A sermon for 17 May 2015 – Ascension Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)
Acts 1:1-11 (NRSV scripture included below.)
Today is the Sunday closest to Ascension Day – which is celebrated 40 days after Easter – two Thursdays before Pentecost every year. The idea being that for 40 days (the same amount of time Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry); likewise, for 40 days the Risen Christ was among the disciples preparing them for the ministry before them and readying them for their empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Listen for the word of God to us in a reading of Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11.
“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really liked goodbyes. Whether it be from a best friend moving across the state or a beloved family member dying. Such endings are emotionally tough. Oh, I realize for certain Enneagram types, which we’ve been learning about on Wednesday nights, goodbyes are no big deal. But for most of us, it feels like a part of our insides is being ripped out and taken along. Like the security blanket is being snatched right out from under our feet. We might do all we can to make it not so: avoid the feelings of loss. Deny the intense emotions with which we are left. Still, we wake up the next morning and the person’s not there. And the world seems worse than when they were with us in it.
Years ago Joyce Rupp wrote an incredible book on the goodbyes of life. It’s called: “Praying our Good Byes.” From the loss of a job, to the death of a dream. From goodbye to health in our bodies, to grieving the loss of a pregnancy. From the shattering of trust in times of betrayal, to the letting go of the lies with which we let ourselves live. From the best friend moving across state, to the loved one whose life slips from this world. Rupp includes beautiful liturgies for acknowledging the loss of all sorts of the goodbyes we experience in life. Feeling that pain and finding a way to let it go. In a way, she seeks to normalize life’s goodbyes – or at least give us some tools to navigate through them. One of the greatest insights she gives for those broken by endings is that life is in fact goodbyes. And life is hellos too. Life is hello and goodbye. One cannot be without the other. Rupp is a deeply devoted Christian who is influenced heavily by the death and resurrection of Christ. So that as we face the mystery of the Ascension we hear of in Acts of the Apostles, Rupp’s reminder rings. She writes: “hello always follows goodbye in some form if we allow it. There is, or can be, new life, although it will be different from the life we knew before. The resurrection of Jesus and the promises of God are too strong to have it any other way” (joycerupp.com). Life is hello. Life is goodbye. And, if we face the loss so that it doesn’t get the chance to take us down all together, sooner or later we see that life is hello again!
It seems a fitting metaphor for the experience we hear about today from Acts of the Apostles. The Ascension of the Risen Christ. Like I said, forty days earlier he had been raised from the death of Good Friday to the new life of Easter. It must have been an incredible time to be a part of his inner circle. Surely they were much afraid. But then they’d open their eyes to see the Risen Christ standing in their midst. He’d be greeting them with peace. Truly trying to bring healing to their hearts and minds from the reality of his violent death. We don’t know everything he said to them during that forty day period back among them. But Acts of the Apostles does record that he told them to wait. Something soon would be coming upon them. The Holy Spirit of God would be the power they would receive to turn any fear in their bodies into unstoppable courage. And then, like grains of sand that quickly slip through an hourglass, like a flash of a star shooting across the dark night, like something that seems to be before your eyes in one second until it vanishes in the next; he’s gone. The imagery here should remind us of a few other unfathomable experiences. Who can forget Moses being up on Mount Sinai in the thick cloud of God while the Israelites fidget below? (Exodus 19-20). And remember Elijah being taken away in the whirlwind – which I’ve heard a Jewish teacher describe as a tornado coming to carry him off on the winds (2 Kings 2:1-12). It wasn’t even the first time a few of them had seen Jesus in a cloud. It happened on that mountain of transfiguration when two men – presumably figures of Moses and Elijah – appeared with him then as well (Luke 9:28-36).
One commentator writes of the ascension that “so long as Jesus was physically present, he was available only to those he encountered (directly); by the Spirit he became powerfully present to many” (A. Katherine Grieb, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2; p. 507). In other words, he had to go. Like it or not, the goodbye was necessary. There’s really no need to waste our energy on where exactly he went, how, or when he’s returning. Like the figures said to the disciples who remained there mouths gapping as they searched the clouds of the sky to see if they could spot him again. I love the way the translation called The Message puts it in the quote on the front of the bulletin today: “Why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky?” (Acts 1:11, The Message). They just received instruction from the very mouth of the Risen Christ. They were to wait for the promised gift of God’s Spirit and then they were to get out there in the world, beginning right there in Jerusalem where he’d been crucified, then to the rest of those in and around their land, until they entered even among their bitter enemies the Samaritans, and at last to break the barriers between them and the gentiles all over the world. There’s a hello to get ready for so that time and effort wondering the where and hows and whens is as fruitless as the disciples asking the Risen Christ if in his resurrection he now was going to overthrow the Romans and restore the throne of Israel. He obliterates all such concerns with a re-focus on the hello. The Holy Spirit will be upon you – in you – in us all! Get ready for a great hello that will empower us to carry out his world-wide revolution of life according to the ways of God’s kingdom!
What a brilliant hello! A power that dissipates all fear. Dispels doubt and makes of us who we need to be to continue the work of the One taking his leave from the confines of his physical form so that he can be with us anew forevermore! The essence of ascension is that he had to go. To take his leave in that way that we all could be ready for the mighty hello of the Spirit. All that was to come after as the mission of God went forth from that one time and place to everywhere and always around this globe. . . . It might leave you wondering what else might need a goodbye in order for an amazing new hello? I’m sure we could make a list of a few things in our personal lives. Patterns and habits that are keeping us from living fully into our God-desired selves. Ways that seem to leave us drowning in the living of our days. . . . And what about in the church – in life together as the body of Christ in this place? For all the wonderful ways we are faithful week in and week out as Christ’s church, aren’t there a few things that need a goodbye? You all are an amazing expression of the love of God and I am honored to be journeying with you during this time of your pastoral transition. I know many of you have been around here a long time and others of you are just getting started. So that your eyes can become cloudy about who you are and the incredible potential in you for future ministry because of your genuine kindness, your helpful care, and your grateful generosity. It will take some rallying together. Some new ways of sharing ministry – every one of you taking on a piece or two of the whole work of God through this church. You’ve experienced it already in my time among you, it takes openness to new ways of worshipping and learning and serving and being led. Letting go of the pain in the goodbyes and looking forward to the joy of hellos. Recognizing the changes you will experience in yourself and in one another as you continue to move into a more intentional direction of making a difference in other people’s lives for the sake of God’s kingdom. As vital churches today seek to do. It will take some giving up and it will bring new life that cannot yet be known. We’re all having to learn new ways of connecting with God and others as the culture in which we live continues to change at break-neck speed and the circumstances of each of our lives keep right on shifting too. Another pastor in the Presbytery and I are banning together to organize a group for clergy who might want be honest together about the ways we need to change as pastors if we’re going to lead congregations of God’s people into this unfolding future with all the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love we can muster and God will give. It’s a challenging time to minister and be trying to live out our baptismal vows as Christ’s disciples. I know we all might hate the goodbyes and want to deny it’s so, but what a gift to be entrusted by God into this time and place for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Like the disciples at ascension who could not yet see the road ahead after Pentecost; we too can trust that amazing hellos await! Glory be to God as we mourn the loss of any goodbyes and get ourselves ready for the wonderful hellos ahead!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)