+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
It’s never easy to say goodbye to the people we love. When someone comes to be such an important part of your life that you can’t imagine what things would be like without them, and then you are forced to reckon with their absence, there is always a void, even in those situations when you know their absence is temporary. Anyone who has ever had to endure the pain of absence knows this truth all too well. Today we gather for what I would call one of the most counter-intuitive festivals of the Christian year: the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Knowing what we know about the heartache of saying goodbye, it seems odd that we would set aside time to reflect on – and, in truth, to celebrate – the absence of Jesus.
Our readings walk the line between the two reactions that have characterized this observance: reverence, sadness, and fear at the departure of Jesus, as well as overwhelming joy and an outpouring of praise. The first reaction seems obvious. The apostles and their company, the people who had walked alongside Jesus throughout his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching, who had seen their lives shattered at the sight of their Lord hanging on the cross, and who had been witnesses of the resurrected Christ, must have found it difficult to watch him leave them again. That seems to be the theme in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a reason those two angels needed to show up and bring the apostles back to reality: they were stuck, already yearning for Jesus even as he ascended from them, fearful that the commission that he had just given them would be too difficult for them to take on without his presence among them. They needed to hear the words of those heavenly messengers to move on: “Men of Galilee, what do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven!”
So that’s Acts, with its record of the apostles’ understandable reaction to the ascension of Jesus. But then we turn to Luke, and see something entirely different. The stage is set up exactly the same way: Jesus leads the apostles out of Jerusalem, instructs them to return to the Holy City and remain there until the Father’s promise is fulfilled, and then is carried up into heaven as he blesses his followers. Here, however, there is no mention of the disciples lingering in that spot, gazing into the heavens with heavy hearts. No, here the apostles head back to Jerusalem straightaway, with great joy, and they commit themselves to spending their days in the temple praising God for everything they had seen and heard! How do we explain the fact that Scripture contains two accounts of the ascension, written by the same author, recording two completely different reactions to the reality of Jesus’ absence?
Maybe we don’t need to. Each of these accounts represent an authentic response to the ascension of Jesus. The Church’s ancient prayer – Come, Lord Jesus – contains the longing we share for the bodily presence of Jesus to be restored to us, so that God’s will for the world might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a long history in the Church of celebrating this festival with great enthusiasm and fervor. Why? What is there to celebrate about the Ascension of Jesus? What good could possibly come from the absence of God incarnate? Mark Oldenburg, professor of worship at Gettysburg Seminary, proposes the following theme for the observance of the Ascension: In his glory, we and Christ are together. That reality, it turns out, is good enough to totally justify every bit of that celebration and joy.
Despite the fact that Jesus is God, and though we claim that God is capable of anything, there is no story anywhere in Scripture of Jesus appearing in multiple places at once. When God walked among us in the person of Jesus, the presence of Jesus was limited to wherever Jesus happened to be at the time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God – as Paul asserts in the second reading from Ephesians and we affirm in the creeds of the Church – that presence was unleashed. No longer was it necessary to gather around the person of Jesus; instead, his power and presence are now available in every time and place.
Perhaps the more stunning thing about the ascension is that it makes the inverse true. That is, if we and Christ are together in his glory, then our humanity has now been bound up with God. Put another way, if the ascension means that there is nowhere that we can go where God isn’t present, it also means that the needs, yearnings, and longings of humanity are always known to God. In Jesus, God took on our nature, and by ascending that nature was also brought into the presence of God eternally. As Dr. Oldenburg so eloquently puts it:
The creature’s nature becomes part of the Creator’s. No longer are human (or even creaturely) matters foreign to God. They have become known, experienced, and important. Again we see that there are no God-forsaken places or unGodly times, because God has experienced and taken into the very being of the Holy One all that makes humans human – from the shock of light at the end of the birth canal to the extinguishing power of death. Even despair and dereliction become a part of God. What we rejoice in at the Ascension is a culmination of God’s work of reconciliation, of at-one-ment. With Jesus, the fully human one, where he belongs, we are no longer estranged from God. God will no longer ask like the clueless angels at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?” God comprehends. And we may no longer play the victim’s trump card: “You don’t understand what it’s like.” God comprehends. Humanity has been given a place in the conversation of the Trinity.*
What a gift! What a comfort to know that the apparent absence of Jesus is in reality what makes possible our intimate connection with the triune God!
That gift makes itself known not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a church community. The ascension unleashes the church to do its work in the world. While Jesus walked the earth, people were drawn to hear him, and any other voice that attempted to speak for him or on his behalf would always be judged lacking, seen as secondary to whatever Jesus himself might have said. Because of the ascension, the Church is free to carry out the commission given by Jesus himself: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth! That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church can say whatever it wants without criticism or complaint. That commission is always grounded in faithfulness and fidelity to the message that Jesus came to proclaim: That the kingdom of God has drawn near, and that God’s love for all the world has been demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of the whole creation. But the ascension of Jesus makes it possible for the Church to exist and to love out its calling to be – as Ephesians puts it – “the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate an odd and wonderful festival. Even as we long for his return, we rejoice that, because of the ascension, Christ’s presence has now been unleashed for us and for the whole world. We marvel at the knowledge that Jesus bears our very nature to the presence of God so that we might be fully known and understood. We are humbled by the calling to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us bless our God for the victory of our Lord Jesus, who died, rose, and ascended so that we might know his power and presence and be partners in extending it to a world in need. Thanks be to God! Amen!
*Mark W. Oldenburg, Here and Now: The Year in the Presence of the Resurrected Christ, (unpublished), p. 81.