The Sunday after the Ascension
May 20, 2012
+ OK. For the last two weeks I have complained from the pulpit how bad my previous week was. No more! Every time I complain about it, I swear the next week is worse the previous week. I’m jinxing myself. So, no more of that…
But, also for these past two weeks, I have been talking about this wonderful thing called change. Yes, I’m on a theme right now. So, bear with me until I get tired of it.
Today, change comes about in a very subtle, almost hushed way in our scripture reading. This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. For the last month and a half, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.
In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us. Now, he has been taken up. Last Thursday, of course, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, the day when Jesus ascended to heaven.
And here is where the change happens. Our perception of Jesus, if you notice, has changed. No longer is he the wise sage, the misunderstood rebel, the religious renegade that he seemed to be when he walked around, performing miracles and upsetting the religious and political powers that be. He is now something…more. More than just a prophet. More than just a king. More just a priest. Actually, at this point, he seems to be all of these at once—Prophet, King and priest. At his ascension, we find that he is, in a sense, anointed, crowned and ordained. At his ascension, we find that what we are gazing at—this God-Man—is something we could not comprehend before.
In him, we now recognize the fact that God has truly come among us. God has taken flesh and, in that flesh, has lived and has died. In him, God speaks to us not as God did from the Hebrew scriptures, from a pillar of cloud or fire anymore, nor on some shroud-covered mountain, nor in visions, but in a Person like us. A Person who has flesh and blood and bones, who feels emotions and is tempted like we’re tempted. The puzzle pieces are falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal is starting to come together. God truly has come among us as one of us.
And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate his Spirit descending upon and staying with us. For the moment, we are caught in between those two events—the Ascension and Pentecost—trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen. We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.
This week, smack dab in the middle of the twelve days between the Ascension and Pentecost, we find ourselves examining the impact of this event of Jesus in our lives. And Jesus has made an impact in our lives.
We, those of us who are fortunate enough to experience the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, at least liturgically and scripturally, in our Sunday readings and in our liturgy, find ourselves constantly confronted with the meaning of these events. We are faced with the reality of them and what we should do to make sense of them.
I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that this ascended Jesus still acts in our lives. The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well. We must love—fully and completely. Because in loving, we are living. In loving, we are living fully and completely. In loving, we are bringing the ascended Jesus to others. And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. We must go out and love.
When we think about what those first followers went through in a fairly short period of time—Jesus’ betrayal and murder, his resurrection and his ascension—we realize it was a mind-boggling experience. Their lives—their faith, their whole sense of being—was changed forever.
And there we have it. That wonderful word “change.” They were changed. They would never be who they were again. And so are we every time we encounter this Jesus. And others are changed when they encounter us embodying that ascended Jesus in our lives and in our ministries to others.
For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much time to ponder the change happening in their life. As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along. Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of Jesus’ Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred. Nothing was allowed to settle.
Well, that is what ministry is often like. Ministry is on-going. There is never an ending to it. It’s always something.
Yes, I complained about how each subsequent week was a little worse than the previous ones. But, I’m not being fair. Each of these past weeks has also brought many wonderful opportunities and experiences along with the set-backs, the trip-ups, the frustrations, and the despair. Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings. In course of a week, we who are following Jesus, who living out his commission to love, find ourselves experiencing it all. I, as a priest, often go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between. And each you, in your ministries, experience the highs and the lows of that crazy, wonderful journey of following Jesus.
These are things those first followers of Jesus no doubt struggled with. Yet we, like them, are sustained. We, like them, are upheld. We, like them, are supported by the ascended Jesus, whose work we are doing in this world. In those moments when our weeks seem bad or useless, when it seems like we have done no good work, the ascended Jesus still triumphs.
Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and his return to us, is simply to let him do what he needs to do in this interim. We need to let the ascended Jesus work in us and through us. We need to let the ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.
Yes, we, as individuals, might fail. I have failed. Many, many times. And when I do, let me tell you, I beat myself up. I throw myself down I rage at myself over my failings. But when I am in that awful state—when I am there, on the ground, hobbling myself with self-doubts and self-recriminations, that is sometimes the moment when I actually have look up. And when I do, I sometimes realize that there above us, the Ascension is still happening.
Above us, Jesus is still triumphant despite my failing. Jesus is still Prophet of prophets, King of Kings, the High Priest of the priesthood of all believers. Above us, Jesus triumphs—and we with him, even when it seems we have failed. All we have to do is…look up. All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up. And there we will see the triumph. And as we do, we will realize that even our failures have been changed.
Jesus is able to use our failures, change them and make them victories somehow. Jesus prays in today’s Gospel that we “may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves].” That joy comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us. When we allow him to work the change in us that needs to happen.
So, let his life-changing joy be made complete in you. Let the joy of his ascension live in you and through you and be reflected to others by you. When we do, we will be, as he promises us, “sanctified in truth.” We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of his ascension. And we will be sanctified by the fact that we have looked up and we have seen the truth happened above us in beauty and light and joy .