Ascension Day (2009) Eucharist
Goodbye, God bless
Ascension day seems a funny day to celebrate. A strange time to have a feast (which of course our Communion is here this evening)! Because, if you think about it, it’s a celebration of something quite difficult.
Have you ever had that feeling of saying goodbye to someone that hurt so much it made you ache? Sixteen years ago Jo and I, who had had an on-off relationship for a few years, found ourselves living in London and York, and at the end of a weekend together we would have that awful goodbye as one of us got onto a train to leave our respective cities. It was probably this ache, this loathing of separation that meant that she came out with the best proposal ever – oh well, we might as well go for it then.
I’m sure for all of us we can understand that pain, perhaps in a smaller or greater degree. Saying goodbye to someone we care about, letting go of them and trusting for both their well-being and the well-being of your relationship with them can be difficult.
It should, to a certain extent, have been the same for the disciples, having had the pain and despair of losing Jesus which was replaced by the joy of the resurrection and the days they got to spend with Jesus afterwards, they were again losing him. Ok, so this time there wasn’t the agony of seeing him suffer, nor was there the same kind of fear that they had experienced before their encounters with Christ – the fear of being caught, the fear of dying, perhaps even the fear that it might all have been a waste of time. But at the same time, Jesus was leaving, and they had no idea when he was to return. There was the promise of his return, but though they hoped for its immanence they had no date, no time, and no firm promise that it would even be in their lifetimes.
So this feast is a strange celebration. We celebrate the loss of Jesus from the Earth – the end of his earthly bodily ministry.
BUT – if we read the Gospel for this evening again we don’t actually get the feeling that the disciples were particularly glum! In fact the reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24 ends with these verses (V 51-53) “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Not the actions of those who were filled with despair – so either Luke was an early example of a spin doctor – pretending all was well when it wasn’t – or there was something else happening to the disciples – or Apostles as they are now rightly called, being those sent out by Jesus.
What happened? Well the promise of Jesus return obviously did offer some hope and comfort, and they knew – it had been proved to them – that Jesus was a man of his word. He’d said he was to be raised from the dead, and he was – obviously a fella you could trust.
But more than that they were now people of purpose. People who knew their calling, who knew what they were to do, who knew that God had a task for them – and would equip them to fulfil it.
Before being taken to be with God (however that was accomplished – and I don’t really think it is worth spending time arguing about the world being round and surrounded by space and wondering where Jesus went etc etc – life’s too short to worry about some things… ) Anyway, before Jesus went to be with God he charged the Apostles with being witnesses to the ends of the earth. Those are the exact words from Luke’s account in the book of Acts. Witnesses – those who had seen and who were to proclaim the good news that Jesus himself had proclaimed, those who were to live and act as Jesus had, those who were to be Christ-like in the world.
And not only that – this sense of purpose came with another promise – one we read about at length in John’s Gospel – the promise of ‘power from on high’ – the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the helper. The Spirit was to be poured out in a new way, a way that would give authority and power to their message and that would equip them for all they were to do. It was this power that would sustain them through all they faced, it was this power that would assure them of the reality of the presence of God, it was this power that would make it possible for them to go to all places and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And they held to that promise, and after some gentle prompting by a couple of (euphemistically named) ‘men in white robes’ (Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven…?) they returned to Jerusalem to await the fulfilment of this promise.
That is why they weren’t torn by this parting – Jesus was leaving, but he was staying, the Spirit would bring that sense of Christ into every moment – just as he had said it would. And so they waited.
Perhaps, if they were anything like me, the waiting was the hardest part. Perhaps not – after all, they were in the temple continually blessing God. They allowed this promise to sink into their hearts, and they waited. And we know the end of their waiting, we will celebrate it in just ten days on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit was poured out, not just given but lavishly shared with signs and wonders, making everything the Apostles and the early Church was to accomplish possible.
Yet today – how many Christians are filled with that joy? How many of us find ourselves continually blessing God? We are those who know the promise, who in our baptism and our Christian life have the gift of God’s Spirit every day. We have the same potential to change the world, to live in the joy and wonder that was promised by Jesus so long ago.
Yet we are so often the ones who seem to mourn Jesus loss. We are the ones who seem to feel separated and distant from him… It’s true it has been many years, and Jesus hasn’t returned, it’s true that the history of the Church has not always been illustrious or uplifting – but it is equally true today as it always has been – Jesus has not left us alone. If we are open to the life of God, open to his Spirit, then we too can know the fullness of what Jesus promised, and we can have the assurance that one day we will see God face to face.
But it means we have to trust, to rely on faith, to be willing to do what God would have us do. It means, sometimes, waiting on God and listening for the voice of God. It means being willing to move, perhaps to change, and to take risks of faith.
All of this, though, can lead us to a greater joy, an enlarged faith, a sure and certain hope, and a life filled with the love and grace of our powerful, loving, intimate and awesome God. This is the reason we celebrate on this strange day – and I hope every day in our Christian lives.