh that the Word has become. . . . Good is the body for knowing the world. . . . Good is the body from cradle to grave.” And I think that recognition of the spiritual significance of our physical bodies is both comforting and disturbing. Disturbing and comforting.
We see Jesus’ disciples struggle through the confusion and rest in the comfort of Jesus’ embodiedness.
This morning’s story of Jesus with the disciples is a continuation of last week’s story of the travelers on the road to Emmaus, which was a continuation of the Easter story from the week before that, which was a continuation of the story of Holy Week from the Sunday before that . . . Here at the end of Luke, in these stories we have heard over the past few weeks, Jesus’ humanity is on full display. And it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster for the disciples: from triumph to fear to despair and grief to confusion to joy. And thrown in the mix are so many disturbing moments–and so many moments of comfort.
In this morning’s reading, we begin with the disciples and the Emmaus travelers discussing Jesus’ most recent appearance. This is a little disconcerting but not nearly as startling as when Jesus just shows up in the room with no warning and says, “Peace be with you.”
And can we just take a moment to acknowledge this high point of comic irony in scripture? Because the words Jesus says are so mismatched from the reaction that he gets. Jesus says “Peace be with you” and the disciples are terrified. They think he’s a ghost. They are not feeling peaceful.
But then, somehow, when Jesus shows his body–when he shows his hands, his feet, his wounds–it’s somehow comforting to them, that physicality.
That’s how it is, sometimes. The things that comfort us aren’t necessarily grand or even traditionally beautiful, but just the things that ground us back in this world. In our humanity. In our bodies. With each other.
Like singing a song. There’s a comfort in the air being pulled into and pushed out of our bodies. Comfort in the sound waves hitting our eardrums.
Like eating a meal. The comfort of taste and texture and smell. Of feeling full in some way, even if you still feel empty in others.
Like being in the same physical space as people you love, as people who love you. Even if you aren’t doing much of anything at all.
Jesus gives this simple comfort of physicality, of presence.
And then he reveals the scriptures to them, which must also have been comforting. Familiar words clothed in wisdom and insight. And then the comfort moves into full joy as Jesus blesses them and ascends to heaven. The author of Luke tells us that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
This is strange, don’t you think? That as Jesus is physically leaving the disciples forever, they are experiencing “great joy.” They are devastated when he leaves them through death, and rejoice when he leaves them through ascension.
Is it because they now understand his true mission since he has opened the scriptures to them? Is it because Jesus has promised that they will be “clothed with power from on high”? Is it because he is being raised up in his living body? Is it because he is blessing them as he goes?
Whatever the reason, the disciples have moved beyond comfort to something else—to this joy. While the comfort is calming, the joy is energizing.
It is the comfort that allows them to release their grief and breathe again.
And it is the joy that propels them forward in the work God will call them to.
Unlike the ascension story created by the Heaven’s Gate members, this Ascension story should not inspire us to leave this world, but to be more fully a part of it. It should not lead us into despair for worldly failures, but toward hope in the ways the Divine is part of our earthly existence.
Jesus’ Ascension story affirms us in our humanity while also affirming God’s presence and power in the midst of it all.
I don’t know where you find yourself entering the story this morning: whether you are grieving a loss, wrestling with discomfort and confusion, cowering in fear, resting in comfort, or moving forward with joy. I don’t know where you are. But my guess is that you are somewhere in there. And my prayer is that, wherever you are, however you feel, you will know that God is present—really, actually, truly present—with you.
And that you will catch at least a glimpse of joy as we, like those first disciples, worship God together.