Defying Gravity! (An Ascension Story)

Principle Texts: Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53

When Larry Walters was thirteen years old, he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army/Navy surplus store, and just knew that he would someday be carried into the heavens by balloons. Sure enough, in July 1982, when Larry was thirty-three years old, he attached a lawn chair to forty-two balloons, and he filled those balloons with helium. He then took his seat in the lawn chair, which was attached to the bumper of a friend’s truck by two thin nylon cords. Armed with sandwiches, a six-pack of Miller Lite, and a pellet gun (in order to pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down), he set off to fly across the desert and make it to the Rocky Mountains.

From the start, things went awry. When Larry cut the first nylon tether, the other tether just snapped, and Larry soared into the skies above Los Angeles. Moreover, Larry underestimated the impact of forty-two helium-filled balloons; so, instead of leveling off a planned thirty feet, Larry’s lawn-chair zeppelin rose to 16,000 feet and into the primary flight approach corridor for LAX Airport. Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot spotted Larry and radioed LAX tower about a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The tower was not amused! After a few more hours of drifting, the helium in the balloons began to dissipate. Larry eventually landed in nearby Long Beach, entangled in power lines. Miraculously, Larry survived without any serious injuries.

It’s a funny story! Larry Walter’s tale would go on to inspire Australian storyteller and filmmaker Jeff Balsmeyer to create a truly wonderful film called Danny Deckchair. The movie’s protagonist is Danny, a bored Sydney labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure who ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue on a lawn chair tied to helium balloons. He lands less than gracefully in Clarence in the rural Australian outback. Danny’s departure and arrival leaves a deep and life-changing impact on both the people left in Sydney and those he meets in Clarence, inspiring them to live more boldly, to find confidence, to act on their dreams, and to become all they could be. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. Danny Deckchair is a surprising modern metaphor of the Ascension. 

Up is better down, isn’t it? It’s better to get a thumbs up than a thumbs down. Singers want to be on the top of the charts, athletes at the top of their game, and students at the top of the class. Ascending the career ladder is better than descending it. I’ve seen plenty of movies and documentaries about mountain climbers but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one about valley descenders. I remember helping in one of my kid’s pre-school classes. Almost immediately one of the three-year-olds came up to me and said, “See how high I can jump?” He jumped, and I mistakenly replied, “Wow, that was high!” For the next two hours, twelve three-year-olds, one after the other in repetition, came up to me to show me how high they could jump. They were impressed by themselves because, at least for a moment, they were defying gravity.

We all want to live ascended lives! We want to break free that which holds us down, form the gravity of our earthbound existence. We want to rise above. The problem is that, too often, we settle for the self-ascension that sets us in competition with one another, whereby we judge and compare ourselves to one another. We settle, as it were, for self-ascension, and fall into the trap of assuming that for me to ascend the other has to descend (or, at least, not jump as high). We’re constantly filling our lives with the attempt to climb to new heights, searching always for the next high. Such attempts at self-ascension, however, are divisive and destructive. They separate us from God and from one another, fragmenting our lives and our world. Ultimately, these attempts deny us the very ascended life we are seeking and prove to be the very same gravity that we are trying to defy. 

But, and here’s the irony, we don’t need the attempts at self-ascension, because the ascended life is already ours to claim! 

Indeed, the narrative we heard from Luke’s gospel today (24:44-53) is the prescriptive fulfillment event in the Luke-Acts telling of the gospel story, at least as far as the ongoing life and mission of the disciples is concerned. As heard here, the promise of the Holy Spirit is the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and it is immediately followed by the first account of Jesus’ ascension. For the author of Luke-Acts, these (the gifting of the Holy Spirit and the Ascension) are two moments of the same process. The withdrawal of Jesus, in other words, is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful way.  When Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as the life-giving Spirit. So, it is not about Jesus leaving; but, rather, about “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” 

This is what I think lies behind the question of the two men in white robes, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” It’s as if those two are saying, “What are you waiting here for?! The power from on high is coming; prepare to receive it, and be transformed.” The ascension completes the resurrection! On the one hand, only through the ascension can the power of the Spirit enliven, enlighten, and empower the disciples onward. Like Moses to Joshua and Elijah to Elisha, in the departure the double share of the Spirit is passed on. But more on being filled with the Holy Spirit of truth – the spirit of truth and the mantle of prophecy next week at Pentecost.  

On the other hand, the ascended life is something that we too are invited to live. The resurrection is victory over death. The ascension lifts humanity of Jesus into the heavens; and, in so doing, Jesus’ ascension seats human flesh at the right hand of God to partake in God’s glory and divinity. And just as we share in Jesus’ victory over death in the resurrection, so also do we share in his triumph at the right hand of God. And so, in a way, the resurrection-ascension moment is the fulfillment of the original double blessing in the creation narrative of Genesis 1. Resurrection relates to the life-giving command “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28a) and Ascension relates to the command to have “dominion over” creation (Genesis 1:28b). Not to put too fine a point on it but dominion, in this context, is a godly dominion – one that demands that we treat creation as God treats creation – in loving kindness, gentleness, and generosity.

What is keeping us from living into the ascended life? It is ours to claim. Maybe the proper query isn’t about how we ascend since that has already been accomplished for us. Rather, I think the more important and relevant question is, “What pulls us down?” What is our gravity? What do we need to let go of? Fear, anger, resentment, and the need to be in control often weigh us down. Self-righteousness, jealousy, pride, and despair create their own gravity. Indifference or apathy? Addiction can be a heavy burden. Gravity takes many forms and I wonder, what is the gravity that is keeping you from the ascended life?

The gravity that keeps us down is not creation or the circumstances of our lives. Gravity is not around us but within us. So as you begin to look at your life and identify the places of gravity, do not despair. The very things that hold us down also point the way to ascension. Our participation in Jesus’ ascension begins not by looking up but by looking within.

The ascension narrative ultimately invites us to live more boldly, to find confidence, to act on our dreams, and to become all that we were created to be – co-creators, co-redeemers with Jeus, icons of God in the world.

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