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Ascension Sunday

Sheehan Daniel Scarborough
Sun, Jun 01

Text: Luke 24:44-53

This is the time of year when we say goodbye.  In the past month, Cambridge and Boston have been home to many goodbyes, as college students say farewell to roommates and graduates collect their diplomas.  Do ‘goodbyes’ come easily to you?  Sometimes it’s hard to know when to say goodbye.  We have trouble finding the right words in the moment.  If you’re like me, you’ve been in that situation where you spend a good five minutes saying farewell to a person, just to pass them in the hallway, the coatroom, on the stairs, and in the kitchen 3 or 4 more times.  Do we say goodbye again?  Make a joke?  Start up a new conversation?  There’s an unspoken hesitancy to break the decisive power of the original goodbye. 

When I first read the Ascension passage from Luke for this week I swore I couldn’t preach it.  I’d spent too much time imagining what it must have looked like to the disciples gathered below.  I remembered this helium birthday balloon I’d received as a kid, the one I let go of just to see what would happen.  Was Jesus like the balloon, getting smaller and smaller until he was just a dot in the sky?  Imagine saying goodbye to someone and then slowly backing away from them for 300 feet while maintaining eye contact.  Did the disciples keep watching as Jesus ascended? And what of the people living in the town next to Bethany?  What would they have seen going up?  “It’s a bird, it’s a kite, it’s …”

Biblical imagery affords us a little bit of playfulness now and again.  The Ascension account in Acts says Jesus was taken up into a cloud and the disciples strained to see him until they could no longer.  Our passage from Luke today doesn’t make that clear, but it does say that Jesus “lift[ed] up his hands, and blessed them.  And 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.”  This was a joyful farewell, we’re told – one that carried all the way back to Jerusalem and the Temple.  Whether we read it literally or not, it marks the end of Jesus’ time spent on earth with his disciples. 

Of the common liturgical seasons of the church, Eastertide is the most perplexing.  Advent and Lent are characterized by anticipation: anticipation of the birth of Christ, and of the crucifixion and resurrection, respectively.  It’s a neat and satisfying story arc, a kind of rare season finale that leaves the viewer breathless but content.  After Easter, it’s okay to tune out every now and again, because you know you won’t miss too much.  There’ll be a few guest actors trying to wrap up loose plot threads, a new appearance here or there by the main protagonist, but none of the earthshattering twists like we saw at the conclusions of Advent or Lent.  With Eastertide, the main event has already happened.  Christ is risen.

Yet, as I look back through the lectionary texts associated with the Easter season, I see some of the most emotionally heavy texts in the Bible.  From the reading on the Second Sunday of Easter – Thomas misses Jesus’ first housecall.  Jesus returns and invites him to reach out and touch his wounds.  Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”  How intimate.  From the third Sunday – Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus whose “eyes are kept from recognizing him.”  They invite Jesus into their house. He takes some bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to both of them.  Then he vanishes, and these two men who met a stranger on their way, say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”  From the Sixth Sunday – Jesus tells them, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…”  “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  “I will not leave you orphaned.”  I love you, and I will not leave you orphaned.  These are moments when our beating hearts begin to pulse in time with the heart of God: moments when we are pierced by the desire to love and to be loved, to recognize and to be recognized; when we can feel the divine longing for humanity in our every heartbeat. 

 With these passages in mind, the Ascension takes on a different tone.  It becomes the definitive goodbye between the resurrected Jesus and his followers.  Recall that little more than 40 days ago Jesus was crucified.  His followers scattered, some going as far as to deny their association with Jesus for fear they would lose their own lives.  By Easter, he is risen, and for the next month and a half or so until Pentecost, Jesus appears to his friends, in the flesh.  But after the Ascension, there’ll be no more seaside fish dinners.  No more pleasant embraces. The Eastertide passages emphasize Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to continue his teaching, and the coming of the Comforter, or Holy Spirit to clothe the disciples in power.  But if we read between the lines, we notice something important about these resurrection appearances.  What prompts a parent to say to their child, “I love you, and I will not leave you an orphan”?  What experience causes the heart to burn so fiercely that it clouds the eyes?  It is not only the appearance of Jesus that causes shock – the residual trauma of the crucifixion lingers on throughout Easter as well.  One of the underlying questions that the Easter season poses to us is, “How much time do we need to grieve a loss, or to say goodbye to a loved one?”

Is there ever enough time?  Is time even the right word?  Does grief follow a neat progression such that by the end we’re happy again and continually blessing God for relief, at last?  Or do we instead experience moments of intense heartache triggered by a fragrance, a meal, a poem… something so closely associated with the one in whose absence we remain, that we can’t help but conjure up their being in our minds eye?  All of our senses straining to see, hear, smell, touch, taste again the one we love.  You know this feeling if you’ve lost someone.  If you’ve been estranged, or said a difficult goodbye recently. There is a paradoxical intimacy to separation, and loss, and grieving.  In their absence, we hold them all the closer to our hearts.  Our minds wander unbidden to those we see no longer.  Novelist Cormac McCarthy writes, “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”  Mary, Jesus’ mother, must have felt this pain.  Thomas, who held Jesus, must have felt this.  This is something we all feel at some time or another, knowing that the relationships we treasure will someday come to an end.  We hold joy and grief, sorrow and adoration, together in every embrace. 

 Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a book entitled Lament for a Son after his son Eric died tragically in a mountain climbing accident in Germany at age 25.  Wolterstorff writes that it’s difficult for him to view the mountains, knowing his son’s love of mountains was also his death.  But he’s reminded of the beautiful peculiarities of his son in his everyday life – the way he dressed, cooked, the way he shook hands, how he answered the phone… Borrowing a term from poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wolterstorff goes on to describe the “inscape”, or unique imprint, that his son Eric left on things.  Nothing can make his absence any easier, but the inscape of Eric that Nicholas sees everywhere (his camera, photographs, drawings, and papers) helps him to remember his son – to resist amnesia and renounce oblivion – or in other words, to keep his son alive in his memory.

The Ascension signals an important change in the history of the Church and in our collective memory.  Change often entails loss.  Christ’s resurrection does not erase the trauma of the Crucifixion.  If we read the Easter season in light of this ongoing trauma, then the Ascension story might be read as an attempt at closure.  Jesus is lifted up from the world, but this does not diminish his significance to his followers.  On the contrary, it augments it.  Jesus’ absence precipitates the arrival of the animating Spirit that he promised his disciples – the Spirit whose work we will welcome and witness on Pentecost; the same Spirit that animates the body of Christ today in the form of the Church.  But that’s not all we get from this Ascension event.  Christ’s final words are a blessing.  That blessing continues as Jesus rises from sight, freed from the limitations of particularity.  Can we imagine Jesus, even now, perpetually offering a blessing over Creation?  The inscape of humanity rises with Christ.  God’s divinity meets Christ’s humanity. In the Ascension, God’s way of relating to humanity changes through the experience of the humanity of Jesus.  God too experiences our longing, the pain of absence, and the sting of estrangement, because these are the experiences of Christ.  Our pain is God’s pain, and we become partners with God in the restoration of Creation.  Hear the divine longing for humanity at its loudest.

Christ’s absence after the Ascension is the very thing that makes possible his ongoing presence.  Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body, given for you.  This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”  In doing so, this ritual meal becomes the clearest representation of the simultaneous presence and absence of Christ for the Church.  Our bread and our fruit of the vine bear the inscape of Christ.  When we come together, we eat them in remembrance of Jesus, whom we no longer see.  But we, too, are the body of Christ.  The animating power of the Spirit that Jesus promised his followers binds us together in unity.  In his book Cities of God, theologian Graham Ward writes that the body of Christ does not disappear – it expands.  This expansion is present at communion, where the body is broken, all are welcome, and all are fed.  And this expansion is present when we welcome new members to share in this common life, such as Julie and Flourish this morning, members whose inscape, whose signature print, can already be felt within our community.  Jesus is physically absent in the world.  But the “inscape” of Christ is present in all of us. 

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