Feast of the Ascension B
You Will Be My Witnesses
Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:44-53
Our lives are peppered and punctuated with goodbyes. Most are perfunctory and simply expressions of graciousness. As when we take our leave for the day or depart for a short holiday. These goodbyes are not heavy, but rather communicate the pleasure of have spent some time together and the looking forward to doing so again sooner rather than later.
Other goodbyes are somewhat more intense. My son, his wife and the three grandkids will be moving to Colorado at the end of June. We will have had two years with them, and the pod we created for their safety during this past year, occasioned even more quality time together. When they leave, they will be taking one more grandson with them than they had when they arrived. Saying goodbye to five will be sadder than saying goodbye to four. And since Colorado is not right around the corner, our time together moving forward will be much less. But even here the going away will be bathed in memories of the joy of our time together.
Final goodbyes are of an entirely different order, at least in some ways. Here there is grief. On Wednesday, we will bid a final farewell to Betty. We will join Connie, her sister BJ, Chuck and Chace in their grief.
We know that when we love someone, that love can and does transcend the pain to be found in any moment. Love makes possible the turning of sorrow, even deep sorrow, even grief, into sweetness and joy. To feel sorrow when parting, is itself a sign of deep love, that brings with it both the remembrances of holy time spent together and, for people of faith, the anticipation of another joyful reunion in eternity.
In his work, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare coined a phrase that has become an iconic line of the play. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Does not our really enjoying the taste of food, require the experience of hunger? On the same note, to be really happy, must one not know the experience of deep sadness? Juliet telling Romeo goodbye triggers her deep emotions. Sadness reminds her of their deep love, and hence it is sweet. Saying goodbye initiates an anticipation of meeting him again.
In the words of St. Paul, “Love never dies.”
It is important to remember that the disciples were robbed of any opportunity to say goodbye to Jesus before his death. Everything went so very wrong and so very quickly, that fateful final week in Jerusalem. When his death seemed imminent, they all scattered.
So, the joy, the profound joy, in their experience of his resurrection makes so much sense. Even their failures had not undone their relationship with Christ. When Jesus first appeared to them, barricaded in the upper room, the place of both the Last Supper and the first Eucharist, they were terrified – thinking he was a ghost.
However, he urged them to touch his wounds and to see that he was indeed a living body and a vital person. We are told that they still could not believe, but now it was because they were so amazed, so happy and so filled with joy. Have you not had that experience? Do you remember ever blurting out, “I am so happy, I can’t believe it!” The disciples were experiencing that joy that, again in the words of St. Paul, “the world cannot give, and that the world cannot take away”.
So, Jesus asks for some food and eats with them, demonstrating that he truly has been raised, fully and bodily raised. Our gospel reading for today then picks up the story after this final dining encounter, as Jesus opens their minds to understand the scripture that all of this was intended. That his suffering and death was part of the Divine plan that God might be revealed in and as the vulnerability that bespeaks authentic love.
He tells them that they are going to go out, to serve as witnesses of his death and resurrection and to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, starting in Jerusalem. He tells them to wait there, in Jerusalem, and that he would send them power from on high, power to enable them to do this work with which he has entrusted them. And then they all walked back out to Bethany, that small village near Jerusalem, and he raises his hands and blesses them and while he blesses them, he is carried up into heaven.
This glorious Ascension scene, that has been the subject matter of so many works of art, is not to be understood as if the departure of Jesus mimics the lift off of the Apollo spacecraft. The visual image is an attempt to express the invisible mystery of the return of Jesus to the eternal communion that is the love of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
This was indeed a profoundly good goodbye. It was one that healed the wounds and all the pain of his earlier departure and death.
And it is tempting, it is very tempting, merely to stand staring up into heaven, full of joy at the knowledge that we have been forgiven, that evil has not had the final word and has not triumphed, and that our weakness will be filled with strength. Yes, it is very tempting to stand staring up into heaven.
The sequel to the gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, continues the story we hear in the Gospel. In today’s first reading from Acts, as the disciples stand staring up into heaven, we are told that two men, clothe in white, suddenly stood beside them, asking them why they are standing there staring up into the sky. “This Jesus”, they say, “This Jesus, who was taking up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go up into heaven.”
The Feast of Ascension is a glorious feast day. It is a day to celebrate the triumph of God in Christ, and that this triumph means our sins and weaknesses are indeed forgiven. But it is not a feast day intended merely to fill us with joy, and to leave us staring up into heaven.
We certainly can do this, we can stand waiting for Jesus to come back, to come down as he went up, and fix things and make everything right. We can stand staring into heaven, with the assurance that we’re forgiven, and that God will heal all that is broken and that he will undo every injustice. We can stand staring into heaven, waiting for God to act in our lives, in our church, in our community, and in the world.
But the Ascension of the Lord is a clarion call, that there is work, to be done by us here and now. The big lie has incredible support. And the big liar is worshiped by a staggering number of misguided to mentally compromised devotees. The big liar is also feared by a host of congressional leaders who daily reveal themselves to be morally vacant. And to be so, with unmitigated hubris and without apology.
The army of white supremacists has shown itself to be larger than we would have ever allowed ourselves to imagine. And the white supremacist party, once known as the party of Lincoln, is committed to its assault on the voting rights of people of color, such that those who have had little voice will have even less voice, and such that those who have been systemically marginalized and victimized will be exposed to even more inhumanity.
These same believe that the cost to repair and rebuild our infrastructure, as well as any costs associated with sustaining the common good, should be borne by the working and middle class rather than by tax evading corporations and the many tax cheating super rich.
These same, care nothing for an earth that is being raped on a daily basis, nor do they give a damn about the poor, who are their last concern, but who have always been and remain God’s first love.
Justice doesn’t just happen. Justice will only ever be secured through struggle. And God’s great work of restoring justice is a struggle that is always in our hands, requiring our partnership every step of the way.
The Ascension of the Lord is a feast that intends to transform us from mere observers to active participants for the sake of an improved tomorrow. The Ascension is meant to transform us from people who only receive, who only consume, into those who go out and give, those who go out and make things that matter happen.
In ten days, we will celebrate the great Feast of Pentecost. The Spirit, on that day, was poured out upon the disciples. The promised power from on high came upon them. But we are mistaken if we think that this is only a past event to remember and celebrate.
That power from on high, that Jesus promises in today’s gospel, is the power that was poured out upon each of us at our baptism, when the saving waters touched our flesh so long ago. It is the power poured out upon each of us anew at our confirmation. It is the power that seeps into our souls when we drink the wine and eat the bread, when we drink the blood and eat the flesh of the Son of God.
The words of Jesus in today’s reading from Acts are words for you and me: “You will be my witnesses.”
What sort of witnesses are we, as we go through our daily life and work? Do we witness to people that suffering will not have the final word? Do we witness that no brokenness, no sin, is beyond the healing love of God? Do we witness that God invites all people in? Do we witness that God desires justice more than anything else? What sort of witness are you?
Sisters and brothers, do not simply receive and consume. Rather give and take action. The power of God is indeed poured into our hearts. No cyber attack will stop the flow of that fuel. Only you can stop its flow. Though you may fear you are not wise enough, not strong enough, not good enough, the power of God is poured into you. In the Ascension we say goodbye to the bodily presence of Christ on earth, because we are now called to be His bodily presence. You know, to respond like Betty.
Go forth from this place, go into this world, and be a powerful witness to God’s undefeatable love and know the joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away.
The Rev Frank J. Alagna
May 16, 2021