By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
June 5, 2011
Eleven men and maybe a few fellow travelers stood on a Palestinian hillside and watched in amazement as their teacher, their mentor, their leader disappeared into the clouds. One would think that by now they might have grown beyond amazement at the course their life had taken since they had met Jesus in Galilee. Perhaps it is true that wonders never cease.
“I’ve lost control!” Have you ever said that? “I’ve lost control of my life!” That’s often what good people say when bad things happen to them.
“I’ve lost control of my life!” I’ve said it myself, but it’s not true. Human beings do not lose control of their lives. What we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control of our lives in the first place, and it is a hard, hard lesson to learn — so hard that most of us have to go back to the blackboard again and again, because we keep thinking that there must be some way to work it out, some way to master the “human condition” so that there are no leaks in it, no scars, no black holes. (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications, Boston, MA, 1993), 90-91).
As far as I know, it cannot be done. Maybe that’s why it is called the human condition. Like diabetes or asthma, being human is a condition we must live with. And being human means living with certain built-in limitations, that’s part of the condition. Some things will move for us and some won’t. We can’t fly. We can’t live forever. We can’t know everything there is to know. We can’t control everything that happens to us. That is the human condition, and it can be frightening, because it means we cannot choose all the circumstances of our lives. All we can really choose is how we respond to them, and that is why it takes a lot of courage to be human. (Ibid.)
But among all the many potential catastrophes that exist within the human condition — among the tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, divorces, murders, diseases, and car accidents that swirl around us everyday — there is perhaps no more frightening a possibility than that of being alone. Since the beginning of time, since Adam and Eve were in the Garden, humans have feared being alone. To be alone, to be completely alone, is our greatest fear. Even among a crowd it is possible to be alone. We fear alone-ness, loneliness, all-alone-ness more than anything else within the human condition. It starts early — it is common for children to have nightmares because they fear abandonment by their parents. People about to be divorced from a spouse often have second thoughts because they fear life alone. Senior citizens fear being left to die alone in a nursing home. And, after all, there is good reason to fear being alone. To be alone can be a living Hell. Maybe that’s what Hell actually is, to be left alone, to have the presence of others, to have the presence of God, stripped from our existence. So today, we celebrate the promise of God in Jesus Christ to never, ever leave us alone. Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus!
Unfortunately, many scholars, and others, have long dwelled on the “how” of the Ascension: How did it happen? Did it really happen at all? Just where did Jesus ascend to? Is heaven really “up”?
This is unfortunate because the “how” is not the point at all. We want to know “how” because to know is to claim control. Well guess what, there are some things in life, in the human condition, that we don’t know and we never will. That’s what Jesus is getting at when he says, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set up by his own authority”(Acts 1:7).
No, the point of the Ascension is not the how, but why, for what purpose. That’s what we’re meant to know, and that’s what serves us in our human condition. It’s enough to say that after being raised from the dead, Jesus ascended to the Father. That is to say, Jesus departed from this worldly existence, but continues to live a real life in the heavenly realm. But the story of the Ascension doesn’t end there. If it did it would only be about Jesus. No, the meaning of the Ascension includes all of humanity as well.
Remember that great fear of being left alone that we all harbor within our human condition? When we say we feel like we’ve lost control we’re having to admit that there are circumstances around us that are beyond our control, circumstances that can rob us of our very lives, and throughout human history, this fear of being robbed of life, the fear of death has scared us the most because we’ve interpreted death to be the ultimate alone-ness.
Jesus knew that the greatest human fear was to be left alone. Jesus not only knew it, he experienced it and he conquered it. At his Ascension, Jesus announces the end of alone-ness. Jesus promises at his Ascension that his disciples will receive the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). And then he ascends, he leaves them, he goes away, and do you know what the disciples do? They rejoice! Even though Jesus has left them they are not afraid of being left alone. Does this make sense?
Remember what the disciples all did after the crucifixion? They all ran away and hid. Eventually they all got together because they thought, “Hey, at least we have one another.” But they were all scared and disappointed. They thought it was over and they had been left alone, abandoned by Jesus.
Now, at the Ascension, they realize they will never, ever be alone. They realize that even though Jesus ascends to the Father, the gift of the Holy Spirit will provide them with the power and the presence they need to survive the moment, whatever that moment may come to be in life…or in death.
In a book titled Sabbatical Journeys, Henri Nouwen wrote about the special relationship that trapeze artists have with one another when performing. He had some friends known as the Flying Roudellas and they described to him what goes on between the flyer and the catcher. They told Nouwen that the flyer is the one that lets go, and the catcher is the one that catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air. His job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air.
One of the Roudellas told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The flyer must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but for the catcher to be able to do that, the flyer must let go and completely trust that he will be caught.
Is it not a comfort to know that, while we may not be in control, God is; and that no matter what catastrophe or chaos comes into our lives we will not be abandoned, we will not be left to face it alone? Like the trapeze artist, we can trust that we will be caught.
In many ways the Ascension of Jesus Christ is an incomprehensible event, but that is no reason to dismiss it, just because we can’t fully understand how it could have happened. The meaning of the Ascension we can comprehend, the meaning that gives meaning to our human condition is found in Jesus’ promise to never abandon us. The Ascension of Jesus was not the end of Jesus’ earthly presence, it was only the beginning. Amen.
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