Is he gone? Is he really gone?

AscensionA sermon offered Ascension Sunday
May 12, 2013
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church
North Port, FL
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 67;
Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

You’ve all been through it – and without a doubt you’ll go through it again … a time of change, a time of parting, a time of grief — that leaves our world turned upside down.

Maybe it was a time when you left home – or when someone you loved left home.  Maybe it was time for a son or daughter to leave home, to make their own way in the world.  Maybe it was a time when a marriage or long-term relationship was pulling apart.  Maybe it was a time to go off to follow a vocational call to a new location — or retirement and a move to Florida. . . Maybe it was the death of a loved one who moved on to a new place . . .

What does that feel like – when someone goes away – when you go away?  What do you experience during times of change or transition? Does it leave you feeling anxious or scared, off balance, dazed … Maybe even empty, aimless, isolated, hollow, lost?

I wonder how Jesus’ disciples and followers were feeling after he left – after his crucifixion. Their total focus, the meaning of their lives was gone.  Try to imagine it.  Put yourself in their place — you’re one of those long-term followers of Jesus . . . you have been following around after him for about three years . . . you’ve seen him do some pretty fantastic things – healing people when they’re sick, feeding them when they’re hungry.  Your life has taken on new purpose and a sense of fulfillment now that you’ve been hanging around with Jesus – life for the first time seems worthwhile.  You’re on a roll.  Things seem secure and you’re where you want to be.  You follow Jesus to Jerusalem and he enters into the city with crowds cheering him on . . .

But by mid week things start to change – they change drastically.  Jesus is talking about leaving – and by that he means he will be killed, brutely – this is how he will leave.  And he says some mystical sounding words –“I am leaving you but I am coming to you.”

True to the words he spoke and the words written in scripture, he was killed – crucified – and we’re left feeling anxious and frightened, off balance, dazed, lost . . . maybe even forsaken, abandoned.  It seems the total focus of our life is gone, and we ask  “Is he gone?  Is he really gone?”

But then he appears again: we see him, we talk with him, we walk with him, we eat with him.  He is here alive, seemingly very much alive.  This is during those forty days after someone first discovered that the tomb was empty and the two angels said “He is not here, he is risen.”  Our lives have been lifted up along with him in new life.  Joy and purpose return . . .  . . . “Is he gone?” . . . Oh, no!! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

When we join the disciples in today’s reading from Acts, they are asking if NOW is the time when the kingdom will be restored.  Has the Kingdom of God – on earth — arrived? Jesus’ answer: It is not for us to know when. We must accept in faith; it’s out of our control.  We must surrender this all to God’s plan and His timing.  But we are promised that God’s presence and power of the Holy Spirit are coming.

So “Is he gone?”  No he’s very much alive and right here with us . . .

But just then He is gone … again … lifted up … his Spirit, his energy ascending.   Can you imagine being there, wanting to cling to this energy, follow Him follow his as he rises, follow that energy pulling us up and into a union of Spirit in love.

But we are still alive on earth.  In our humanity, our hour has not yet come.  So we’re left suspended … left waiting and expectant. We have been raised, at least for the present, to a higher place, in a plane suspended between heaven and earth. We’re on the threshold of an awesome new dimension … our eyes and hearts have been opened to the prospect of a new exciting reality — out of time, out of space.  But our feet are still firmly planted on the ground  And so here —  we, the church — the earthly Body of Christ – are waiting for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes, next Sunday.

———————-

All three scripture readings today talk about Jesus’ ascension to glory and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Two of the readings are written by the same author, Luke, who wrote both the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel that carries his name.  So in a sense we have two complementary interpretations of the meaning of the Ascension – written by the same person.

The gospel reading looks backward.   The ascension is the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  It is a farewell scene – a farewell scene that ends with a blessing – the same way our Eucharistic feasts together always end.  So unlike most partings, it leaves the disciples rejoicing – because Jesus leaves them with his blessing.

The version in Acts looks forward to the future, to the inauguration of the Church – to the commission of the Church to be Christ’s hands and feet on earth after he’s gone. We’re witnesses of all this – and Jesus calls us to be his witness, to tell out this Good News of the Spirit of God with us – the coming of the Kingdom of God’s justice and love — for everyone – every race, color, shape, culture – all humanity.  The Church is here to stay, with a mission to the whole world.  The hope of Jesus’ coming again in all his glory is still very much alive, and the Church’s mission is to prepare for that end.

———————

Back to the scene with the disciples and the story from Acts.  When he finishes giving instructions, Jesus is lifted up, up, up-away from the pull of gravity.  He is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of sight.  And even after Jesus disappears, the disciples keep gazing up toward heaven, until suddenly two men in white robes appear and ask them “Why are you standing there looking up toward heaven?”

Now, that seems to me a rather silly question.  Wouldn’t you stand looking up toward heaven if you had seen Jesus rising up?   Actually this is probably just a subtle hint, and little nudge – to bring us back to earth – to open our eyes to the work to be done for the coming kingdom – spreading the Good News to those who are near and those who are far – because the Kingdom of God truly is at hand!

Today, it’s Ascension Sunday.  “Is Jesus gone?  Is he really gone?’  Not if you remember his promise of the Holy Spirit – because the promise of the Spirit is a promise for this earth, this place, this time.  Ascension Day is not a call to look up.  It is a call to trust that Jesus’ promise is down and in and around us.  We are not alone.  The Holy Spirit that Jesus promises surprises us at most every turn in our life here . . .

——————————-

Let us pray:

Come Holy Spirit, come to us in this time and place.  Come to us when we sit in silence and when we are moving too fast.  Surprise us, revive us, and shape us into the Body of Christ.  Amen.

(Prayer by The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad)

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