5/24/2020 Ascension of Our Lord The text is Luke 24: 44-53.
44[Jesus said to the eleven and those with them,] “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have all heard the expression, “out of sight, out of mind”. This phrase expresses the notion that if we are separated from something for a length of time, we tend to lose interest in that object; or in some cases, that person. The proverb with the opposite meaning is, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. It’s my guess that the reaction someone has when they are separated from something or someone, depends on the affection they have for the object or the person, to begin with. It’s in our nature to process our reaction to separation in the way that makes us feel most comfortable, most at peace. If our feelings are not rooted in true affection, we might easily drift away from concern for what we are separated from.
But if we have true caring and affection for what’s missing, we will long for the object, and especially the person to return to us. Speaking of our human nature, I recall a concept I first learned of in a psychology class in college. This class dealt with the way a baby’s brain develops as the infant experiences the world around him or her. Neural psychologists refer to one of these developmental stages as the learning of “object permanence”. It turns out that babies younger than eight months aren’t able to process that if an object is removed from their field of vision, that it’s still around somewhere. Once they no longer see it, for them it simply no longer exists. “Out of sight, out of mind”. Then, at about 12-18 months, the baby is able to process the understanding that direct perception isn’t necessary for an object’s existence. For example, if a toy is taken from the infant and placed under a blanket, the child will look under the blanket for it. They understand that the item is simply in a different place and that, even though it is out of sight, the toy remains. “Object permanence”.
In both the reading from Acts and Luke’s gospel this morning we hear of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. In Acts, he was “lifted up”, in the gospel, he was “carried up”. While an ascending onto heaven to return to the Father is an action that defines the heart of Lutheran Christology, for the disciples, I’m sure it was just another time, once again that Jesus “left” them. They had hoped that Jesus was the promised Messiah, sent from God to free them from Roman occupation. Rather than lead the great rebellion to overthrow their oppressors, Jesus was executed by the power of the Romans. This was the first time that Jesus “left” them. Now, Scripture recounts ten occasions when Jesus returned to the disciples and others after the resurrection. These include appearing to the women at the empty tomb, walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and breaking bread with them at supper. Twice Jesus came back to the disciples as they huddled together in the upper room; once to all of them except Thomas; and then again to show this doubter his wounded hands and side. He also shared a breakfast of fish with the disciples on the beach.
Yet, each time Jesus showed himself to the disciples, he again “left” them. Each visitation was followed by a departure from them. They found themselves again separated from Jesus, their friend, the one whom they loved.
And this morning Luke tells us in Acts and his gospel that Jesus “left” the disciples once again; this time, lifted up into heaven in glory. A very different manner of departure. And with this leaving he promises that he will return through the Advocate the Father would send to be with them, the Holy Spirit. We’re told that the disciples were joyful at hearing this and were continually occupied in prayer. These actions would lead us to believe that although they were being “left” physically, that their faith had developed to the point where they could accept, let’s call it, “Jesus Permanence”. Even though they could no longer see Jesus, they were confident that he remains with them. As an infant learns to trust that what is unseen, yet exists, the disciples trusted that Jesus’ promise to remain with them after he “left” them, would be fulfilled. Thus, “Jesus Permanence”.
Jesus’ ascension heralds the transformation from human-born person to heaven-sent Holy Spirit; and this leads us to ask whether it’s less a matter of “where” Jesus is, and more about “who” Jesus is. Whether in human form as Mary’s son, or in the celestial realm as Holy Spirit, Jesus does in fact remain with us, now and always. It turns out, that as often as Jesus departed this earth, he never really “left”. It matters not that God; as Father, Son, Holy Spirit does not reside in a physical place. We must trust as the observant infant does; that the toy remains a toy, whether in plain sight or hidden beneath the blanket. That God is present everywhere, and that we need not lift up the corner of whatever covering obscures our vision of “Jesus Permanence” to know he is there.
God is not confined to, and does not make the church building his only home. Jesus doesn’t require that four walls and a roof be made available so that he might be present among his people. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need pews and hymnals to come among the faithful as comforter, helper, and friend. Stained glass, candles, and an organ are wonderful, beautiful furnishings and we revere these as objects that accentuate and enliven our worship. But ultimately, they are not necessary for us to know that we experience “Jesus Permanence”. “Whenever two or three are gathered”, Jesus assures us, he is among them. In Acts the two angels in white asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”. It’s the same question we ought to ask ourselves; “why are we looking elsewhere for the Jesus who is already among us?”
Every church building abides in a special place in the hearts of its congregation, and I submit to you that this is especially true in the case of Emanuel Lutheran. We all long to return to the familiar trappings of our worship in this place. Yet we know that current circumstances preclude our gathering together at this time. While we deeply desire to come together in worship and fellowship, it is not yet safe to do so. The health and safety of God’s people is the most important factor to take into account as returning to in-house worship is determined. New England Synod Bishop Jim Hazelwood has “strongly discouraged” in-person worship before July 1. And Emanuel’s council and I are in firm agreement with this edict. Careful planning is needed and thoughtful decisions must be made before we can once again gather safely. Rest assured that appropriate action is being taken and that our beautiful sanctuary will again be a place where we might worship in safety.
Acknowledging that Jesus is always with his people we remain confident that while we are not yet gathered IN the church, we still ARE the church! We don’t need to look under the blanket, or stare upward toward heaven to affirm that the God we worship is with us and has never “left”. The faith that we have in the promises made by God to his people is what sustains us. If you were to close your eyes right now you certainly would not doubt that when you opened them, that your surroundings wouldn’t be changed. Whatever was before you when you closed your eyes will still be there. So it is with “Jesus Permanence”. Christ will be with us always; just as he was with Mary at the empty tomb, on the road to Emmaus, or dining on grilled fish on a Galilean beach. He is with you wherever you may be this morning and he will be with us when we gather again in the sanctuary at church.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, help us to trust that the Jesus who ascended to be with you in heaven, remains with us through presence of the Holy Spirit. And strengthen our faith so that we might feel the Spirit of Christ Jesus abiding within us, especially when we are not abiding within the walls of the church.
And in the name of Jesus Christ, who, although he has ascended, has never “left”, together we say…Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.