“The Final Curtain?”
Luke 24: 44-53 Acts 1:1-11
Good morning everyone. Today we join with many Christian churches in observance of what is known as Ascension Sunday – that day when our Lord called for the disciples to gather in Bethany to receive his final blessing. And then we are told that “while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” We are also told that “while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
What an incredible event this was – so incredible that it can perchance challenge our comprehension. Yet even so, today, we gather to ponder its meaning. And to help us begin do this I want to share the following true story with you about a man named Eddie Leonard. Have any of you ever heard of him? Well, let me introduce him to you. Before television, many people would spend an occasional evening at a local theater to enjoy shows known as Vaudeville. And so popular were these shows that it was in Vaudeville where many of our best old-time comics learned their trade. I should also add that the entertainers had to face some pretty tough audiences (reminiscent of the puppet hecklers of Sesame Street!) So, to calm these harsh critics, many vaudeville entertainers ended their acts with show stopping moves to ensure applause and cheers at the end.
One performer who was an expert at this was named Eddie Leonard. He guaranteed that he would be well received by employing an interesting tactic. What was it? He announced at the start of every performance that this was his last show. He guessed (correctly) that very few people would be heartless enough to boo a man who was performing his final act.
So, for 20 years, the announcement that this was his last show ensured Leonard a big ovation when the final curtain fell upon that night’s performance. In a similar vein, our Bible reading for today is about Jesus’ “final curtain,” but he didn’t need any gimmicks to keep his audience’s attention. We can easily imagine that gathered there in Bethany, the disciples were hanging onto his every word. After all, they knew that this was the last time
He would ever speak to them in the flesh. And again, I want to remind you that chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke tells us:
“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”
He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
What a startling spectacle that must have been! “While he was blessing them, he left and was taken up into heaven.” How did the disciples feel at that moment? Was their sense of loss balanced by a sense of awe? And what did it mean when they were told to wait for power from on high? Again, today we ponder what this event means.
The Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote something about making an exit. She observed, “There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship, is over, and let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance in our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry –that we are moving on rather than out.”
Ellen Goodman’s words can be aptly applied to the Ascension. Jesus’ departure wasn’t the end of the story, nor was it the final curtain falling upon his spiritual mission. In fact, his ascension into heaven opened the way for the disciples to begin a dynamic, Spirit-empowered ministry that spread the good news all over the world. The end result was the establishment of not only the Christian church, but also hospitals, orphanages, universities, and missions. And in spite of all of its flaws and shortcomings, through this new church many important and worthwhile things would come.
It’s like something the poet Tennyson once wrote. He was describing the code of ethics by which ancient knights sought to live. He said this code had only four components: “Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King.”
Now, it goes without saying that the ideals that the knights lifted up were not always attained, and we know that there was definitely a downside to their mission. But even so, at its most basic level, this was also the charge given to the disciples. Following Jesus’ example, they were to live holy lives, speak the truth of God’s word, right the wrongs of an unjust society, and do all the things their King had done when he walked among
them. They were chosen, chosen to carry their Lord’s work to “all nations.” And he had promised them that with his Spirit enabling them, they would do even greater things than he had done.
So now it was time for a decision. The disciples didn’t know the form of power the Holy Spirit would bestow on them, and they didn’t know what sort of risks they were about to face. These were men who had most likely never traveled far from their homes, so how could they preach repentance and forgiveness to all the nations on earth? After the roller-coaster ride of experiences the disciples had just been on, were they ready for this new
challenge? Well friends, the Book of Acts and the letters of these apostles and their converts make clear that they were up to the challenge. But that point does little for us gathered here today, for the questions we must ask ourselves, and answer only for ourselves, is, and “Are we up to it?” This is the basic question posed to us by the literal account of the Ascension.
The teachings of our church provide additional insights into the Ascension that challenge us to consider the spiritual lesson of this account, and this is a unique perspective that even today distinguishes us from other Christian churches. And to help us understand this perspective I need to remind us of a few basic fundamentals. As simply as I can state it, Swedenborg believed that many of the books of the Bible contain what he called a “continuous internal sense.” These books are primarily the Old Testament historical books, the prophets and Psalms, the four Gospels and the Book of Revelation. Swedenborg’s assertion was that these books are connected, because they have an inner meaning that directly relates to God’s presence with us in ways that nurture our spiritual growth for all eternity.
Thus, the various events, images and experiences related in these books correspond, Swedenborg believed, to our eternal development as children of God. But Swedenborg also proposed that the remaining books of the Bible lack this sense of continuity because they are primarily about people and their accomplishments and interpretations of truths that they have learned from God. This does not mean that these “other” books are less important. What it means is that these books are jam-packed with very useful insights
because they deal with real life issues and people’s struggles to live their faith.
I stress this with you because the account of the Ascension lies on the cusp between these two perspectives. And for me, the internal spiritual beauty of the Ascension is underscored in these two sentences. First, that “He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. And secondly, ”Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”
These two sentences underscore the spiritual truth that the Lord is with us still, in our “understanding” – in our ability to think and reason, and that each thought that we have is as if it were a “cloud.” And our ability to attain a higher level of spiritual understanding lies within how we evaluate and use the knowledge that we have -not for judging others, (and this is where the early Apostles, the church, and even those dam knights had it wrong -but for judging ourselves. I stress this point with you today. The New Church understanding of the Ascension is that we can only know our own spiritual state, and we are not to try to evaluate someone else’s! The church we are called to build (and we are each a church in least form, as our teachings note), is one in which we focus on evaluating our own spiritual growth and the life we want to live, and accepting all who desire to do the same. This is our purpose. This is our mission. This is why the New Church is so important.
Today, the Ascension reminds us that we are each called to build a church. We do so when we use our minds to understand the truths that we are given from the Lord to grow into the “image and likeness” of the Divine. And yes, in this process, are goal is to continually “move on” into heavenlylife, ascending higher and higher. And today, let us each express our willingness to be up to the task. Amen.