7 Easter, Year B
The Rev Bingham Powell
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
This past Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. Ascension takes place forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost. Sometimes, today is referred to as Ascension Sunday. And in the old days, these ten days were not really considered part of Easter, but rather their own ten-day season called Ascensiontide.
On Ascension, as the name suggests, we remember when Jesus ascended into heaven. As we sang in that splendid processional hymn this morning – “Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies; Christ a while to mortals given, enters now the highest heaven.” According to the Book of Acts, for forty days following the Resurrection, Jesus had been appearing to his disciples, but finally that all had to come to an end. He had to leave them. Gathering right outside of Jerusalem one last time on the Mount of Olives with the disciples, Jesus told them “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 6:8). Acts goes on say that Jesus was then dramatically taken by a cloud lifting him up to the heavens.
This ascension of Jesus completed the action that began at Christmas. God descended to be born in a manger. Jesus lived among us as one of us. He ate, he slept, he prayed, he fasted, he wept, he preached, he healed, he suffered, and he died, continuing the descent down into the dead, until on the third day, he rose, ascending back up to his disciples, appearing to them, eating with them, and then finally after forty days, he ascended back to where it all began. If you want to picture it, Jesus’ life is like a parabola: descending and descending until ascending and ascending some more. That parabola of his life is like a scoop, scooping down and scooping us up into God. In the fullness of this life of descending from God and ascending to God, Jesus was able to reconcile us back to that very same God. Jesus was able to bridge the gap; he was able to heal the wound between humanity and divinity, by bringing divinity to humanity, and humanity to divinity.
Acts goes on to tell us that after Jesus ascended, the disciples were left there dumbfounded, gazing up at the skies. Suddenly, two men in white robes appeared next to the disciples and asked – and this is a paraphrase here – they asked, “What the heck are you doing? Why are still staring up at the skies as if Jesus is going to come right back?” This seems to shake the disciples out of their paralysis. They realize that they have to get back to town and get back to work. As we heard in our reading from Acts today, the first task is to replace Judas. They gathered with other followers of Jesus - followers who had been with them from nearly the beginning, followers who had witnessed Jesus’ life and Jesus’ Resurrection - and they picked a successor to Judas to be a witness with them. They had to do this so that they could get to the task of being Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth, sharing the Good News of God found in Christ Jesus, the Good News of God’s love and mercy and grace for all of God’s beloved children. As Christ says in the Gospel reading today: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus’ exit means it is time for the disciples to fully take on the mantle and continue his ministry.
Ascension did not mean that Jesus would not be a part of their lives anymore. The Ascension simply marked a difference in what that would look like. They would no longer encounter a resurrected Jesus in a bodily form who would say “stick your hands in my wounds, Thomas” or would ask for a piece of fish and eat it in front of his disciples. No, post-Ascension, the most dramatic encounter you get is the blinding light and that voice telling Saul to change his ways. Rather than direct encounters, Post-Ascension, a lot of the encounters with Christ happen indirectly through the disciples as they take on the mantle. Post-Ascension, encounters with Christ are more likely to be in the breaking of the bread, or in serving Christ in the hungry or the thirsty, or in hearing the story of Christ, or in seeing Christ in an act of loving-kindness.
And we who have encountered the Risen Lord, we who have discovered the Good News, also have to pick up this mantle. We, too, have been sent into the world to help facilitate encounters with the Risen Christ, by continuing to break the bread, and to preach the Gospel, and share the love of God, the love that is God. Even as we take some time to celebrate the Ascension, we remember that it is a call to action, not an ending, but a beginning. Now that the wound has been healed between us and God, we are sent to go and heal the wounds of this world. Now that the gap has been bridged between humanity and divinity, we are sent to bridge the gaps dividing ourselves from one another. Now that God’s love has been made fully present in Christ Jesus, and we have witnessed this love, we are sent to go and share that very same love with this world.