Remember driving from the airport watching the plane take someone away from you? Or remember all the times when you have watched loved ones pile into their cars and drive away? I know you do it. I know how often you ask for prayer for those who are traveling. We know the soup of emotions that come with these departures – from relief and yearning for rest, to the excruciating tearing of our hearts as they take some of ourselves with them. We stand in the doorway, follow them with our eyes.
Now put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. You are standing around on the Mount of Olives. It has been such a relief to have Jesus back with you after the horror which was the crucifixion. He has been teaching intensely over the past few weeks. Jesus is spending all of his time – when he is there – with you and your friends. No crowd scenes.
From the mountain viewpoint you look over to the city of Jerusalem. You see the grand Temple grounds. When will we all be able to relax in Jerusalem, you wonder? When will we be able to quit looking over our shoulders? When will we all have time to be able to sit in the Temple and discuss the Torah – from the greatest to the least?
Jesus, is this the time? Is this the time when we will get our city back? The time when we will no longer have to take orders and pay taxes to foreigners? Jesus, is this the time?
Your questioning eyes look to Jesus. But there is no “yes” in his eyes. Love. Patience. Kindness. These are all there. But not yes. Wait, he repeats. Wait. Another power will come to you. Not the kind that is held by these kings and rulers. Your power will come directly from God, the same spirit I share will be in you. It is a kind of power which will launch you into worlds you have never imagined. Wait. It is not mine to give, nor yours to conjure up. It will come. And it will be more than enough for your yearning.
But there must be something we can DO!
Now something is happening. It is harder to focus on him. Jesus’ presence is shimmering, floating, even. He seems less solid every minute. Another transfiguration, like Peter, James and John got to witness? What is happening? The light is now so intense that Jesus is completely hidden. You stare into the cloud, looking for an answer to your questions. Is this it? You yearn into the light for the glorious Messiah to come with the angels of heaven. How long have you stood here staring? Time has stopped.
Startled back to reality, a strange, chiding voice interrupts the moment, “what are you gawking at?” Kind of like the announcer at the end of the concert: “Elvis has left the building!” It really was something quite like that. This phrase was used by public address announcers who were attempting to get crowds – who are standing, jumping, screaming, crying for another encore – to leave an Elvis Presley concert.
What are you doing standing here looking up into the sky? Sometimes you disciples are so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good! Actually, Oliver Wendell Holmes said that, and Johnny Cash set it to music, but these words also get the right tone of voice. Don’t worry about Jesus. Wake up! You look really foolish standing there staring up into the sky.
The disciples had been stunned by Jesus’ sudden crucifixion. It happened so fast! Then, all of the sudden, he was back, flesh-and-blood back! Mysterious, yes. Coming and going in unexplainable ways, but present, nonetheless. Jesus has been coming and going for a little over a month now. Of course they were watching. Maybe he would be right back.
They did need someone to tell them to go home.
Still, they might have thought that Jesus would show up for dinner. From our perspective 2,000 years later, from Luke’s perspective a generation later, we know that this time, Jesus’ absence wasn’t just momentary. By the time of Luke’s writing, his absence had out-lasted the lives of all or nearly all of the disciples. His absence was about as permanent as a human life and mind can understand.
This makes Ascension Sunday, today, a difficult holiday, with echoes of Good Friday. It asks the question: What do we do in the absence of Jesus?
This was the key question of the early church, and why the letters and gospels were written. It is still our question, if we are honest, and perhaps why we don’t really celebrate Ascension Day.
He said, go back to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of power from God. What did that mean? What would it look/feel like?
Acts 1:7-8 – It is not for you to know the times, but you will receive power….
In my life, at the rough points, I have often wondered, if Jesus were here, what would he do? I ask the same question the disciples had: When will justice thrive? When will the sick be well, the poor have enough, the earth breathe easy of the Creator’s air? When will the body of Christ, the church, learn to live like Jesus? Things do not look good for the church as we have known it. In other words, we are faced with times not unlike those of the early church, and every generation since. What are we to do?
Yes, this is the day we acknowledge that Jesus is absent, in body. His Spirit is with us, but sometimes, like the disciples, we yearn for someone with skin on. The Church has been created in order to be that fleshy presence of Jesus on earth, but frankly, we have often not been very good at being like Jesus. That is a problem for another day. Today, in this Ascension pause, in the moment of absence of Jesus, what do we do?
It makes sense to me to do what the disciples did.
First, they stayed together. Unfortunately, in times of stress and frustration and unknowing, it is easy to leave the gathering, to separate ourselves from this body of Christ and look for another. The suffering we experience, we blame on others. We distance ourselves. But not the disciples. They stay together.
There is little of human behavior that is so powerful as staying connected. Support groups save lives not because they have answers but because they stay connected, accept the stories and hold each other’s pain. Let’s be a support group with each other, like the disciples.
Second, the disciples, and everyone they knew, prayed together. We can do that. The session is in a season of discerning the way forward for the next few years. We can all support them in prayer. Every day, commit yourself to pray – 1 minute, 5 minutes, an hour – but pray for your Body of Christ here on the corner of 55th and Belmont. It was in the gathering to pray that the Spirit came then and will come to us now.
During the week, we gather for prayer on Sunday nights. Josh has a prayer gathering on Wednesday mornings at 7 a.m. here in the sanctuary at 7 a.m., or with them online. Come light a candle and pray here anytime, all day. Gather in homes with friends and neighbors. The Book of Order requires that all meetings begin and end with prayer. It is on to something here!
But it is not just the pastor’s job. Sometimes, that kind of prayer is lonely. The disciples’ praying together was not lonely. They all participated.
Third, they listened for God’s guidance. The first thing they tried was to appoint another Apostle in the place of Judas. Okay. Was this what prayer had told them to do? Peter seemed to think so. But the jury is out. Nothing is ever heard of Matthias, the new Apostle they appointed. But they did something. It may not have been spectacular. It may have even been a failure, but they let their prayers lead them to action.
Because they were together, because they were in prayer, because they were listening for God’s guidance, when the day of Pentecost came, they were ready. They had been praying, yearning, leaning in. And when the Spirit came upon them, there was no doubt that this was indeed the thing Jesus had promised.
In the same way, we will try this and that. We may have successes and failures. But the Spirit is among us, nudging us in the Jesus Way, and when we let the Spirit have her way, we will know it. The Ascension leads us to be expectant, not frantic. When Jesus left, the promise was that he would return, that he would be with us every step of the journey. It is different, yes, but as Jesus promised, because he is gone, we will do greater things than he did. When we feel the absence, rather than the presence, may we return to the place of prayer, opening ourselves to the coming of the Spirit.
Stay tuned. Pentecost is coming.