Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Feast of the Ascension

Loss, or Promise

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

We are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension today. It occurs forty days after Easter – last Thursday to be exact. But being midweek it often gets overlooked. So we are marking it today. It is a fitting day for the whole people of God to gather in celebration.

During my high school years, I went to St. Mildred’s, a Private Girls' School run by an Anglican religious order. We had some unusual holidays, including the Feast of the Ascension. We would begin the day by trekking down to the local church for Eucharist, and then we piled on buses, and the whole school went to the island for a picnic. It was a day of celebration and fun. It marked the beginning of the end of the school year. We ate and played and raced and generally had a good time.

So whenever I come to reflect on the Feast of the Ascension, those memories come flooding back to me. They influence my thoughts. Indeed it always surprises me to find out that the Ascension is not about a picnic. In fact, it is anything but a picnic.

Jesus in his full humanity has been given new life in the resurrection. It has been a time of great hope for the disciples as they have been reunited with the risen Saviour. Then just like that, Jesus is gone. He has reappeared to them just long enough for them to say goodbye. Like a dream, he leaves behind no children, no estate, no writings, no trace of himself except this feeling that his presence was real, that uncanny feeling that he was just here, that he must have just stepped out for a time, that he will return at any moment.

It is a feeling of mixed joy and grief, of doubt and certainty. It marks the moment when the disciples came into their own time, and indeed when we pass from Jesus’ time into our own.

We read in Scripture that he was taken up into Heaven. We see it portrayed in stained glass windows and art, Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. We may puzzle about how it happened, but emotionally we do understand it on a deep level. That is because we have experienced it with the loss that comes when a loved one dies. Death, even a lingering death, is so sudden and subtle. It is so peaceful. One moment you see the rise and fall of breath, the next it stops. Loved ones are suddenly taken from us, and the manner in which they go fills us with awe. It is an amazing, yet dreadful thing. We say and perhaps even know on some level that they are going to “a better place”. And yet we are confronted with the harsh reality that they are gone.

The stories of Jesus’ ascension are, it seems to me, about a Christian attitude towards death. The disciples and we are confronted with the hard reality that Jesus is gone. He has risen, not just from the dead, but from the world. Yet we cannot get away from the miracle. In fact, the miracle is the whole point, isn’t it? The disciples see with their own eyes that Jesus is gone, but he has gone to be with God. He is alive, so maybe their loved ones are alive. Maybe death does not have the final word. What a miracle that is! What a cause for rejoicing!

The Ascension, as he withdraws from his disciples, as he is carried from them into heaven, marks the end of Jesus' earthly life. Before he makes his final departure from them, he commissions them to continue his earthly work. As witnesses of the resurrection, it is their task to continue his proclamation. It is their responsibility to carry on the work that Jesus began. Jesus lives! Jesus reigns! Yet there is a catch! Jesus has left his disciples holding the bag!

So yes, this feast day is about loss. And we all know from personal experience that is no picnic. If we have ever suffered loss, then we can imagine how the disciples felt. This is a very difficult time in their lives. It is a time between loss and promise. How are they to face the future without their leader? How are they to trust that they will have the resources to carry on and to proclaim the great message of salvation that Jesus has given into their care? How are they to know that they are equal to the task that lies ahead? How are they to overcome the grief and pain that surrounds the loss of one they love?

So before Jesus leaves them he gives them a final blessing. That is, after all, an apt ending to his earthly life, a life wholly focused on blessing and forgiving. He died with forgiveness on his tongue; he rose with blessing upon it. And the disciples did not depart in sorrow, but in rejoicing. They may need to wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. But they wait knowing that Jesus has made good on every promise and they go out rejoicing in the courage of the Lord.

Part of the commissioning is a promise, the promise of power from on high. They will be “clothed with power”, covered head to toe with the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the promise they take with them. It will comfort them. It will sustain them. They go, not to the Upper Room, a place of protection and nurture, a place of locked doors and fear, but to the temple in Jerusalem. They did exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do. They immediately took their worship public.

We have all faced times of loss in our lives – the death of a loved one, broken relationships, empty nest syndrome, retirement. Even loss of innocence and problems related to addiction are about such in-between times. They are times of fear and confusion as we face change beyond our control. How do we deal with such events in our lives? How do we allow ourselves to know the promise of God to be with us?

We live in an in-between time in the Church's history. We see signs of moral decay in the fiber of society. At the same time we see a decline in attendance in the mainline churches. We see an aging congregation. We hear that the Church has lost its relevance in society. How do we hold on to the promise that God is with us and that we will be witnesses to the ends of the earth? How do we rejoice and witness to the power of the Spirit at work in our lives? In our own church, how do we discern the future that God holds in store for us?

The Scripture suggests a course of action. It suggests some things that the disciples did.
It should not be any surprise that the first thing they did was to gather in prayer. They didn’t know what to do, so they prayed for guidance. They prayed for the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus made to them. They gathered the community together and in solidarity they prayed to God, that God would be with them.

That is an important model for us as the community of the church. You may be saying to yourself, "Well that's pretty obvious. Of course we should pray." Gather the community together and pray. Pray for God's guidance about our future. Pray that God will be present with us. Pray that God will be at work in our lives.

But it is important for us to remember in our own lives as well. It is important for us to remember when we face a time of loss or change in our lives. Pray even when the only prayer you can pray is "God, I can't pray". Because that kind of prayer will help us to look back and remember the times when God has been with us. It will help us to remember the promise that God made to be with us always.

And pray in thanksgiving. We so often neglect to thank God for all of our many blessings. We are so blessed that we come to expect it.

Finally we await the fulfillment of God's promise. We live in hope. There is such an air of expectancy about the disciples during this period of waiting. There is a sense of building urgency. "What next?" they seem to be asking. They are about to embark on a new way without Jesus to guide them. The path ahead is not yet clear. It is a time of testing and discovery. Such times in our lives can be fruitful as we learn to trust our own resilience, our own abilities and our God given talents.

The Ascension is not the end of the story.
"I am risen. I am still with you." That is the message to the disciples. It continues to be the message to the church today. We still encounter the risen Lord. Yet that is a mystery that, not surprisingly, eludes our grasp. Our encounter is rather like trying to view a beautiful painting through a venetian blind. We can see the image, but not clearly enough to understand its beauty and perfection. We get flashes of insight. But to full appreciate its beauty, we would have to view it under the proper conditions, with our view unobstructed, with the proper lighting.

When the risen Lord encounters us, we do, for a moment, fully comprehend. Yet it is difficult to hold on to the image.

If we have eyes to see the mystery of the resurrection, we will glimpse it all around us. We will catch sight of it in nature – the smell of rain, the wildness of a thunderstorm, the beauty of a flower unfolding, the sight of a starry sky. We dream it. The kind of dream you wake up out of without quite remembering what it was about, and yet you feel better for having dreamed it. We meet it through the liturgy, through music, through the world of books. And most of all we meet it in our relationships with other people.

And so it may not be a picnic. But we are not left alone. Jesus parted from the disciples. But he promised the Holy Spirit. That promise is there for us as well. May we too be clothed with power from on high.

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