The Ascension of Jesus
Jesus said to his disciples, “ 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.
Following the number given to us in Acts, the church celebrates Jesus’ Ascension forty days after Easter. Since this always falls on a Thursday, many of us miss that major moment in the life of the church, and its pivotal preparation for the Pentecost, ten days later.
The author of Luke-Acts gave us two versions of the event, which are in today’s lessons. In Luke the Ascension ends the story of Jesus’ life, while in Acts, it begins the story of the early church with Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit, and his charge to the disciples.
Although the Gospel of John assumes the Ascension only Luke-Acts records it. Acts is also the sole source for the Pentecost story, and for the first explicit promise of Jesus’s second coming. It is breathtaking to realize how much in our creedal faith and the key events in the founding of the church come from those few verses by a single writer.
We need to hear them.
That is one reason I asked Bishop Knisley’s permission to celebrate the Ascension today. Also, I was struck by possible parallels between that unique time and our own. As different as they are in place and culture, and separated by nearly 2000 years, the period between Jesus’ Ascension and the Pentecost is somewhat like ours as we move out of Covid restrictions. Each is a liminal time—a period of transition between one reality, one way of being, and another. As such, they seem to offer some common experiences: like waiting in hope and uncertainty, feelings of presence and absence, as well as remembering and joyfully reuniting.
So I’m going to share some brief personal reflections on those experiences and end by inviting you to share your own thoughts in a virtual gathering next Wednesday.
Acts 1:4 While staying with the disciples, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.
Once the Holy Spirit descended upon them, the disciples were propelled into action, to share the gospel “to the ends of the earth”. But first, obedient to Jesus’s command, they had to wait for God’s own good time. They waited at peace in the unknowing
Absolutely nothing in contemporary culture teaches us to wait. On the contrary: Jeff Bezos’ built billions with overnight delivery! Do you jump to respond quickly to emails and texts as the bells sound on phones and computers? I do.
In February 2020, no one would have believed that we could endure 15 months of waiting. Involuntarily, of course, we did wait: in fear, in uncertainty, in impatience, in overload for parents, teachers, and essential workers—yet still, somehow, in hope.
That hope was justified. With this week’s amazing news from the CDC it feels like the doors have been blown off of the bunkers we have lived in since mid-March 2020. It’s sudden, surprising, and exciting, like a cork popping out of a champagne bottle.
What about waiting now?
About a year ago, I realized that the lock down had some positives for me. I got a clearer sense of what mattered most to me: the health and safety of those I love. And for the first time in my adult life I simply was, in one place, for more than a year. Until then I was a much more scattered and restless person. I travelled a lot—too much, really. I flew more than I needed to Iand contributed too much to the pollution that air travel brings. When a chance for travel came up, I asked “why not?” Thanks to the waiting time I am becoming more deliberative. Now I try to begin asking “why?” and waiting for a good answer.
Presence and absence
After the Resurrection, Jesus was present to the disciples, but in new, more mysterious ways. One minute he was a flesh and blood human being, showing his wounds, or eating broiled fish, but he also appeared and disappeared at will; he materialized inside locked rooms.
After the Ascension, although Christ never appeared physically again, in Acts it’s clear that he is still active, still present, as NT prof Troy Troftgruben noted “healing (‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you,’ 9:34), associating with Christ-followers (9:4; 22:7; 26:14), and acting through those who act in his name (3:6, 16; 4:10, 30; 16:18)”.
Finding Christ Everywhere
In his physical absence, empowered by the Spirit, the disciples learned to invoke the Risen Christ, to seek and find Christ, everywhere–in all kinds of people and places. They were the first to experience the mystical truth of verity unseen (in the words attributed to Thomas Aquinas in the hymn we just sang), as we can still today.
Covid created painful, long-term separations from people we love. These absences led to some new understandings about presence, new ways of being together. And I don’t just mean on Zoom!
When my brother Stevo died at the end at 2019, many family members were gathered in Austin. Meanwhile, we have talked a lot one on one, but we haven’t been together because of the virus. A few months ago, in my morning quiet time, I felt the presence of Stevo, of our sister Polly, who died 11 years ago tomorrow, and of our parents who passed on before her; together, they gently, lovingly surrounded me. It was as real and comforting is it was fleeting—a momentary experience of “the communion of saints.”
The Benedictine sisters in Beach Grove Indiana, whom I visit from time to time, conclude one set of daily prayers remembering “our absent sisters”. Those sisters may be out of the monastery for the day, for a season, or forever. The prayer came to mind when I was scrolling through Facebook in the wake of Mother’s Day, with poignant posts about late mothers–some recently departed, some long ago, all dearly remembered, all somehow present in spirit.
Luke tells us that after the Ascension the disciples waited together joyfully,
As today’s reading from Ephesians reminded us, we—the church– now are the body of Christ “the fullness of the one who fills all in all.”
There has been a special joy here at Emmanuel since we—the church–began to worship together again in this beloved space, masked and lovingly distanced as best we could manage. In these reunions, Christ is present—verity unseen.
Soon we will fully and joyfully resume our ministries: we have work to do!
In closing, the invitation.
When I preached in Lent, I said that before we get swept up into busyness again, I hoped each of us would take stock of what we have learned in Covid time. After a 15 month pause, we have a unique chance to decide how we want to begin life again—honoring what matters most and leaving behind things that don’t, especially those that harm us or the planet.
This coming Wednesday at 5, I will host Emmanuel’s weekly Zoom discussion meeting called the Gathering Circle. Our topic is lessons learned in Covid time. I would love to hear yours, so please join in.
The link for the meeting is in the Constant contact email for the week and if you don’t do the Internet let me know, and you can join us by phone.