7 Easter, Ascension Sunday – May 24, 2020
Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53
Ascension Day is one of the most overlooked holidays on our Christian calendar. It always happens on a Thursday – this year is was observed this past Thursday, so we are honoring it today, this Ascension Sunday, because it reminds us that we cannot limit God.
God came to us in the flesh as the person of Jesus, and Jesus’ ascension reminds us that we can’t restrict God to any one place or time. No building, no people, no book, no religion, even, can limit God’s ability to be accessible to others.
And it’s also Memorial Day weekend. A day set aside to honor and remember those who gave their life, who died, in service to our country. So, today we are re-membering. Take that word apart…re and member. To re-member. To put back together in a way that honors the memory, that honors the sacred in that memory. To Re-Member.
How do we do that? Well, as is usual the scripture provides the framework. In our story we hear about how disciples watched Jesus being carried up into heaven. But before Jesus ascended, he gave them instructions. He instructed them to stay in the city, to remain in Jerusalem, to wait until they were clothed with power from on high, until the Holy Spirit had come upon them. Waiting. Doesn’t that sound all too familiar.
Both passages today, from Acts and Luke, describe an interlude – a period of waiting and transition. It’s the waiting between all Jesus has done up to now and what he is about to do. This period of waiting is memorialized in the church calendar as the season of Ascension. Toward the end of our great fifty days of Easter, we enter into Ascension, an interlude.
Think about the story in Acts….it’s kind of funny. Funny because the disciples are just standing there, looking up at Jesus’ disappearing form, mesmerized – or perhaps a better word might be paralyzed – by what they’ve just seen, because, let’s face it, that would be scary. And then two messengers in white clothes (which interestingly enough, parallels the scene from the resurrection story in Luke) show up and ask them what in the world they’re staring at. This seems to kick-start them on their way back down the mountain to Jerusalem where they will wait and pray and worship until Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is an important interlude, because they are being prepared for life after Jesus’ ascension and their changed role from disciples (or students and followers) to apostles (or messengers, heralds, and leaders).
So, today we hear about interludes, times of preparation, the pause for renewal before the invitation to walk across another threshold, start a new adventure, or cross a boundary into unfamiliar but nevertheless God-beloved territory.
Some are calling our pandemic the “great pause”. And we have just heard that our area may shift into “yellow” on June 5th. And so now is a good time to reflect and pray and be mindful of just how we begin our reentry into a new way of being together outside the walls of our homes. It won’t be the same for quite a while. We will be crossing into unfamiliar territory.
In Luke’s Ascension Day accounts, they have absolutely no idea what is ahead of them, and neither do we. But they do know, and we know, that Jesus is preparing us for whatever may come and he will accompany us via the Holy Spirit and Advocate.
Again, this weekend is Memorial Day weekend and Monday a holiday. Memorial Day, officially declared a national holiday in 1971, but dating in practice back to shortly after the Civil War, is a time to remember and honor those who have died in service to their country. It is also an interlude, a time to allow the stories about the sacrifices of actual, concrete people to keep us from making war an abstraction, something outside of ourselves; to inspire us to honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to finding a way to peace with the hope that someday others will not have to make the same sacrifice. In this sense, Memorial Day is a time to renew our sense of gratitude for those who have served their country and for the freedoms we enjoy because of that service and sacrifice.
The first disciples wait in the upper room. They wait for power on high to make them witnesses to Jesus. There they pray. This prayer is their waiting on God.
Eastertide is a journey to Pentecost. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, he ascends into heaven. During this season we reflect upon his life, death, and resurrection. We remember that though he has gone to heaven, he does not leave us alone. Our eyes, minds, and hearts are once again opened in order to receive the Holy Spirit, our comforter and our guide.
There is no power without a season of preparation, without a period of waiting. May we be empowered to do the work of the Lord as we are reminded that this promised gift of God’s presence will always be worth the wait.
To pray is “to open a window of the soul to the kingdom of God.” So says the great, mystical, Jewish Bible scholar Abraham Heschel, who writes that to pray is to “open a window to Him [God].” Heschel wrote:
“To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain the sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers—wiser than all alphabets—clouds that die constantly for the sake of beauty, we are hating, hunting, hurting.” Heschel concludes, “It is gratefulness that makes the great.” But then adds, “However, we often lack the strength to be grateful, the courage to answer, the ability to pray.”
My friends, Ascension reminds us to re-member. Let us pray and reflect and put ourselves back together in a sacred way, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth and end this pandemic, as we await the coming of the Holy Spirit to renew our own spiritual lives. And we can do so by remembering that we cannot limit God and by opening the windows of our souls to the kingdom of God. And Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.” Thanks be to God! Amen.