What Happened Here?
Sermon for Ascension
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11
This is a strange and almost unbelievable story for us to hear; Jesus leaves the disciples in the lurch on Mt. Olivet. He is whisked up into the heavens, but what other direction could he go but up. We always think about the Heavenly Kingdom as "up," that seems to be central to our faith.
The Ascension is 40 days after Easter and really occurred on Thursday of this week, and since the resurrection he met, talked, and was recognized in the breaking of the bread with the disciples. I imagine that they were just getting accustomed to the idea of his resurrection, his occasional guest appearances, his accessibility to them even though they must has suspected it couldn't last forever. They liked the idea that he was nearby - somewhere able to come to them and be seen by him and even to be blessed by him. But on this Ascension Day he bids them farewell for the last time, tells them that they will soon receive the Holy Spirit and he challenged them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
That last part must have really come as a shock -- about going to Samaria; they had hated these people for centuries. And what was that about the end of the earth -- that is where the pagans live; they are unclean and unwashed.
From all appearance, Jesus leaves them feeling abandoned and confused according to St. Luke's Gospel and His Book of Acts. Maybe that is why God had to send two angels in white to get them moving.
Like those disciples, most of us are left at the gate wondering what in the world to make of this strange experience of the Ascension. What does it mean? Moreover, we are probably likely to focus on the wrong aspect of it. We may try to figure out in our logical scientific 21st century minds how all of that happens, instead of just believing in faith.
It seems that Jesus had to leave his disciples if they were to get on with the tasks of teaching, preaching and establishing the church. I am sure that they felt unprepared when he died on the cross. They didn't know what to do when they heard of his resurrection. They barely knew what to do when they saw him risen. And at the ascension they felt inadequate to the task of getting on with their lives, doing what he had charged them to do. How could they live without him? They needed him, his presence, comfort, strength and Divine Words. In Luke's Gospel there is no promise to remain with them like there is in St. Matthew's Gospel. There is only a farewell. They were left with the memory of his teachings, healing, The Lord's Supper and baptism, but Jesus was not there.
For us today, we have prayer, the sacraments, worship and preaching and artists conceptions of his looks; we may have moments of inspiration, but most of the time Jesus seems far removed. What the early disciples discovered was that on that Ascension Day and on every day forward, Christ for them, was there to be found in themselves and in the world. They were now the Body of Christ, and they would find him and know him present again within their experiences as they pushed out, left home, and went to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. That's where they would see him.
I remember when our daughter went off to college in Richmond, and she said to us as she departed with her suitcases, books, stereo and a pick - up truck of household belongs, " So long folks." Even though Richmond is only an hour away, we had kissed her good bye from being an integral part of our home and life. Home for her would be where she found it in her own life and in the world. I am not saying that she is not part of our life nor that she doesn't come back to our home place for visits, but she was set free to find her life and home when she left for school. What must have dawned on those disciples on the Day of Ascension was that Jesus was pushing them out and on their way. And in ten days' time they would receive the Holy spirit at Pentecost, be on their way, and begin the trek that would lead them to the far reaches of their known world. And so Christianity would come to be, and so they would discover his presence again and again.
It was in this leaving that occasioned their real growth in Christ. It was only as he turned them loose with what ever he had given them up to that point, that they would come to know what he had given them and who they were.
From that Ascension Day forward, the disciples would discover Christ within themselves and within the world they served.
My hunch is that we all have a haunting disconcerting realization that at the core of our lives we are alone. There is a deafeningly quiet silence that rings in our ears, that says we are alone, except for whatever of God we know to be with us. I am speaking about something that is more than our marital status, something which has to do with our own intimate and personal awareness of our mortality and identify -- whether we are single or married, divorced or widowed, young or old, whatever. It is an interior awareness, of being alone that has nothing to do with the relational connections of our exterior lives. The Disciples felt alone. Why have we been abandoned? Have you ever asked the question, "God where are you, why have you forsaken me?"
Can you remember the old camp song, "Jesus walked this lonesome valley, he had to walk it by himself, and then the haunting ending phrase, "You must walk this lonesome valley, you must walk it by yourself. Oh, nobody also can walk it for you, you have to walk it by yourself."? There are times when we are clearly aware of our aloneness. I remember arriving in Tokyo, Japan, in the early hour of the morning and standing in a long line for customs and immigration and finally being asked in broken English, "Are you Japanese?" If you are not a Japanese citizen you are in the wrong line. Maybe, for some of you, the acute aloneness was when the divorce papers arrived or the night before the chemotherapy treatments.
You are on your own, and the world is harsh. The question comes to us, "Can I make it?"
It would be nice if we could climb back into our mother's arms, and have her tell us that it is going to be all right. But that will not happen; we are alone. Just as surely as the disciples felt alone on that Ascension Day. They looked up toward the heaven with their heart in their throat and their hands at their sides for a sign of comfort.
Now, loneliness is a paralyzing emotion. All of us feel lonely sometimes. But a sense of aloneness is different from loneliness. When we are alone with only ourselves, we are stripped back to the essential person we are. It is there that all our strength and stamina and fortitude lies.
When forced to look inward, scary as that may be, we can often find more strength than we ever imagined possible for ourselves, because there we come in touch with the self which bears God's image, the inner being shaped by God's hand.
Sometimes that insight only comes when the wind is knocked out of us, and we are left alone, without wishing to be so. That is the way it was for the disciples. Their source of life left them --their teacher, comforter, their "home" was gone. We all, can relate to the feeling of being left alone, and where do we go from here?
Those first disciples had to let go of Jesus at his ascension. They felt adrift. They didn't know what to do next, but nevertheless, they would soon discover in his leaving, in being left alone, they found his presence more obvious in his absence. Then they were emboldened to go forth and be his witnesses to the end of the earth.
It is a strange way with God that this is so. But in our partings and in our endings it is often the case that God's tender care for us and His presence with us is better seen, perhaps because we are more ready to see it, because there we have no other place to turn. I believe all of the time that God is here with us in ourselves and in our world, ready to do more with our lives than we ever thought possible.
And painful though the losses and endings may be, perhaps they are the birth pangs of new possibilities being born, the occasions for God's breaking into our lives in new ways.
The question comes to us today, as it came to the disciples 2,000 years ago, "Friends, why do you stand looking into the sky -- looking up into heaven. This Jesus, who was taken from you will come in the same way as you saw him go." "So why are you aggrieving? Be up and on your way. For soon the Holy Spirit will come to you in power, and you will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and even to the end of the earth." For those who see such things in themselves and are Christ's disciples in the world, he is not only here, but he is everywhere in the world with us.
To live in Heaven
by Dr. Robert Crouse
Going and Coming -- Ascension Day Sermon
by Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Ascended and Still Present
by The Rev. Charles Henrickson
Three Wonders of Ascension
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Ascension Sermons and Bible Commentaries
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