By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
May 24, 2009 (Ascension Sunday)
Read: Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53
Today we mark one of the great and often neglected festivals of the church: the festival of the Ascension. It winds up getting neglected, because it’s fixed on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter. That’s because of the note in Acts that Jesus appeared to his disciples for that period of time after his resurrection.
So it’s often neglected, we moved it to Sunday so it wouldn’t be neglected—and it’s great, because our Lord’s Ascension is worth celebrating, it’s a cosmic event.
Truly, cosmic, I mean, in Acts, we just heard that Jesus was speaking to the apostles and as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. In Luke’s gospel, as He was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
Did you notice the disciples in this story? One more time, they just don’t get it! They’ve heard the promise of Jesus, that they would receive his power. They were reminded that they are called upon to tell the story of Jesus near and far, to the ends of the earth. They were given a clear and specific task.
And what did they do? Did they spring right to attention, hustle into action, getting right to their work?
Nope! They gazed into heaven, their eyes glued to the spot where they had last seen Jesus.
Artists who have portrayed this story in paintings and woodcuts have not only pictured Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds–many of them have also shown us something else. If you look closely at these paintings and woodcuts—not up in the clouds, but down on the ground—you will see footprints on the earth. Some artists have painted indentations in the rock. Others have etched black and white footprints on the ground not far from where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artists simply have been imagining details that are not in the text. Or, perhaps, they keep pressing us with the question asked long ago: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
What would you do? And, what difference does it make? What does it mean for us? What’s the benefit of Jesus’ departure, leaving the disciples—the church—alone?
That’s where the Ascension gets puzzling!
A colleague of mine describes what many of us feel about absence:
When someone leaves us there is crisis. Absence creates a void. What will fill it? Absence means silence-awesome, lonely, gaping silence. No wonder we fear it, avoid it, cling to the presence, do anything to avoid good-bye. (1)
Jesus who called, taught, turned water into wine, and raised the dead is gone. I bet they had a thousand questions to ask too. “What’s to become of us?” “Yes, you told us that you won’t leave us orphans, but can we be sure?” Presence gives way to awful absence.
Something deep down in us resists the move from presence to absence. When someone is present to us, our space is filled, we are not alone. There is conversation and communion. When someone leaves us, there is crisis. Absence means silence–lonely, gaping silence.
One thing is for sure–we had better get accustomed to bidding farewell. Life is a series of leave-takings, of movement from presence to absence. Carly Simon sings, “Nobody ever stays in one place anymore..You say hello, but I say good-bye.”
We honestly need God when it comes to hellos and good-byes. Our faith used to be embodied in words like the English, “good-bye”, the Spanish “adios”, the French “adieu.” They all imply that when we part–in that moment between here and not here, between presence and absence, we’d best give someone to God when we can no longer hold them ourselves. Good-bye means God be with you.
So really Jesus’ good-bye turned out to be God’s big hello! The real story goes like this: God never left. Never moved. Never said farewell. God simply made an equal exchange. A shift in the plan. For tucked right smack in the middle of our lesson from Acts are these words:
…when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
you will be filled with power,
and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem
and in all of Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth,”
So, far from saying goodbye, God is saying hello in a big way. God is no longer contained to a single person, in a single location on planet earth. By coming into our very lives, God now wants to work through us, giving us the power to live out our faith, to share the Good News, and to grow in our relationships.
Also, because God says hello with the giving of the Spirit, it means that we can say goodbye. We can say goodbye to our attempts to cling to the past, to cling to people, to structures, to old ways of thinking and doing, and even to our comfort zones.
We can follow God’s Spirit as the Spirit moves among us to give us greater mission, clearer vision, and the power to do what we’ve never done before. As we follow the lead of God’s Spirit we may also have to risk walking down new paths at times.
But the bottom line is that far from a goodbye, God has granted us the Spirit of Jesus and that means that we are filled with power to follow in our Lord’s footsteps–to be in joyful mission to a hurting world. In the midst of our current crises and periods of transition, let us on this day embrace and celebrate God’s great big hello, the giving of God’s Comforter and Encourager. For we are the people of God, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
(1) William Willimon, “Good-Bye,” Pulpit Digest (May/June 1991), page 19
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.