All Saints Episcopal Church, Hampton
Caught in-between. How do we begin to make sense of the time from Ascension Day to today, still in the Great 50 Days of Easter, and anticipating Pentecost next Sunday? Jesus is raised from dead, now taken up into heaven. One moment he is among them; the next moment not. Really? It is clear to me that we are not saying Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch. And art depictions of Jesus’ feet sticking out of the bottom of a cloud as we gaze from below I do not find helpful. Even the Scripture from Acts we heard today asks the question, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
What we do discover, however, is language that suggests a change in location. Whatever the Ascension is, it is that – a transition that incorporates a sense of loss on the part of the disciples as they say goodbye, yet also a moment of glory for Jesus. As Jesus takes his leave in bodily form on the earth, there is a transition in the life of the disciples then and in the life of those who would be his disciples now – you and me. It participates in the movement all of us are always a part of, and that is the movement from life to death to life again. In case we have forgotten, we were baptized into Jesus’ death in order to be raised with him even now, in this life. It is the central meaning of baptism – dying and rising.
A cursory hearing of today’s news events hand us glaring pictures of death, literal and metaphorical, acts of non-love of the highest order and they break our hearts. “Let God’s enemies be scattered” Psalm 68 proclaims. Who isn’t horrified by the events in Manchester, England and the attack on the Coptic Christians in Egypt? We are burdened with the images of starving children in Syria and South Sudan. In the renewal of our baptismal vows we will promise once again to work against everything that corrupts and destroys God’s people and God’s earth – all that conspires against God’s love for the entire creation.
At the same time, on this same earth, we discover life: the beauty of a mountain vista or a piece of art, re-creation in communities restored, possibility, hope, healing, love renewed, restoration of a polluted stream, justice, peace and all things being made new. It is the ongoing presence of God who promises to restore the earth and establish his reign of love through us. We commit again this day just by showing up here to be such followers of Jesus. Big transitions – it is what we are about, moving from death to life, with Jesus.
Of course, life itself is about transition, that is, leaving what we know and moving toward something new and yet to be. I can remember as a child being terrified when my parents left me at home with a babysitter and having to learn to trust that they would return. Those graduating this spring, along with their parents, know of transition as something exciting, yet there is the unknown of what life will bring that must be faced. It raises some anxiety at times.
It is what we see in the life of the disciples as Jesus leaves them. It is their graduation day. Everything is changing. He will no longer be among them in the way they have known him to be. Having been raised from the dead and then among them for 40 days teaching and preparing them for the future, he now takes his leave. We call it The Ascension. In Jesus’ resurrection God has defeated death and everything that would tear us away from God’s love and one another. In the Ascension, Jesus is held up, that is placed at the helm, the control room if you will, of the entire cosmos. Church language for this is “Lord over all,” as he has “authority over all people” in the words of John’s Gospel.
So why is this significant for us? Today we promise again to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. We vow to organize our life around him and his Good News – that his love carries the day. Which then means of course that we do not organize our life first around a sporting event, college or vocational choices, money, spouses, bosses, or political agendas, but around Jesus and as any of these things fit into his desire for us.
And maybe even more, the Ascension tells us that our lives, even while still on this earth, are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine. Jesus’ great prayer in the Gospel today notes that he “is no longer in the world, but we are in the world.” It means that even as Jesus is no longer among us as a man he now dwells in each of us. He is not only among us, he is in us! And because Jesus’ Spirit is in us, we are left now to be the ongoing presence of Christ in the world. We have work to do.
The celebration of the Ascension moves us from passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix things, to becoming witnesses confident in God’s presence in us. Our baptismal responsibility commissions us to actively participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, we go into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, sometimes misunderstood, misjudged, yet also vindicated and celebrating. You go bearing in your body the dying of Jesus to all that opposes God’s love and justice, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed and shown forth in your life as you participate in transforming the whole creation.
Your call is to go wherever God and life takes you, even to the ends of the earth. You are to be witnesses to these things.