Will you pray with me? God of today and yesterday and tomorrow, bless us with grace and understanding and hope; give us courage and strength to hear your word, your message for us, not only in these words spoken, but those left unspoken; today and every day. In all your names, amen.
Ascension Sunday—it’s not one of the big holidays of the church, not like Christmas and Easter, or even Pentecost or Ash Wednesday. But there’s a lot we can learn from this story, about how to hear Christ, how to behave in the world, about relationships.
Doesn’t this scene seem a little strange? Christ is leaving the disciples, forever this time—they will never see him in the flesh, in solid reality, again. But he doesn’t seem upset about it, or concerned about this huge task he’s just given them. They don’t seem terribly sad, either. When Christ begins to leave the disciples, he isn’t offering them more advice, or saying, “Oh, one more thing!” He’s not ignoring them, either. And they aren’t weeping and wailing—there’s no grief in this scene. In fact, as he leaves, Christ blesses them! The Scripture says, “While Christ was blessing them, Christ withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
It can be difficult to say goodbye—relationships are a blessing, but when they end, there can be great pain. But you see, that’s the point here. The disciples won’t see Christ in the flesh again—they know that. But they are also very aware that his presence will be with them—they are not abandoned by God. Their wonderful relationship with Jesus Christ has not ended—it has merely changed, and, in fact, for the better. A wonderful miracle-working wise teacher here on earth is life-changing—but a divine presence with you always to teach and lead and comfort—that is an eternity-changing event!
There are many jokes about the women’s community, the lesbian/bisexual women's community, and the tangle of relationships that are often found there. Susie’s ex-girlfriend Flo is now dating Katie, who used to run the coffee shop with Susie; while Katie’s housemate Meg has her eye on Dana, who used to date Jan before she was with Kelly; oh, and Jan was Katie’s boss and Kelly’s best friend. And all of them have dinner together every Friday night! In spite of the re-alignment of relationships, of the shifting of intimacy into friendship and vice versa, they are still close. And really, doesn’t that make more sense—to remain close, supporting each other and caring for each other? Unless there was some real damage done—cheating (whatever that meant in the relationship) or stealing or even abuse—the people in that relationship—I’ll say “we,” because I’ve been there, and I think some of you have too—we knew each other better than we knew anyone else, and were known better. No one else heard our hopes and dreams and fears in the same way; no one else encouraged us as much when we were down, supported us when we were in need—very few others have loved us so much. And so even if that intimate, personal relationship is gone—no longer lovers or partners, friends now—that love, if it was truly love, should still be there. You may argue with me on this, and it is difficult sometimes to make the transition, but if it can happen, these are some of the best relationships a person can have—the friend who was once a lover.
Because it is true that lovers can be easier to find than friends—so when you meet someone who is both, hang on to him or her—even if the love changes, you will always have the friendship.
Even when Christ ascended, the disciples still had a relationship with him. It did not end because he wasn’t with them anymore. It simply changed character from a physical presence to a spiritual one, as our relationships can change. The disciples weren’t mourning and sad at the end of a relationship—they were celebrating Christ’s power and glory, joyful that their relationship had changed—that now they would always have him with them. True, it wouldn’t be in the same way—but in a much better way. It’s not something to mourn, although it does take adjustment—it is something to celebrate.
Now, notice something else here—the disciples are looking in two directions here. They look up to Christ as he is ascending, then back down to the earth, as they return to Jerusalem, back to the Temple. Christ tells them he is going to prepare a place for them in heaven, which draws them upwards. But then the angels ask them, “Why are you looking upwards?” which draws their thoughts back down to earth.
They worship, and wait to get their work orders—we’ll hear about that on Pentecost, next week. But they know there’s work to be done. Almost the last thing Christ had said to them was, ““Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” What a huge task—to all nations! In a world without radio or television, let alone the internet, without the printing press, to take that good news everywhere, to every person on the earth, that must have seemed impossible. But then Christ adds, “I am sending upon you what the Creator promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They’re not going to be doing it alone—they will have power—power from “on high,” that resurrection power of Christ, the Ascension power—the power of love and grace and hope, the power to change lives with Christ’s message of God’s acceptance and love, the lives of ordinary people who are hungry to know that God loves them—them, in spite of what they see as their own failures—addictions, lack of worldly success, broken relationships with family or friends, loneliness, homelessness, whatever they perceive as their failings—none of that matters. That power of love enables the disciples—and us, when the Bible talks about disciples, we are included in that group—to see their friend Christ in every person and reassure them of God’s love for them. Because God is in every one of us, and God loves Godself.
In my seminary, Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, the chapel has one side wall that is almost completely brick—a solid wall almost three stories high, with only a tiny string of windows along the top, filled with stained glass. The opposite wall is almost nothing but clear glass, looking out into the world. When the students and faculty sit there in worship, they are reminded that they are called both to contemplation and worship on the one hand—the high walls of the temple, of prayer and worship—and also into the world to be Christ’s hands, to bring the message of new life, of resurrection, through that clear glass of hope and promise.
We have two tasks—to worship and to serve. We cannot do only one and call ourselves a church. It Is the call of Christ’s church to do both—to worship the Ascending Christ and to take that message of God’s love to all the world.
Changes in relationships can be sad and difficult--relationships are powerful and scary. But they can also be joyful. A friend and his partner, who had been together many years, realised that their relationship was changing, that they could no longer be partners—and they made sure to invite God to be present in that change. They prayed together regularly as they worked through the changes, keeping their bedrock love for each other and for God present in the struggles and in the transformation from partners to friends.
So too, Jesus’ ascension reminds us there is something deeper at work in these of transition, something that not only carries us through the changes but also uses them to transform us and to bless the church, the congregation. Christ is present in all these changes, offering the power of his grace to transform and strengthen.
You have received Christ's blessing--how will you offer it to others? How do you imagine putting the power of Easter, of Christ’s love, to work in your world, our world, today? What is the change God is calling you to bring today?
I heard a pastor describe a congregation in this way: “They’ve heard the good news and are ready to break down the walls of the church and take it out to the world.”
That’s church, my sisters and brothers. That’s answering the call.
Break down those walls--take that message of God's never-ending, inexhaustible resurrection love out into the world.
In the many names of the one God, amen.