May 13th, 2018 “Ascension of the Lord” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11
The Ascension of the Lord is one of those church holidays that we skip more often than not, probably because it always happens on a weekday and most of us aren’t here on weekdays. The Ascension of the Lord is celebrated 10 days before Pentecost which means it happened last Thursday. Another reason we often skip telling the Ascension story is that it is such a strange story to tell.
In our church year we celebrate quite a few happy holidays. My personal favorite is Christmas when we celebrate the coming of our Lord as one of us in the form of the baby Jesus. And we all love to celebrate Easter and the coming of our Lord afresh in our lives as the one who has conquered death on our behalf. And most of us even love to celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, because that is the Sunday when we sing a little louder and clap a little more. By the way – don’t forget to wear red next Sunday for our celebration. But the truth is, no one wants to celebrate the ascension because it is not about the coming of anything good; in fact, the ascension is all about saying goodbye.
Of the gospel writers, only Luke tells the story of Jesus being carried bodily up into heaven after his resurrection. Though he is the only one to tell this story, Luke gives a spare account of what happens. Jesus gives a final word to his disciples, lifts up his hands in blessing, and then is carried up into the heavens. Even though we don’t consider the ascension often, I think we all have a collective picture of this in our heads. Almost every church that has stained glass windows has a window of the ascension; we don’t of course, but many churches do. I am sure most of us here can imagine Jesus, his body hovering just feet above the disciples’ heads, his hands outstretched toward them in a blessing as he is raised up in a sunbeam and transported into the clouds like he’s riding some sort of holy escalator.
The only other place we read about the ascension is in Luke’s other book, Acts. In Acts, Jesus teaches the disciples that the Holy Spirit is about to come upon them, foreshadowing the day of Pentecost. Then as they watch he is lifted up into the clouds. The disciples sit there staring at the sky with their mouths hanging open until they notice two angels with them. The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?” as if staring into the sky is not the proper response to having just seen someone float up into the clouds.
It’s hard to imagine what this moment was like for the disciples. Here was Jesus, saying goodbye to them all. Of course for us, living without the physical presence of Jesus is pretty normal. We would be much more shocked and surprised if Jesus was suddenly physically present with us than we ever are at his absence. It has been almost 2000 years since that day the disciples stared up into the blinding sun and by now we are pretty used to the fact that Jesus has physically left the earth.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the ascension is so hard for us because it is such an abstract idea. She writes,
“Almost everything else that happened to Jesus makes sense in terms of my own life. He was born to a human mother; so was I. He ate and drank and slept at night; so do I. He loved people and got angry with people and forgave people; so have I. He wept; me too. He died; I will die too. He rose from the dead; I even know something about that. I have had some Easter mornings of my own – joy found in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death. But ascending into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God? That is where Jesus and I part company. That is where he leaves me in the dust. My only experience of the ascension is from the ground, my neck cranked back as far as it will go, my mouth wide open, my face shielded from the sun by the cloud that is bearing my Lord away.”
As a church holiday and as a story of our faith, the ascension is so easily ignored by us simply because we have nowhere to file it away within our own experiences.
Now in his gospel, Luke says that after the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with much joy and that they were continually in the temple worshipping God. Now I imagine this was true to some extent but after a point I am sure they lost a bit of their enthusiasm. Having never really known a long term absence of Christ, they would constantly be wondering when he was coming back. As days turned into weeks, then months and then years they must have wondered just where Jesus went. How many of them died carrying a deep disappointment that the Lord had not returned within their own lifetime? Goodbyes are never easy.
If we look at the role of the disciples that day, we see bits and pieces of our own lives; for we all know what it is to say goodbye, and we all know what it is to feel an absence in our lives. To feel an absence there must first have been a presence. Absence is that silent house after the kids have gone off to college; we see it in the too quiet, too clean bedroom, and in the overstocked fridge. Absence is reaching our arm across the bed at night to find our beloved’s spot empty and cold. Absence is the first time out at a favorite lunch spot, missing our recently departed friend and knowing exactly what she would have ordered if she was there. Absence is that lonely return home to an empty yard and a discarded chew toy after the loss of a beloved pet. We all know absence.
And like the disciples, we all know the absence of God in our lives. We feel that sense of longing, that sense of reaching out for more. It is almost as if we feel that we were once connected with God but we no longer are. There is a void in our lives, and a constant desire to get closer to God. Through prayer, study, and attending church we are trying to get ourselves right with God, to get back to that place where there was no space of absence between us, only a sense of presence.
I think the message the angels had for the disciples that day is also a message for us. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why do you spend all your time staring into space looking for God? Why do you search for something which is gone and will never be the same again? Instead, look down and look around you. For God is here among us, we can find God in each other and we can find God here in the church. We can know God in a new way. We don’t need to spend our time looking up, for God is everywhere around us.
The ascension teaches us is that we should stop looking for God in the clouds and look for God instead here amongst each other. Last Sunday the choir sang that “We are not alone, for God is with us.” God is with us, in the hearts, hands, and hugs of our neighbors. If we want to reconnect with God, to lessen our sense of absence, then we need to reconnect with each other. We need to reach out to each other in love, for we all have a piece of God within us and it is together that we can do God’s work in the world. Like waking from a dream of separateness and self-isolation, we can come to realize that we are not alone in this world. Rather we are connected to each other and connected to God; and that this connection is the kingdom of heaven.
As we gather at the table, we celebrate the kingdom with joy. The table is a place where we gather with believers of every time and place. Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven and left the disciples behind staring at the sun. But he also gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit that binds us together here at the table and out in the world. This is the feast of celebration, the table that is now and the table that will be when people gather from the far corners of the earth to be together in celebration of the risen and ascended Lord. The kingdom of heaven is here at the table and this table looks forward to the kingdom of heaven fulfilled.
Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost, the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the fire that gave birth to the early church. But today I think we should hang out in the in-between time with the disciples. We should ponder the lifting up of Christ into the clouds, and consider what it was like for the disciples to stare into the sun that day. We should sit with them as they first experience the absence of their Lord. And we should listen to the voices of the angels who tell us we should not look for our God in the sky, but rather we should look for God here, in our hearts together, at worship and at the table. Amen.