Sermon preached for the Seventh Sunday of Easter at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
A year ago, I had the extreme good fortune to spend a few weeks in Italy with a group from my seminary. We spent much of our time in the churches, cathedrals, and basilicas of the Catholic church built over the centuries.
As someone who was raised in the Protestant church, and in particular in a church building from the 1830s, when Puritan plainness was still very much in vogue, I am always in awe the splendor of Catholic cathedrals. Especially in the medieval and renaissance cathedrals where we spent most of our time, every square inch is covered with something to reflect God’s glory—a fresco, a mosaic, a carving, a precious metal. It’s almost difficult to know where to look, when you are surrounded by that much artistic detail.
But what I learned, early on, is that the first place you want to look is up.
Cathedral ceilings are astonishing from every perspective—architectural, artistic, and theological. Often we’d enter a new church only to find all the tourists inside standing around with their heads thrown back, like turkeys in the rain. The biggest, most beautiful fresco in the church can often be found there, on the ceiling, or at the very top of the wall.
And it is almost always a fresco of Christ in power.
There’s even a fancy art history term for these images—Christus Pantocrator. Christ the Ruler of All.
Larger than life, covered in gold, Christ sits exactly where the Bible says he does: up above us, looking down at a world spread at his feet. It’s our theology laid out not in words but in space. Remembering that for most of Christian history, your average churchgoers couldn’t read the Bible, couldn’t read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—but could absolutely read the images of the Cathedral. Knew what it was to crane their necks upward to catch a glimpse of Christ ascended above them.
It struck me, as I wandered around these cathedrals, that placing the physical image of the ascension on or near the ceiling does this really cool thing to our bodies: it forces us upright. I thought about the first worshippers to occupy these churches, a thousand years ago—mostly farmers, with a few tradesworkers scattered about. People who spent their whole lives hunched over, working the earth or the anvil or the loom. People whose world, six days a week, was their small plot of land or their few instruments.
But on that seventh day, on that Sabbath day, they would go to these cathedrals, their bodies aching from work, from being hunched over all day, and in order to look at the Christ they worshipped, they would have to straighten up. They would have to stand tall, to stretch sore backs, to tilt their faces upward. Under Christ’s gaze, even for just a few hours a week, they stood tall.
We live in a radically different world than our medieval forebears, and yet I suspect more than a few of us come to Sunday worship with aching backs from being hunched over all week. Hunched over keyboards, hunched over gardens, hunched over to pick up our children and grandchildren. Hunched over with worry and stress. Hunched over because it is easier to keep our eyes focused on what’s right in front of us. Hunched over in prayer, even. Hunched over because it is our habit.
But Christ invites us to look up. To grow tall. To stand with our faces to the sun. To worship the one who rules all the earth, and who knows us each by name. On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate because Christ is bigger than we thought, bigger than one place or time. That only by leaving us could Christ be always with us, and that we will see him if we only look.
That is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: that they look. That they will have wisdom and revelation to come to know Christ, even though, like us, they never got a chance to know him on earth. That the eyes of their heart will be “enlightened.” That they will know where to look to see Christ, and that once they do, they will be full of hope.
This is the tricky bit of being Christian for all the millions of us who have lived after Jesus’ ascension: that we have to do a bit of looking. That when we see Christ around us, he wears disguises: the beauty of nature, the wisdom of generations, the sacrifice of a friend or compassion of a stranger, the voice calling out hypocrisy, the healer tending another’s wounds. The kind of thing we may only see if we look up from our own small worlds and really take in what is going on around us.
Perhaps the most famous of all these cathedral ceilings is the Sistine Chapel. And it is stunning and magnificent and all those things you have heard it is. But I will tell you I have never stepped on as many people’s feet as when I was in the Sistine Chapel, not even in middle-school cotillion. Because when we were all looking up, we forgot to look around. And we stepped all over each other.
But the thing is—as stunning and magnificent and inspiring as the Sistine Chapel is—and it is all those things, in spades—I don’t think that’s where Christ was hiding that day. I think Christ was hiding in the crowd I was coolly ignoring, in the people of every nationality on earth who had come to soak in the achievement of a human like us. I suspect that if I had looked around, as well as looking up, I might have seen the glory and power of Christ not just in gold and paint, but in the bright eyes and straightened backs of the people around me.
Because, as beautiful as they are, as inspired as they might be, the fullest glory of God is not in the things we make. The fullest glory of God is in the artwork God makes—those average, ordinary people our lives are chock full of. Those average, ordinary people for whom Christ died and rose again.
It is easy to slip into tunnel vision. To hunch over and focus on only what is dead in front of us—deadlines at work and appointments to keep and houses to clean. But Christ’s call is to look up at him and around at his world—at families torn apart in the name of security, at islands hit by storm and fire, at mothers fighting for their children’s safety, at those struggling to make it through one more day without losing hope altogether. We have to look squarely at these because these are ones Jesus asked us to be witnesses to—to tell them that someone died and rose for them. That they are worthy. That they deserve to stand tall and whole as much as anyone. That they deserve to inherit the joy of the saints. That they deserve the same hope we live in here.
I confess I struggle with this as much as anyone. It is easy to get overwhelmed and want to curl in on ourselves, out of stress or exhaustion or sheer survival instinct. And that is why it is important to remember that we pray to the one who is, in love too great to imagine, Christus Pantocrator, Ruler of the World, and that by his power all shall be made well.
So, on this Ascension Sunday, I’d like you to indulge me for just a minute. Most of us are taught to pray by bowing our heads and clasping our hands, to show humility. But today, I’d like us to pray a different way, using our bodies to open us to Christ’s presence.
As much as you can, I ask you to sit up straight. Feel the way your spine supports you. Move your shoulders back, so that they’re underneath your ears. Feel the stretch across your chest as you open yourself to God. Now, the important part: lift your chin. Not so far that you’re uncomfortable, but enough so that your whole front feels vulnerable. Since we don’t have anything particularly impressive to look at on the ceiling, you may close your eyes.
This is a vulnerable position, by the way, but if we cannot be vulnerable to God when we pray, I don’t know when we can be.
We’re going to pray now. You may fold your hands if you prefer, or, if you’re feeling very open, you can lay them palm up, as if you were cupping your hands to receive a blessing.
With our bodies open and our heads uplifted, let us pray as Paul once prayed:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
May it be so. Amen.