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The Seventh Sunday of Easter | By the Rev. Jim Pappas

This past Thursday, the Church celebrated the feast of Christ’s Ascension into Heaven. Our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles tells that story again. And our collect this morning keeps our focus on this great truth by reminding us that Christ has been exalted into heaven. We remember that after his teaching ministry, after his passion and death, after his resurrection appearances, Jesus was taken into heaven. Because of this, we might be tempted to think that this means that God’s home is only in some far-off heaven rather than also here on earth. But that kind of thinking only works if we accept a false dualism that earth and heaven are so very far separated one from another. If, on the other hand, we believe that the kingdom of heaven is so very near to us (as Jesus himself preached), if we believe that God’s heaven surrounds us and indeed occasionally breaks into our otherwise mortal reality, then there is no problem. God dwells in heaven; and at the same time, God also makes God’s home among mortals.

This is really what the Ascension is all about. When Jesus finished his time on earth, he did not leave his human flesh to decompose as the rest of us do. Jesus instead took our human flesh into the very heart of God. However it happened, whether he rose up into the sky and was consumed by a cloud, or whether he just was no longer visibly among the apostles, Jesus took his humanity into the very nature of the Trinity. God can no longer ever be God without humanity, because humanity is now an essential part of who God is.

Now what I am saying should not be interpreted as a limitation upon God. God remains the God who can and does act and dwell far beyond our imaginations. God remains the God who calls us to move beyond ourselves into something new and bigger. God’s heaven will not be confined to earth or to our mortality. But wherever God may move and dwell, wherever God may go, in whatever way God may choose to manifest God’s power and majesty, our humanity will always in some way be a part of that. God became one of us, took on our flesh, and took that flesh into the very heart of God. God chooses to never be apart from us. God can be beyond us, but never again can anything, not even heaven itself, separate us from God.

What we celebrate in these last days of Eastertide, in these days between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, is the ultimate confirmation of God’s work in the Incarnation. God’s Kingdom did not draw near to us only to then withdraw. God drew near to us and remained close. God drew our humanity, and through that humanity all of the created order, into God’s own heart.

The Ascension is the confirmation of the total radical mystery that we proclaim in the Incarnation. Other religions have stories of gods who come to earth and play at being human. And then when they are done playing, they toss off their mortal disguises and go back to being gods. But our God is not playing around. God is shaking the very foundations of life as we know it.

God’s kingdom has drawn near and nothing can separate us from it. God’s promise of justice and righteousness is made to us in the birth of a baby. It is sustained through a ministry of preaching hope and love, of healing the sick and welcoming the sinner. It is sustained through suffering and death on a cross. It is sustained in resurrection light. And it is sustained and made anew in the Ascension of our humanity into the very heart of the Godhead. In the Incarnation, God promises that we will never be alone.

Now belief in that promise can be difficult, especially when we live in the midst of so much suffering. Faced with a multitude of illnesses, faced with a plague of gun violence, faced with poverty and hunger, faced with hatred and discrimination and myriad forms of degradation, if we find ourselves wondering where God is, if we find ourselves wondering about the validity of God’s promises to us, well, we certainly would not be the first to do so. But what we proclaim in these final days of Eastertide, perhaps louder than we do at any other time in the Christian year, is that God is even now with us in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of our fear and confusion. God has never ceased to be one of us; our suffering and fear and confusion and anger and whatever else we might be experiencing are held in the heart of God because our very human nature dwells there.

I am convinced that without this message of the Ascension, nothing else in our faith would have meaning. Sure, God might have once been born; sure, God might have once walked among us; sure, God might once have experienced suffering and death; and, sure, God might even once have been raised from the dead. But if God does not remain one of us, if God does not continue to experience our joys and our sufferings and journey through them with us to whatever it is that awaits on the other side, then what we proclaim as Christians does not give others much to believe in other than some dusty old stories.

I think that we forget this too often in our proclamation. We proclaim that we believe; we ask others to join us in believing. But we need to share a story that is worthy of belief. We need to share the story of a God who believes in us just as much, or even more than, we believe in God. And the God who believes in us is the God who remains one of us. God did not try humanity out for a while and then wander off. God became one of us and shared our joys and shared our sorrows and shared our sufferings and shared our death and loved us so much that God could not stop sharing those things. God believes so deeply in us that God changed God’s own self and took on a nature in the person of Jesus that forever binds humanity and divinity in one.

As Christians, we have the audacity to proclaim nothing less than this God who believes too deeply in humanity to ever be rid of or done with us. But our proclamation must be more than even that. Because if God believes in us so much that nothing will ever separate us from God’s presence, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, then what we must also proclaim is that we are made to believe in and love each other in the same way. If we proclaim belief in this God who holds our nature in God’s very center, then it follows that the only way that we can truly be our full selves is to have just as much commitment to humanity as God does. If we believe in God, then we also must believe that it is worth it to struggle for the health and safety and dignity of every human being. If we believe in God, then we also must believe that it is worth it to struggle for the care of the creation in which we dwell and upon which we and all life depend for sustenance. If we believe in God, then we also must believe that it is worth it to commit ourselves to being united no matter what fears or anxieties might try to tear us apart.

God and humanity are forever knit together in the person of Jesus Christ. Let those of us who bear his name proclaim this truth in lives that show how deeply we believe that God believes in us and in the whole human family.

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