Left Behind

Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 5/19/21

Jesus didn’t spend his last day on earth assigning a beneficiary for his pension fund.  No, he, perhaps, asked one of the disciples to return the borrowed colt to its confused farmer back in Bethphage. Or took a slow walk through the Old City, leaning against the Western Wall to pen a letter of appreciation to Joseph for being a dad to someone else’s son. Or, following his advice, he gave away the tunic off his back and the sandals off his feet as the hourglass of his life ran out.   

While the empty tomb of Easter and the fiery tongues of Pentecost headline the Christian calendar, the Ascension- the High Holy day where Jesus levitates into heaven on a cloud of mystery- is also worthy of our attention despite being an overlooked interlude.  We do, after all, recite the occasion in the Apostles’ Creed, the matriarchs and patriarchs believing it worthy of public repetition.     

Upon first reading, Ascension appears to be a liturgical celebration of God’s absence.  All of us know the pain of watching someone else latch the suitcase, cross the threshold against our will, and walk out of our lives.  The apostles know the feeling of abandonment too as they stare crooked necked into a vacant sky as the Savior fades into the ether of eternity.       

But assuming all news in scripture is ultimately Good News, what’s the encouraging miracle about the Ascension? 

Acts 1:1-11 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Congregational Reflections: 

The Ascension is God’s declaration that the violence of Good Friday will not have the last word. 

Jesus’ unexplainable exit leaves room for mystery in our faith. 

God makes good on God’s promises.  

Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe was the Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life at Emory University when I was a student there for seminary. Called to ministry but entirely unsure of my vocation, I sought her out as a primary mentor during my time in Atlanta.  On Sundays, I was an acolyte at University worship, taking notes on how she commanded the congregation’s attention with her charismatic smile.  On Mondays, how she collaborated with the staff to organize the week’s liturgy. On Wednesdays, how she leveraged the Christian chapel as a place of welcome for B’Hai, Muslim and Jewish undergraduates. On Fridays, how she flew all over the country to deliberate on the Judicial Council, the denomination’s Supreme court, as the first woman ever elected to the bench.  After three formative years as one of her interns, I wanted more.  As graduation approached, I rehearsed my best pitch, pressed my best shirt, and set up an appointment with her.  Curious about urban ministry but terrified of the traditional Church, I wanted to stay put and stay on campus forever, content to be a perpetual student of her brilliance.  Quivering while trying to appear confident, “Susan,” I asked, “would you hire me?” Without more than a second of deliberation, she responded warmly, “No,” to paraphrase, “Brian, your ministry is out there in the world, not here at school.  You go with my blessing, but it’s time for you to go.”        

The apostles wanted everything to stay put too.  Clinging to Jesus, they wanted him to linger a lot longer. So, please, more instruction on how to turn the other cheek in the midst of an altercation, more explanation on recklessly planting seeds in the barren expanses of the vineyard, more tutelage on shepherding your flock through the valley of darkness while predators are out on the prowl.  But, at some point, in driver’s education, the instructor moves over to the passenger’s seat, the craftsman hands the apprentice the shop apron, the professor yields the lectern to the pupil for the day’s lesson, and Jesus hands his followers the keys to his kingdom.  

Ready or not, the encouraging miracle of the Ascension is that God trusts us to lead! If Jesus sticks around, we’ll rightly always defer to him, minimizing the potential of our own contribution, stuck in a paralysis of comparing his flawless divinity to our compromised humanity.  But if he’s gone, physically absent, then we are forced into a developmental stage of spiritual differentiation, confronted with the possibility that leaving is sometimes the most loving thing to do.  Left behind, we are set loose in the world as missionaries with every permission to go and do likewise.  Ascension is the advent of our empowerment. 

Unlike the Gospels which chronicle the biography of Jesus, Acts chronicles the origin of his Church.  Beginning with today’s scripture, the Greek word dynamin, which translates as marvelous power, is used 78 times throughout the book.  The writer is trying to overwhelm us with the undeniable truth that just as Jesus is ascending, God’s divine force for good is descending, no longer wrapped in the skin of one body but alive in the congregation of everybody.   

If God’s faith in our faithfulness- the lovingly absurd and self-confidence-altering notion- leaves you breathless, then be encouraged, a mighty wind is on the way.