By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
May 4, 2008 (Ascension Sunday)
Read: Acts 1:6-14 and John 17:1-11
Today in the Book of Acts, we hear of Jesus being lifted up into a cloud. Jesus’ Ascension. Can you imagine how the apostles felt, what they were thinking? As they stood there, staring into the sky in wonder and awe, at where they last saw their beloved Jesus, two men in white robes—angels—said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” What????
In 1986, the entire world gazed at the sky with wonder and awe. The space shuttle, “Challenger” was scheduled to blast off from its launching site in Cape Canaveral, Fla. As the countdown began, students in every classroom in the United States were tuned in to their local TV station. This was a truly historical event because for the first time, an ordinary person – a teacher, wife, and mother of two was going into space. The countdown completed, the space shuttle left its launching pad – and before we could count down from ten again, “poof” – the shuttle and everything in it – vanished into thin air. “Poof.” We were left to gaze at the sky with wonder and awe – and an air of deep sadness descended on the entire nation.
In the days and weeks that followed, we watched this tragedy unfold before us hundreds of times as news programs reported the latest concerning, “what went wrong with the Challenger.” Every time I watched it unfold before my eyes – I was hoping, praying, that this time it wouldn’t vanish. Every time this event was replayed on national Television – I would silently say to myself, along with the entire nation, I suspect, “stay with us.” Stay with us.
The disciples gazed at the sky with wonder and awe. And as Jesus ascended, what were they to say, except, “stay with us.” Jesus had come to them and turned their lives around. He had come and left and then come again. Jesus had turned the disciples’ lives upside down and inside out. In the Gospel accounts of the days following Jesus’ death, the disciples wander around in a cloud of confusion and loneliness. And when he finally appears to them again – they party on the beach, he breaks bread with them and teaches them concerning the fulfillment of scripture. Only a few days pass before he is engulfed in a cloud and carried away to the heavens. The disciples gaze up at the sky in wonder and awe as “poof” Jesus disappears in a cloud. They gaze up at the sky, wishing, it seems, that he would come back and stay with them. And then the men in white who are standing next to them say, in summary: “Don’t worry, you’ll see him again someday.” I suspect the disciples wanted Jesus here, now. Not in some distant far-off future. Not in some grandiose exhibition in which Jesus would descend from the heavens in glory and honor. I suspect that the disciples longed for Jesus to stay with them on that day. Stay with us. Stay with us now.
Jesus was present and now was absent. We’ve all been in that space…that space between presence and absence. We’ve all said good byes in our life and none of them were easy. We wonder where the years went. But there he is–a kid who one moment was fighting with his brother and the next going off to Penn State. Somewhere else two people come to say good bye. Their relationship just isn’t going anywhere. They go out on some dates, but as the weeks are swallowed by seasons, they realize it’s over. Time to say good bye. Not just farewell to the movies and lunches and shopping and games. But really good bye to a presence and a quality that will never completely be recovered. Saying good bye is hard.
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, 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 it is that we find a group of disciples this morning caught hearing a good-bye from the Leader who it seemed only months before had said hello. Jesus has finished his job and now returns to heaven. The story wasn’t supposed to go like this. Everything within the disciples, everything they had been taught, had convinced them that Jesus was supposed to stay. The Messiah they knew was to reign on earth. Thy will be done on earth.
If the promise of the resurrection is forgiveness of sins, what then, is the promise of the Ascension? Hidden between the lines of repentance and forgiveness and the lifting up of Jesus into the clouds – is a promise so great, a promise so enduring, a promise so life-giving, that I wonder why we often miss it. The promise of the Ascension is that God is with us. We don’t need to beg God to stay with us. We don’t need to gaze at the sky in wonder and awe as we ask, “where is God?” God sends the Holy Spirit so that we might not be alone in our work on earth. God sends an advocate so that we might be empowered to spread the Gospel to all the ends of the earth. God sends a comforter who is with us in our despair, our loneliness, our hypocrisy and our fear.
Toward the end of his days on earth, Jesus instructed his followers to love one another, to rely on each other, to help, encourage, and empower each other. This is the essence our Lord’s prayer for his disciples in John 17:26: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus was to live on within the community of his followers through God’s Spirit–the Spirit of God’s Agape Love.
So Jesus’ good-bye really 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.
And, 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 big hello, the giving of God’s Comforter and Encourager. For we are the people of God, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
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