June 1, 2014
Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17
But this past Wednesday morning, a celebrity died that I think needs to be remembered and celebrated. This past Wednesday, the great poet, Maya Angelou, died. Angelou was truly one of the greats. Not just one of the great poet. One of the greats of all time. There’s no getting around that fact. She was truly a great person who, despite the hardships of her life, despite the setbacks, despite what life threw at her at times, she rose above it all.
I think it’s appropriate that she died the day before the Feast of the Ascension. There’s a beautiful poem that she wrote that speaks to us loudly at Ascension. She wrote,
Just like moons and like suns,Ascension is, of course, all about rising. This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost. For the last several weeks, 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.
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts this morning, he has been taken up. We find a transformation of sorts happening in our relationship with Jesus in these scripture readings. Our perception of Jesus has changed. No longer is he the Jesus who speaks to his disciples and does miracles for those people back then, in the Palestine. Now, he is here with us.
At his Ascension, we find that he is, in our midst. Us, right here. Right now. In us. At his Ascension, we recognize the fact that God has truly come among us. God is here, right now, with us.
No, God is not speaking to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, not on some shroud-covered mountain, not in visions. Now God is here, with us, speaking to us as we speak to each other. At the Ascension, the puzzle pieces really start falling into place. What seemed so confusing and unreal before is starting to come together. God truly has come among us as one of us. And God dwells in us and through us.
And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place when Jesus, in a sense, returns. Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.
For the moment, though, we are caught in between those two events, 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. It is a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy.
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 in this ascended Jesus, God still acts in our lives. God acts us and through us. I can’t repeat that enough. 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 Christ to others. And we must go out and live out this commission in the world. When we do, the ascended Christ is very much acting in the world.
For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a change to ponder their life-altering experiences. 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 God’ Spirit in their lives. The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred. Nothing was allowed to settle.
That is what ministry is often like. One day, very early in my career, much earlier than I was ever ordained, I came to realize that Ministry is perpetually on-going. There is never an ending to it. It doesn’t matter if my life is falling apart around me, or that I am tired or that my family life is in turmoil. It’s always something. One week brings another set of opportunities, set-backs, trip-ups, tediums, frustrations, joys, celebrations.
Ministry truly is a never-ending roller-coaster ride of emotions and feelings. In the course of a week, one can go from last rites and burials to weddings and baptisms—and everything in between. And some of what comes in between are days when nothing much happens. In between, there are the daily rounds of prayer, of the Daily Office, of scripture reading, of Masses, of meetings. There are lunches, there are suppers, there are lonely nights or sleepless nights or angry or troubled nights. More often than not, there are nights just like the nights before. There are nights when one follows the same rituals one has always followed. And one does what one has done before without thinking, without pondering.
In between those moments of great energy, there are frustrations or boredom. There are moments when it all seems to be useless and pointless. There are moments when one is, quite simply, frightened. There are moments when one feels so overwhelmed by the fact that one is simply not qualified to be doing the work. There are moments when one thinks: I just can’t do this anymore.
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 God Jesus ascended to, whose work we are doing in this world. In those moments when our works seems 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 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 God of this ascended Jesus be the end result of our work. When we wipe our hands at the end of a long and exhausting day, we need to realize that, of course, it seems that all was for naught as we gaze downward at our hands.
But above us, the Ascension is happening. Above us, Jesus has risen. And we are rising with him, even when it seems like we are bogged down in this very earth. Above us, that place, that God to whom we are ascending is there. 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 there is more to this world than we initially thought.
Jesus has ascended. But he isn’t gone. He is with us, now even more so than before his ascension. He is with us in an even more intimate way. The joy we feel today comes when we let the ascended Jesus do what he needs to do through us. We are, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “in the world.” And because we are, we must do the work we are called to do in this world.
So, let us stop gazing upward at that empty sky into which he has ascended. There is work to do. Right here. Right now. Let’s wipe the sun-blindness from our eyes. Let us turn toward those around us in need. And let us be Jesus to those who need Jesus. And there are people who need us to be Jesus for them. There are people who need us to be kind and compassionate and full of love and mercy. There are people who need our acceptance and hospitality.
Like that poem by Maya Angelou, like tides and stars and sun, we will rise. When we love others, when we are Christ to others, when we bring a God of love and mercy and acceptance to others, we allow others to rise as well. We embody and allow the Ascension to continue in this world.
So, let the joy of the ascension live in us and through us and be reflected to others by us. We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of ascension.
We will rise. This morning, we have looked up and we have seen it. We have seen that rising—his rising and our rising—happening above us in beauty and light and joy .